Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

The Art of Grieving

Perhaps Elizabeth Bishop’s most frequently anthologized poem is her villanelle “One Art.

The poem begins calmly, the speaker stating matter-of-factly, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

In the second stanza, she adopts the imperative mood as if she’s conducting a training session on how to lose. She instructs the reader to

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

As the poem continues through its strict regimen of repeated lines and restrictive rhymes, each item in the catalogue of what she’s lost becomes increasingly more significant: her mother’s watch, a house, two cities, a continent. She misses them, “but it wasn’t a disaster.”

There’s a pivot in the last stanza that belies all that comes before it:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

What we have in the last two lines is a breakdown, nervous and otherwise  — of rhythm, of the pattern of diction, even of syntax.

As it turns out, the art of losing isn’t all that easy to master. Nor, I might add, is the art of grieving.

In light of – or should I say through the clouded lens of – my wife’s death, I have been trying to come to grips with the reality of her not being a tangible, breathing human being. In other words, coming “to grips” with the immaterial, with vacancy, with losing her.

Of course, she still exists in memory. I get that, but it is difficult to accept that I will never again see her softly nodding her head or slowly blinking her eyes or her hesitant smile exploding into a wide, orthodontically impressive grin.

Never again encounter in the flesh her manifest serenity.

I grew up reading Hemingway and watching Bogart movies, modeling my persona on stoics, on realists, tough guys unafraid to tell it how it is; “Time hath, me lord,” Ulysses says to pouting tent-bound Achilles, “a wallet at his back wherein he puts alms to oblivion.

I remind myself my wife’s fate was Shakespeare’s fate and Madame Curie’s fate, Amy Winehouse’s fate and your first pet’s fate.

It’s the fate of that adorable baby cackling and crawling towards you in the Facebook video.

“If it be now,” Hamlet says,
“’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.

But how in the hell do you get ready? Especially if it’s not you doing the leaving?

* * *

Here’s how Robert Grudin begins his Time & The Art of Living:

In a railroad car at nightfall, when the natural light outside has diminished until it is even with the artificial light inside, the passenger facing forward sees in his window two images at once: the dim landscape rushing toward him out of a pit of darkness, and the interior of the car, reflected with its more or less motionless occupants. At this hour most passengers unconsciously give allegiance to one of these two polarities of vision; and the individual momentarily aware of both may be struck by the profound, almost tragic duality between outer and inner worlds, between the rush of experience and the immobility of awareness. The uneasy contrast implied by this image is to my mind one of the special marks of our condition, one of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature.

My wife, I think, created equilibrium between these two states – observation and contemplation. I can’t remember ever catching her staring into space. Maybe it’s because she had virtually no ego, no need to impress, no need to blast fanfares of her own importance that she died more or less happy, a little sad to be leaving but not at all dreading death, which she saw as a dreamless sleep. She had lived a life distinguished by integrity and died without regrets.

Unlike, Dr. Igor Borg, the protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries, which my younger son and I watched last night, thanks to the genius of science.

In the movie, Borg, a very old man, is traveling by car with his daughter-in-law on a 400-mile trip for him to receive an honorary degree. Throughout the journey, he finds himself traveling back and forth between the inner and outer worlds that Grudin describes above.

 

Here’s Bergman remembering his inspiration for writing the screenplay:

Then it struck me: supposing I make a film of someone coming along, perfectly realistically, and suddenly opening a door and walking into his childhood? And then opening another door and walking out into reality again? And then walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life, and everything still alive and going on as before? That was the real starting point of Wild Strawberries.

What Professor Borg discovers as he shuttles back and forth between his memories[1] is that although he is revered publicly, the people he knows privately don’t like him, not his incredibly ancient mother, not his would-be fiancé back in the day, not his brother who steals that fiancé, not his dead wife, not his son, nor the daughter-in-law who accompanies him in the close quarters of his automobile.

However, by floating back and forth through time, he realizes his shortcomings and at this late date begins to emend them, asking his housekeeper if he can call her by her first name after 30 years of working together (no), forgiving a debt of his son and daughter-in-law that had been a bone of contention. Near the end, the daughter-in-law has grown fond of him and kisses him goodnight, in essence tucking him in.

If I could, like Borg, open doors to the past of our lives and renter those scenes, these images would come to mind: our inventing a dance on the floor of Captain Harry’s un-air-conditioned warehouse bar while the Killer Whales play “Johnny Too Bad,” my losing the bet that she won’t shed her bikini as we lie on straw mats at Paradise Beach in Mykonos, her toothpick legs shaking violently as she gives birth to our older son, her hacking with a machete to the top of a ridge to contemplate where to build our house on the river, watching our second son get the winning hit in his little league championship, eating in a restaurant with a dirt floor in Mexico, graduations, graduations, walking the dog, enjoying the Soul Rebels at the Leaf Festival, wrapping the dead dog’s carcass in a blanket, walking with my wife as she drags her chemo-on-rollers through the halls of Roper Hospital, enjoying a beer at the bar in one of the hospitals at MD Anderson Cancer Center, eating al fresco in a bar at Houston. These, even the last images are good memories because we had each other and a modicum of hope.

 

This life was a good life, and it ended as lives tend to, in sickness. Therefore, I can look back and savor these memories, not in tears because they’re gone, but with smiles knowing that they were good.

Also, I’m embracing great movies and drama. I wrote recently about the live performance of Godot I saw, and in addition to Wild Strawberries, I recently watched Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf. Great movies take you away from yourself and deal with life’s most profound problems. They point to the universality of suffering, which points to the fruitlessness of self-pity. That all the actors and actresses of Wild Strawberries are now dead, except for 88-year old Max Von Sydow and 82-year old Bibi Andersson, underscores the brevity of time and the inevitability of not being. My contemplation of time and these old movies has underscored to me that losing my wife is no way a tragedy and that neither she nor I have “been robbed” of anything.

Hit it, Marcus Aurelius: “No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? … It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.”

My advice to the bereaved is to replay your happy memories without a thought of the non-existent future. Hang with your friends when you feel like it and talk freely about the person you’ve lost. Sometimes, a tsunami of sadness will wash over you. You can throw yourself on your bed (my equivalent of donning sackcloth) and sob. When I sob, it seems too much like laughing, which always makes me stop, as if a switch has been flipped. Anyway, though sometimes impelled to don the ol’ sackcloth, for me sobbing isn’t all that cathartic, not as productive as going to see Godot or watching old movies or reliving old memories or having a couple of beers with my sons and daughter-in-law or friends or former students who have become dear friends.

Like Lou Gehrig said at his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, I feel fortunate, maybe not as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” but now I can look back with love and forward with nothing to dread.


[1] He’s always his decrepit self in his reveries although the people he remembers are their younger selves.

Trump Channels Lear and Caesar in Summer Stock

image via NY Times of Central Park performance of Julius Caesar

About a month ago, I posted a piece imagining Shakespeare writing a play about Trump’s presidency.

In that post, I suggested that Shakespeare would begin his Trump play with the inauguration speech, jazzing up clunkers like “for many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry;/ Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” with some thumping blank verse that foreshadows an upcoming shitshow.

Interestingly enough – call it synchronicity or cultural convergence – Shakespeare’s and Trump’s names have been linked at least twice this week. First, the Public Theater’s Central Park production has spray-painted, as it were, the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar an obvious shade of Trumpian orange.

Via Jesse Green of the Times:

The line “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less” has been updated by the insertion of the words “on Fifth Avenue” before the comma.

This production, not surprisingly, has generated controversy. Some on the right, people ignorant of the play, suggest that this version endorsees the assassination of Trump.[1] However, Shakespeare’s staging a pro-regicide play in Elizabethan England would be the equivalent of someone painting an obscene mural of Mohammad and Salman Rushdie in flagrante delicto on the side of a building in Tehran.

In other words, not a good idea for the non-suicidal.

In fact, Julius Caesar dramatizes the disastrous effects of the assassination, not only for the conspirators themselves, but also, more significantly, for the state of Rome.

Even though I’m no fan of violence, it is sort of fun imagining Republican cabinet plotting and carrying out an assassination on stage.

Et Tu, Jeff Sessions?

Speaking of Trump’s cabinet, no doubt you’ve read about or seen the cringe-worthy abasement Trump subjected his minions to in his first cabinet meeting when he forced them to utter what an honor it was to serve him, what a privilege, etc.

In other words, he reconstructed the opening scene of King Lear, the greatest and most awful of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Compare these two clips.

It’s even more fun – at least for me – casting a Trumpian Lear – with Ivanka as Goneril, Eric Trump as Regan, and poor Tiffany as Cordelia. Maybe Dennis Miller or PJ O’Rourke as the Fool? Jared as Edmund?

PaulScholfieldAlecMcCowen

Bring it on, Chris Marino.


[1] Delta and the Bank of America have withdrawn financial backing. However, no one seemed to mind that Bob Melrose staged an Obama as Caesar production in 2012 that you nor I ever heard about at all.

Protest the Rising Tide of Intolerance

As Crass Casualty and Dicing Time[1] would have it, in the week of my wife’s memorial service, I have to box up the contents of my classroom for a move to a brand new Upper School building.

This chore is especially taxing because when I moved into a former colleague’s room a quarter a century ago, he asked if he could keep some of his books in the room, which were housed in three enormous bookcases that belonged personally to him. I said, sure. He eventually died without heirs. His collection includes some of his late mother’s books as well. There are inscriptions. “To Catherine S____________ 1925.”

Of course, I also have books, 31 years worth, not to mention file cabinets gorged with quizzes, study guides, lecture notes, honor contracts, resumes, book order receipts, etc.

So I’m in the process of sifting through the contents, recycling, shredding, and yesterday I discovered this anti-bullying speech I gave to the Upper School during the first Clinton Administration. I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1994. At any rate, I haven’t altered the text, so some of the allusions may seem odd or anachronistic.

At any rate, I think the speech holds up fairly well, so why not expose it to a wider audience than the 300 or so who originally heard it?  I doubt if it will alter the behavior of bone fide bullies (like our current president), but it could offer the victims of bullies some solace.

I’ve also included the video clips that accompanied the speech.


 

 

[Note the original movie clip went a bit longer and depicted an older nurse who delivers the food the younger nurse was incapable of providing.]

John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is, of course, an extreme example of someone being shunned because of the way he looks, but we all know that every day all types of people are excluded for all types of reasons — it might be their race, their looks, the way they talk, their sexual orientation, the way they dress.  I took a poll of my classes and discovered that 100% of my students, every single individual, has been made fun of here at Porter-Gaud, and I mean maliciously.  I suspect everybody in this auditorium has been shunned, been put down at one time or another, been made fun of.  We all know what it feels like, and it doesn’t feel good.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most famous living poet.  She was being interviewed by David Frost on PBS.  Maya Angelou is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas.  So like John Merrick, she knows what it’s like to be excluded.  Growing up as a little girl in Arkansas, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see the movie The Elephant Man because of the color of her skin.

When Maya Angelou was only 10-years-old, she was raped.  After the rape, she refused to talk for over a year.  Her pain was so terrible she couldn’t give voice to it.  She remained silent, mute. I guess sort of like John Merrick, she couldn’t find the words she needed.

Fortunately, she eventually did find her voice and became a poet.  In a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration, she linked humankind to extinct species such as dinosaurs and mastodons and voiced her concern that we may follow in their footsteps and become “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.”  She sees a real danger in fragmentation.  She writes

[. . .] the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

And what is the tree saying?

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

In the interview, David Frost asks Maya Angelou what the poem means, and she says, “It means we have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.”

We have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.

Look at John Merrick.  The Elephant Man.  An extreme case, as I said, but look how others minimized him.  In the movie, the doctor Treves at first is more interested in John as a specimen than he is as human, but at least he treats him humanely.  The younger nurse is so weak a person she runs like a child when she sees “the elephant man.”  Runs screaming out of the room. [The following references don’t appear in the above clip].  Did you notice the second, older nurse?  She never makes eye contact with Merrick.  That’s what people do when they are uncomfortable; either they avoid eye contact, or they giggle, or both.  This older nurse is beyond the giggling stage so instead she stays busy making the bed and talks about Merrick as if he were an idiot or weren’t there.

She is minimizing his life.

The head of the hospital is eager to get rid of Merrick.  He is minimizing Merrick’s life.  And not only John Merrick’s life, but his very own life.  Because as it turns out, John Merrick possessed an extraordinary soul.  His indomitable spirit has made him famous — the stuff of biographies, plays, movies.  The head of the hospital would have been long forgotten if he had not encountered John Merrick.  And how will the head of the hospital be remembered in these biographies, plays, and movies?  His legacy lies in how he treated John Merrick.  And I suspect that’s how we will be remembered after we leave Porter-Gaud.  Others will remember us in light of how we treated them.

Now, this assembly’s not really about John Merrick.  it’s about us — about you and me — and how we treat people.  Do we minimize other people in the mistaken belief that we “grow” when we “put them down?”

That we grow when we exclude someone from our group?

Let’s face it.  Everyone has weak points. We may be great at volleyball but lousy in math.  Great in math but hopeless in history.  We all have features we’re self-conscious about. Frankly, I’d just as soon not be bald, but like John Merrick, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my parents. Nobody does.

Genetics deals us our facial features, our body types, our athletic prowess (or lack thereof), our intellectual potential, and even, according to the latest studies, our sexual orientation.  We have no control over our parents’ wealth.  Whether or not they’re getting divorced.  Where we were born.

Of course, it’s really no mystery why people harass and pick on others.  It’s obviously to compensate for low self esteem.  Inevitably cowardice is also involved.  Bullies rarely pick on the golden boy star quarterback who looks as if he’s stepped off the cover of Seventeen Magazine and sports 1550 SAT scores.  The victims are going to be someone younger, smaller, less popular.

So when we hear somebody cutting someone else down, we ought to tell him or her to quit. We’ll be doing, not only the victim a favor, but also the bully a favor, because frankly, he’s making an ass out of himself.  To those who see through the psychology, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, in doing nothing when we see unkindness occur we are abetting the creation of a climate that allows bullying  to flourish.

We should be the heroes, not the villains, in the movies of our lives.

Of course, cutting people down isn’t the only way we can minimize their lives.  Sometimes we shut others out because they are different.  Ignoring someone is also minimizing his or her life. It’s obviously not as bad as being overtly cruel, but we do actually cheat ourselves when we hide in our little homogenous groups.

Let me give you an example.

I have a friend, Josephine Humphreys, who is a somewhat famous novelist.  She wrote Rich in Love, a novel on the 9th grade reading list.  You older students and faculty members might remember that her son Willy actually played Merrick in a senior play production of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago.  Anyway, Jo grew up South of Broad, grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Ashley Hall, in other words, lived a fairly typical Porter-Gaud-like life.  However, she and her husband Tom are now in the process of producing records — cds that is — for local gospel groups.  How did this come about?  Through serendipity and the willingness to try new things.

About four years ago, Jo and Tom went to a gospel concert at Spoleto and were knocked out by this local quartet called the Brotherhood.  They decided they wanted to see them again.  The only thing was that back then the Brotherhood only performed in all black churches.

That didn’t stop Jo.

I asked Jo what it was like being a middle aged white woman going as a complete stranger to an all black church.  She said she was nervous and that some of her white friends told her not to go, that blacks wouldn’t want her at their church, that it was intrusive.  But she said to me, “You know, Wes, I’m 50 years old and that type of thing I don’t have time for.”  So she and Tom went, were welcomed warmly, loved it.  Over time, they became very good friends with the Brotherhood and their wives.  Jo says that every time she hears them, they restore her faith in the world.  She firmly believes that getting to know the Brotherhood is one of the very best things that has happened to her.  And it’s been great for them, too.  With Jo and Tom’s help, they’ve gained a wider audience and have toured Europe.  Their European audiences loved them; they loved their European audiences.

The courage to take a chance and reach out has certainly enriched Jo’s life.  The Brotherhood’s lives.  And some Europeans’ lives as well.

But the thing is — integration isn’t only about mixing colors — it literally means “to make whole by bringing all parts together.”  As long as we cut others off, as longs as we limit our peers by only seeing them as computer nerds, jocks, rednecks, math people, preppies, 7th graders — we too are cut off.  We’re a piece of something.  The stranger you see everyday at lunch sitting by himself may have an important gift to share — might possess a missing piece of your puzzle.

For example, in the film after Treves discovers that Merrick can speak, Treves leaves the hospital room and encounters Merrick’s sadistic manager, a man who exploited Merrick by exhibiting him in freak shows and who severely beat him. The manager threatens Treves by saying he will go to the authorities unless Treves does not release Merrick.  The head of the hospital overhears the conversation and orders the manager out, saying he’s sure the authorities would be glad to hear of how he treated Merrick.  The hospital head tells Treves he would like to meet the patient the next afternoon.  Treves knows there is no chance keeping Merrick in the hospital if Merrick does not show himself to be mentally competent.

 

There’s no telling what wonders may exist in that person we have shut out.  Merrick had already learned the “23rd Psalm” from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  Where, no doubt, he also ran across these words, the wisest words I know of to be found anywhere:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thank you for your attention.  Any announcements . . .

 


[1] i.e., fate

The Elegy Season

For me, this is the elegy season.

When Judy was dying, I distracted myself by doing algebra, solving equations, but now she’s gone, I’ve been reading elegies, reminding my selfish self that losing a loved one is what happens here and all the time, as this link to a Facebook page abundantly demonstrates.

The old famous elegies don’t do it for me, not “Lycidas” nor “Adonais” nor “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” nor even Tennyson’s heartbreaking but morbid “In Memoriam.”

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

Auden, on the other hand, is closer to my taste, not his hokey “Funeral Blues” elegy quoted in Three Weddings and a Funeral, but this one called “The Cave of Making” for his friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice:

Seeing you know our mystery
from the inside and therefore
how much, in our lonely dens, we need the companionship
of our good dead, to give us
comfort on dowly days when the self is a nonentity
dumped on a mound of nothing,
to break the spell of our self-enchantment when lip-smacking
imps of mawk and hooey
write with us what they will, you won’t think me imposing if
I ask you to stay at my elbow
until cocktail time: dear Shade, for your elegy
I should have been able to manage
something more like you than this egocentric monologue,
but accept it for friendship’s sake.

But the elegy that has – forgive the phrase – slain me is Donald Hall’s “Without,” which captures so beautifully – an awful word to use here – captures the horrors of dying of blood cancer and the empty feeling for who’s left over.

An excerpt:

vincristine ara-c cytoxan vp-16

loss of memory loss of language losses

pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bactrim

foamless unmitigated sea without sea

delirium whipmarks of petechiae

multiple blisters of herpes zoster

and how are you doing today I am doing

***

one afternoon say the sun came out

moss took on a greenishness leaves fell

the market opened a loaf of bread a sparrow

a bony dog wandered back sniffing a lath

it might be possible to take up a pencil

unwritten stanzas taken up and touched

beautiful terrible sentences unuttered

***

the sea unrelenting wave gray the sea

flotsam without islands broken crates

block after block the same house the mall

no cathedral no hobo jungle the same women

and men they longed to drink hayfields no

without dog or semicolon or village square

without monkey or lily or garlic

You can read the entire poem here.

Cool Rocking Daddy Missing Libido Blues

 

 

[I] had pretty plumage once.

                                                WB Yeats “Among School Children”

 

A good while back, my libido stole one of my bags,

packed his Hawaiian shirts and leisure suits,

hitched a ride downtown to Calhoun Street

and hopped a Trailways bus to Mexico.

 

Can’t really say I miss him all that much,

that Wicked Wilson Pickett shtick:

 

Uh, you know I feel alright!
Ha, Feel pretty good y’all
!

 

All that preening Mick Jagger wannabe shit.

 

No, as my dead old lecher

Daddy Yeats once wrote,

 

Better to smile on all that smile, and show 

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

 

Still, it’d be nice to get a postcard, every now and then,

from some bordello somewhere south of the border.

 

 

Good Night, Sweet Judy

 

Judy Birdsong

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart . . .

WB Yeats “The Circus Animal’s Desertion”

 

Since my wife Judy Birdsong’s death last Sunday, I have been unable to write anything but clichés. Courageous battle. Unending love. Flights of angels.

Fortunately, my friend Aaron Lipka was able to express what I am feeling in an email he sent to my friends and colleagues at the school where I teach. I’d like to present it as a prelude to the slideshow I made for the funeral home visitation.

I can’t express in strong enough terms the gratitude for all of you who have sent love, thoughts, prayers, solace. Now that my Judy’s gone, I don’t have a guide to steer me within the bounds of good taste, so please bear with me when I stray, which I’m sure I will.  As they say, the past is prologue.

Here’s Aaron’s message:

One and all,

I have been thinking about what to say in this email.  Sometimes, words are not what we need, and electronic consolation can seem cold and impersonal. Whatever I can say here today will risk falling sadly short of what is useful or necessary.

And yet words are all I have to give.

Death is sad, and scary.  In the face of loss, I have listened to our school community reach out with compassion to Wesley, and I have heard others tell of the benevolent and graceful individual whom we knew as Judy Birdsong.  The cumulative message I have received this week, however, is neither sad, not scary at all.

It has been a celebration of a life lived, full of love.  It is a story that has refused to be marred in the face of hardship or sorrow.  In the sharing of the story of her life, I feel her presence with us.  Her memory is very much alive, and it is radiantly beautiful.

I consider myself fortunate to have known her, in my small way.  And I judge Wesley to be a lucky man; not for his loss, but for the many years he had to spend with Judy.  We should all hope to share such love in our lives.

I hope to see many of you at Chico Feo on Folly Beach this afternoon, 4 pm, and together lift a glass to commemorate the life and love of Judy Birdsong.  In our shared words, she will be among us.

Penitus ex animo,

Aaron