Summer Diary: Making friends, silver and gold, new and old

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. What happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. In my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts.

Diana Athill first published these words about friendship in The Guardian in 2010 with the title “The Decision.” She was 93 at the time, and the decision refers to the reluctant acknowledgment that she would have to give up a house she loved, and move to a room (of her own, but just one room) in a home for the elderly. It’s not often that we have an autobiographical narrative by a woman of Athill’s age radiating unmistakable joie de vivre. I read the piece in the kind of shock only something new can produce, as an essay collected in Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (2016). I picked up the book by chance from a table in a bookstore this summer while visiting London, drawn in part by the striking portrait of its author on the cover.

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At 75, and already feeling old―a state Athill postponed fully embracing until her nineties–I suddenly saw how much my idea of life in one’s later years has been shaped by my friend Carolyn Heilbrun’s ambivalent stance toward aging. On the one hand, in The Last Gift of Time Carolyn described the singular beauty of feeling life ending―the bittersweet sense of doing some things for the last time in one’s sixties, the joys of being free of the burdens of conventional femininity. But on the other, that frame of mind was made possible only by the conviction that she did not want to advance much further into the life of old age. In fact Carolyn’s perspective on aging depended on the decision―a decision very different from Athill’s―to end her life at some point in her seventies, at 77, as it turned out.

For more than a decade, I’ve lived with Carolyn’s decision to kill herself and its aftermath. I confess that I never fully believed her many unambiguous declarations, published and private, of her intention to commit suicide. A rational suicide still seems implausible to me, and yet it happened. The suicide hangs over my seventies as both warning and invitation. Carolyn was right about so many things. Was she also right about this?

After the cancer diagnosis that inaugurated my seventies, I assumed the disease would make the question moot. I liked the idea that the end of my life would be decided for me. Almost five years later it’s “alive, alive oh.” Much to my surprise (and everyone else’s) the cancer hasn’t yet killed me, so I suppose the question is back on the table–the decision―though it is not foremost in my mind.

What captured my attention in Athill’s reflection on old age had to do with her vision of friendships formed in such late life, for Athill, specifically, in her nineties, with the women in the home. Since I’m not in my nineties, and that decade is not truly on my horizon, what seduced me was the notion she puts forward of “pastness” as forming the basis of friendships made in the perspective of death. I can’t help feeling that in revisiting my friendships in the book I hope to write, I am making “excursions” like those into our past, pasts that seem strangely present to memory. These friendships, of course, are not new ones, but as I return to them, they are renewed, brought back to life.

If Carolyn’s vision of aging was radically different from Athill’s, Athill’s continued pleasure in the changes old age brings reminds me of Colette, another writer who a enjoyed life in all its variety, including growing old and, like Athill, never stopped writing. Colette died at 81 (young compared to Athill). The somewhat autobiographical novel Break of Day, published in her early 50s, carries the tone Athill often adopts when looking back on relationships, and a certain renunciation of sexual life. In the novel, Colette the narrator bids farewell to a man she was in love with, bidding him farewell with a mixture of pleasure, resignation, and nostalgia. He has left, but is he really gone? And is she really alone? It hardly matters. Unlike Athill who never married, Colette met her third husband while creating a novel about how to live after love. What matters is the way Colette conjures the departure of her current lover. She helps him leave by imagining his transformation into many things, but most important, a book still open (livre sans bornes ouvert) and whose boundless pages she might yet fill, an oasis, the novel’s final metaphor, a pause, perhaps a reprieve from an absolute ending.

That is what I wish for my book: that I can still see my friends as they existed in the past, and now continuing with me in memory. They are shifting shape but they are not dead, as long as I write.

Losing Friends

I don’t love Facebook, even though I’ve used it, abjectly, to promote my last book.

Beyond the obvious embarrassment of self-exposure, the most anxiety-producing feature of the Facebook model is the business of friending (apologies to Webster’s Third). Why friend someone you don’t know? Why friend someone you know but don’t consider a friend? Why―and this is the issue tormenting me today―friend a colleague you know only slightly? With a few exceptions, I do not include colleagues and students in my Facebook world. I try to keep a firewall between “Facebook me” and “school me,” especially when posting about my cancer and the politics of that illness.

Yesterday, over lunch, I learned that Jerry Watts, a colleague of ours, had died earlier in the week. I had missed the notice since I rarely check our overburdened university email. The shock stayed with me all day. I’m sure my seminar was very strange. Jerry Watts, a man I barely knew but always liked (not Facebook like), in part because he had supported me in some contentious departmental debates a few years ago, was dead. You can read about him…on Facebook. He was a distinguished scholar of African American political thought.

I doubt seriously Jerry noticed I had not clicked the accept button, when I received his friend request a while ago. If he had, I doubt it would have affected his sunny, generous nature.

Today, I belatedly friended Jerry Watts and “liked” the posts about him. I will miss his lovely presence. We all will.

Cancer Gadfly: What’s God Got To Do With It?

I was mulling over Oliver Sacks’s mellow meditation on his terminal cancer diagnosis, when Jimmy Carter came out with his cancer story. (Curiously, both illnesses caused by melanoma.)
The one, a secular Jew from an Orthodox Jewish background, the other a born-again Christian, both look serenely on how cancer will―or may―end their lives. Carter, at 90, is explicit about his fearless attitude toward death: “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”

Sacks, 82, equally at ease, references what religious feeling means to him by invoking his memories of the Sabbath, though not as a matter of belief.

I envy their serenity, notably Sacks’s by virtue of common ancestral roots, though as a woman with cancer but no nostalgia about the Jewish Sabbath, I can’t go there. Celebration of the day of rest ended with my grandparents, and I have put nothing in its place.

Cancer makes me mad, and God is no help at all.
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On the same page as the coverage of Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, a devastating article reports on the now debatable merits of mastectomy for women diagnosed with D.C.I.S. breast cancer. “It now appears that treatment [surgery] may make no difference in their outcomes.” Wow. The findings of the study are subject to debate, but treatment through surgery, now common, may well end up being rethought to dramatic conclusions.

I do not envy the women who have undergone the surgery, perhaps needlessly, it now appears. If I had, I’m not sure I could have waded through the waffling in the report without exploding with rage. But even minus the personal experience, there’s plenty of bad news about the disease and how it affects women for me to be riled about.

In The New York Times of Sunday August 23, 2015: I read the obituaries of three notable women, including the brilliant Svetlana Boym, whom I knew slightly, dead of cancer at 56. The other women, equally accomplished in their fields, also died of cancer at relatively young ages―young relative to me, at my ever-advancing age―and the ripe old ages of Sacks and Carter.

Too many women, some friends, some unmet, are dying of cancer. The attitude toward death from cancer (and other life-annihilating diseases) I admire has best been expressed by Simone de Beauvoir. It comes at the end of her memoir, A Very Easy Death, perhaps the first memoir to deal with witnessing the death of a loved one from cancer. Beauvoir writes after witnessing her mother’s death at almost 80:

Cancer, thrombosis, pneumonia: it is as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky. All of us must die: but for each death is an accident and, even if we know it and consent to it, an unjustifiable violation.

I know it and I do not consent.

For Patricia Yaeger

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try…it remains a plain, odd history.” So writes Anne Carson at the beginning of Nox, as she creates an epitaph on paper for her brother. Elegy and eulogy do not share a root but they share the difficult task of remembering what is lost, as I do here for my friend Patsy. You can read it here: For Patricia Yaeger: A Modified Eulogy (pdf) (from the Feminist Friendship Archive)IMG_0001

All in the Timing

By the time I was making the final revisions to the Breathless manuscript, I had been diagnosed with  lung cancer―“incurable but treatable,” as today’s oncological discourse codes the situation of late staging. In the final pages of the memoir, where I reflect upon the destinies of the characters important to me in the narrative, I account for the deaths from cancer of my ex-husband as well as that of my Paris roommate. I did not, however, reveal my diagnosis. Despite the truth-telling pact of autobiography that I’ve always held to, despite the fact that I wasn’t sure I’d survive to see the book’s publication, I could not bring myself―as a writer–to end the memoir with that revelation.

Naturally, it was not the only omission in the book―I spared the reader many humiliating episodes of my twenties―but this was different. To end the story on my prospective death would have recast the narrative as cautionary tale, since the girl I was smoked on almost every page. I didn’t want to provoke the moralizing logic that stigmatizes lung cancer patients: you smoked, therefore you got cancer. Invariably, anyone I told of my diagnosis would ask: “Did you smoke?” When I said yes, a horrible silence would ensue during which I imagined my interlocutor’s speech bubble saying with unabashed relief: “I’m so glad I didn’t smoke.” What I heard, spoken or not, was “You brought it on yourself.” But lung cancer, I’ve learned, affects a substantial number of people who never smoked (especially women, and including my mother―no one knows why) and some smokers never develop cancer. Nonetheless, both the current stigma and blame for the former smoker is as pervasive as secondhand smoke, and fundraising for research into the disease suffers from this vision of the disease.

No pink ribbons for us. Lung cancer ribbons are white. It’s difficult, if not impossible to imagine a campaign to “beat lung cancer” with the appeal of “the race for the cure,” not to mention all the pink artifacts you can buy to support research. Of course, it’s easier to picture breasts than lungs, and white isn’t much of a color. Except for the color problem, though, I’m not suggesting that one cancer is “better” or “worse” than another (though some surely are in terms of survival statistics). But the disparity in fund raising remains significant, and lung cancer in women now claims more lives than breast cancer.

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Breast cancer can generate the same sense of blame and shame. Miriam Engelberg, in her bitterly hilarious graphic memoir, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, shows the response acquaintances typically give when they realize―from her chemo baldness―that the artist  has cancer. When she explains that she has breast cancer, the interlocutor typically asks: “How awful, did you have a family history?” And Engelberg imagines a cancer-free person reassuring another cancer-free friend: “So don’t worry―you and I are perfectly safe.” Naturally, we all want to know what caused our cancer, even though in many cases the origin remains a mystery: what could I have done? In one panel Engelberg depicts a support group member saying, “and I think I caused this by eating too much cheese.” Engelberg died in 2006 the year her memoir was published.

Now that Breathless is launched, and its survival rate in book land more or less clear, I’ve wanted to come clean. To that end I’ve created a new project on the website, “My Metastatic Life,” and I will post about the experience of living with cancer from time to time. It makes me anxious to expose myself this way, but it’s important to acknowledge the place of cancer in the world, since statistics suggest that a staggering number of people have or will be having cancer, and to realize that cancer patients are not, in that sense, alone.

October was breast cancer awareness month. November is our turn to clamor for attention and support. Look for those white ribbons.

In Search of Lost Time: Checking A Memoirist’s Memory

Paris in January is not anyone’s dream vacation: skies are permanently gray and you have to carry an umbrella. It seems particularly ill timed unless you are there for les soldes, the fabulous sales (which I managed to miss). So why did I go to Paris right after New Year’s? As I embarked on the penultimate revision of the memoir, I wanted to see whether I could still feel what it was about the city that made me live there for six years when I was young—and then, with the passage of time, write about it. Did the place still resonate with me? Or had I made it all up?

I decided to make a pilgrimage to Le Foyer International des Etudiantes at 93 Boulevard St-Michel, where I lived during my first year in Paris. The Foyer was my belated introduction to dormitory life since I had lived (miserably) at home during my college years. Despite the fact that we had a 1 a.m. curfew, which meant you’d be locked out for the night if you missed it, the Foyer turned out to be a scene of freedom.

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I was assigned a roommate, whom I call Monique in the memoir, and with whom I maintained a transatlantic friendship over the years. I often stayed in her apartment when I traveled back and forth to Paris after I had become a mere tourist and not a dug-in expat.

This January, I also stayed in the apartment, on a bed made up in the studio where she had written several books of art history. But it was not a reunion. My friend died of pancreatic cancer last year, and I slept in the room surrounded by her library, whose shelves were dotted with family photographs. The two rooms—our dorm room and her study—fused in my mind, as past filtered the present. Oddly, despite the decades that had passed, I felt reconnected to what we always called “l’année du foyer,” the year we lived together on Boulevard St-Michel, room 203, and never imagined being old.