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.

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.

When a Friend You Love is Ill

Right now, I am at my desk preparing my seminar for tomorrow, but my thoughts keep straying from Holocaust testimony―this week’s subject, as it happens―to the fate of a close friend. My friend is in the hospital recovering from surgery, but probably not recovering from the cancer that made the surgery necessary. It is not all that strange for me to be thinking of her as I try to concentrate on work.  I’ve just taught one of her essays, an essay on the use of metaphor  in literary texts representing the Holocaust.  You may know the author, but I don’t want to violate her privacy by going any further. The singular identity of this friend matters to me, of course, but that is not my subject. Nor is the essay she wrote, which I have always loved.

UnknownIn his work on friendship (friendship between men) Derrida writes somewhere: one always leaves before the other. (Every once in a while Derrida says something stunningly simple and true.) When I read his text, thinking about friends I’d lost, I realized that I had never confronted that truth.  I expected my parents to die; one does, even in this era of increasing longevity. And if we are coupled, we worry, when we make our wills, about who, in a spousal dyad, will go first. Typically, neither wants to be the survivor. But in the matter of friendship, even if you are old (and I am), we tend not to foresee the loss of a contemporary―give or take ten years. It does not seem part of the contract. We are unprepared in addition to being bereft.

One of the strange features of friendship, I’ve learned, is that a pair of friends, no matter how intimate, rarely forms a single couple. What I mean is that the friend I lose is not only mine to lose. There are others who mourn the loss of relation to her―intimacy, laughter, solace. At a memorial service, you discover just how many people loved your friend. You are not a solitary mourner, you are part of a community―friends of your friend.

When I first observed this phenomenon, I felt a kind of shock seeing my bond diminish, spread across a room, oceans, geography. But now, as I’m becoming more accustomed to the community of loss, I realize that there is a peculiar comfort in sharing our dread, sadness―it sometimes takes the edge off extreme loneliness.

Still, I don’t want to lose “my” friend; her essay can’t fill the place in my heart.

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.

Brooding

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One morning last week when I was walking around the reservoir in Central Park with a friend we came upon these two ducks. The sight stopped us in our tracks. It was slightly odd to see a duck on the jogging track, but this tableau was indeed quite strange since there were two ducks and a single, solitary egg looking abandoned on the other side of the fence quite unattended. What were the ducks doing there? Were they incubating, or, great word, brooding? Why was the egg being neglected?

Based on my cursory reaserch in Wikipedia it might be that the green-headed, yellow-beaked duck was a male–males being more colorful–and the speckled duck, the female. Was the putative mother duck sitting on other eggs? Were these two even a pair? Ducks, according to the same source, are “generally monogamous, though these bonds generally last a single year only.” If my friend and I were to return next week, would the duo still be sitting there?

Walking home I realized that when I heard or used the expression “sitting duck” I never actually pictured a duck. Now, there’s no way I will ever use the expression again without seeing that particular duck sitting on the jogging path.

So much for ducks.

Ever since I’ve returned from Italy, I’ve been brooding, incubating an idea, a useful idea, I hope, about what I’ve been calling my friendship project. Sitting in my my aerie (aka my study) at the Bogliasco Foundation, I suddenly saw that I had entangled two strands of thought that should have been kept separate, or at least distinguished from each other. One line of thought has to do with the elegiac friendship memoir, understanding how it works as a subgenre: a narrative that tells the story of the dead friend. This would complete the collection of my essays on autobiography that I hope to bring out in the near future. The other has to do with elaborating a memoir of my own that will entail revisiting, as it were, my particular dead friends. Naturally, there is overlap in theme but the two projects will be quite different. The academic essays will present an argument about “horizontal” relations between people of the same generation, as distinct from the “vertical” relations with parents. The dead friends book will be a mixed form in which I won’t argue, but rather try to recreate a person, a historical moment, and, above all, a complex set of confusing emotions.

But am I working on either of these projected books, writing any part of them, even though I’m still (for a few more weeks) on sabbatical? No, I’m still incubating my ideas, a euphemistic way of saying that I’m procrastinating.

I’m not ready to write because I’m brooding. I’ve come to recognize that my “dead friends” are not completely dead to me. They live in my dreams, where they talk to me, sometimes in disturbing ways, and the dreams change, even challenge my memory–but not only in dreams. In my waking life conversations, events, books, also change my memory, shift my vision of the friend, or bring back forgotten episodes from the past with their baggage of feeling.

For example. Monday I went to a beautiful memorial service for the feminist editor Mary Thom, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident.

I did not know Mary very well, but I did know her, certainly enough to know how much her motorcycle meant to her, to the shape of her life. When I learned of her death, I immediately recalled that Mary had served as the inspiration for a character that my friend the writer Carolyn Heilbrun had created as Amanda Cross, in one of her detective novels, Honest Doubt.

567029What I remembered was an argument Carolyn and I had had over dinner (sushi, to be precise), soon after the book came out, about the number of times the word “fat” emerged in relation to the first-person narrator of Honest Doubt known as “Woody,” a newly created fictional private investigator. At one point Woody talks to Kate Fansler–Amanda Cross’s gorgeous, pencil thin detective in the other novels–about what being fat means to her, especially as a P.I. “I guess I really wanted her to understand how I felt about this fat stuff,” Woody says. And she goes on to explain her attitude: “Being fat’s been a lot of use to me. You can believe that. It’s gotten me confidences I’d never have had otherwise. But I don’t see why thin has to be a qualification for looking down on others, the way white used to be. I’ve made it a kind of crusade.”

When I read this passage I couldn’t help thinking that Woody sounded almost exactly like Carolyn, who often talked and wrote what it meant to be a fat woman. It was one of her topics. When we discussed the book over dinner, I asked Carolyn why, if she didn’t mind being fat (which she always said she didn’t), did she bring it into the novel so repeatedly? Mildly irritated by my literary faux pas (confusing author with narrator), Carolyn answered that Woody was not a self-portrayal (duh, though Carolyn, of course, would not have said duh) but a fictional character, and if I really had to know, modeled on Mary Thom because she wanted her new detective to get around on a motorcycle, and Mary happened to be fat. The conversation came back to me very clearly when I read the news in the Times.

Toward the end of the memorial, when many friends of Mary had shared their memories, a journalist, Betsy Wade, described having made a trip with Mary Thom, Carolyn, and another woman, to a rugged setting somewhere on the West coast. She said that Mary Thom and Heilbrun, as Wade referred to her, chose not to climb the mountain they had come to climb, but rather to stay put at the bottom, walking and talking for hours (probably about Gloria Steinem whose biography Carolyn was writing at the time). When the novel came out, Wade said, she asked Carolyn whether Mary Thom was the model for Woody. Heilbrun waved her off, saying she couldn’t explain the creative process. That sounded very Carolyn.

I had not expected to hear the anecdote and it brought back vividly the conversations Carolyn and I had every week, almost until her death. We sometimes quarreled, but we both always came back for more.

The story sent me back to the novel, which was published in fall 2000. Carolyn killed herself almost exactly three years later in fall 2003. The book is inscribed to me and signed: Amanda. The inscription evokes our friendship in ways that I confess I took somewhat for granted then. The anecdote told at the memorial had to do with Mary, but what I heard was all about Carolyn. It was amusing and rang true: I could see Carolyn preferring to talk intimately rather than indulge in needless exertion as part of a group effort. But the effect of the story on me was not that: it was to return me to the painful conundrum of those last years, and what, as a friend then I missed, even as I miss her now.