Not To Mention A Nice Life
Take a guy.
Let’s say he’s about my age: old enough to own his own condo and pay almost all his bills, who is young enough to be unmarried but old enough to understand he is not getting any younger. Add a fresh dose of alienation—not enough to be unhealthy, of course, but enough to enable him to function in a world full of a-holes, imbecility and indifference. Take this guy and provide just enough stability so that there are no excuses, but plenty of alibis. Maybe he’s estranged from too many old friends, or aggrieved about an absent parent, or perhaps he is just emerging from the wreckage of a ruined relationship or, probably, he is utterly average in every regard, except for the uncomfortable fact that, unlike almost everyone else he knows, he is aware of it.
I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He’s really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (I can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).
No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950s.
I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these autonomous years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.
My dog is a trooper.
He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the ass-crack of dawn, including weekends, stretched, eager and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk. My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. He wants to meet everyone, and he patrols the neighborhood like it’s his job (which, of course, it is). I can’t help but admire his dedication.
Thanks to him, I’m on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.
Take this guy: an older man (I don’t want to call him an old man), whose name I’ve never gotten around to establishing. I sort of prefer it that way, as he provides me with a mystery I enjoy embellishing each time I encounter him. Whereas most of my neighbors are obviously what they are: mothers, fathers, bachelors, wives, working stiffs, senior citizens, anonymous law-abiding entities, et cetera, this man alone retains, for me and my imagination, an enigmatic air. He wears a wedding band, but I’ve never seen or met his spouse. He is friendly, so much so that it initially took me a while to warm up to him.
Maybe this is the way other people saw my old man. Yes, he is definitely someone’s father: he has rolled up his sleeves to punish, praise, clean, counsel, inspire, admonish, argue, approve, second-guess, support and silence. In short, things I have never done. And I think (I can’t help myself): he is a way I’ll never be.
All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we wear down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.
But humans are, ultimately, different.
We know who we are, so we wonder (we can’t help ourselves) things like: What has that man done that I’ll never do? What has he seen that I’ll never see? What parts of the world he once lived in are now gone forever, replaced by newer things that younger people, not yet born, will wonder about, in time?
If I had lived in the 50s, that man might have been a spy; a professor, a pedophile (I would have called him a pervert), a recluse, a con artist—but above all, he most certainly would be a Communist.
If I had lived in the 50s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.
My dog is content. One thing is for sure: if my dog lived in the 50s, he would be content, just as he would be content fifty years from now. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. The older man and I love our dogs, and for a few seconds we watch them sniff each other.
“Hot enough for ya?”
“Yeah well, it’s the humidity!”
(To ourselves we say this).
Then we go our separate ways, exchanging pleasantries.
I say: “Have a nice day.”
“Likewise,” he replies, and then smiles. “Not to mention a nice life.”
I smile, and then walk away, still smiling. Who the hell does this guy think he is, saying something like that? How dare he say something like that. Unless he means it. No one says something like that. Unless they are actually, inconceivably content.
I’m still smiling, but then a sobering thought sideswipes me (again): That man is a way I’ll never be.
Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone
That was the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. To cancer, of course. “You don’t,” she said. It’s just as awful as you’d imagine, she didn’t say. She didn’t have to, because you can’t imagine and you don’t want to imagine. How could you imagine? And, oddly enough, that succinct, painfully honest answer was more comforting than it sounded. In a way, when you think about it (does everyone think about it? Are some people able to avoid thinking about it?) there’s an unexpected salve in that sentiment: You don’t get over it. Or, by not getting over it, that’s how you survive it. It becomes part of you, and it is henceforth an inviolable aspect of your existence, like a chronic condition you inherit or develop along the way and manage as best you can.
Please talk about me when I’m gone. That’s the title of this memoir. It’s also the presumptive title of any memoir. More, it’s the unwritten title of any work of art—a desire to have those thoughts and feelings articulated, read, understood, appreciated. More still, it’s the often unexpressed message of any individual life: We want to be discussed, loved, and celebrated after we’re no longer around. Mostly we don’t want to be quickly or easily forgotten.
Question: What would you do differently?
True answer: Everything.
Truest answer: I don’t know.
If the death of a loved one provides the ultimate answer it also prompts all sorts of questions.
The universal ones, for starters: When will I die? How will I die? Why do we die? The personal ones: What will I remember? What might I regret? And ultimately the question that could define the rest of your life: What would I do differently?
What would you do differently?
I’ve never asked my sister this question. She did everything she could, and in many ways she did more than any of us. She worked the Internet like it was a convention and introduced herself to every article she could find. She obsessively sought all the inside information she could uncover, even if so many short cuts to insight led to locked doors and dead-ends.
(Our mother had been left with the unyielding aftershock of sorrow. When her own mother died everything happened too quickly, without time to facilitate any sort of strategy. She and her six siblings hardly had time to react, much less regret what could have transpired; they never knew what hit them. The cancer that took their mother was like an anonymous assassin: before anyone could look for faces or fingerprints the crime scene was already in the past tense.)
What could we have done differently?
We knew what we were up against, yet still had no idea how little we knew. “If this were ten years ago I would send you on your way,” the surgeon said after the first operation, in ’97. “But knowing what we know now, I’m recommending a round of chemotherapy. Let’s blast your system so the cancer doesn’t have a chance to come back.”
We wouldn’t worry about what we could have done (we thought). We did it.
The cancer came back, of course. A second, successful surgery in 2000 didn’t give us false hope and couldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. This time the surgeon advised radiation followed by chemotherapy, and we knew we were doing all we could do.
Do you think it’s going to come back?
That was the question my sister asked me, in July 2001, just before my mother returned for her annual checkup. “No,” I told her, truthfully. “She looks good, she feels healthy, we did everything we could do.”
This is what I said to my sister, and to myself. They caught it before it spread—again—and then her system got the chemical scrub, again. What possible chance was there that it could find another foothold?
The cancer came back, of course. A third, not entirely successful surgery in 2001 left us no chance to kid ourselves. The prognosis was ugly but not impossible: she was still ready to fight and we would back her up as far down that road as we could go.
Do you think it will ever go away?
That’s the question none of us ever asked. We knew it was in there and we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. But it could be stalled, it could shrink, it could, hopefully, be managed. There were clinical trials to consider, reasons to think positive thoughts, and always the chance that a miracle might occur.
Here’s the thing: what you don’t know will hurt you, whether it involves cancer or used cars. Here’s another thing: my sister learned more about cancer, symptoms, treatments, and clinical trials in a little over a year than most people could—or could want to—learn in a lifetime. One of my good friends is an oncologist, another has been a hospice nurse. We also lived in an era where the click of a mouse could uncover more detail than a thousand old medical journals. And still, looking back, it’s disconcerting how little we knew, how little we still know, how much more we could learn, and how awful it would be if we were ever obliged to do so.
So: we can’t change what we couldn’t do, or know, or ask, or say. And we collectively recognize, and accept, that all the information in the world may have done next to nothing to change what happened to my mother. We knew enough, and were fortunate enough, to sign her up for some experimental treatments after that third surgery in 2001. The fact that they ultimately proved unsuccessful (too little, too late?) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have explored those options; perhaps we could have explored other ones as well.
What could you have done differently?
This is the question we were never able to ask the assorted surgeons, doctors, and administrators. And what would they say, if we had? What could they say?
How much more time does she have?
This is the question we asked, as directly as possible, always leaving enough room—for the doctors, for ourselves—to avoid predictions that might be too true or come too soon. The surgeons told us, depending on the way you hear the words (especially in hindsight), as little as they could get away with, or as much as they dared, while steering us as far as possible from an answer we would figure out on our own, eventually.