. . . I need not rehearse The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.
Richard Wilbur, “A Late Aubade”
Although posthumous fame is essentially worthless to what Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger call the decedent, humans tend to want to be remembered after their deaths, hence tombstones, epitaphs, and those memorial verses we find on obituary pages. As I have no doubt mentioned before, I actually enjoy reading the obituary page, even the obituaries of complete strangers. Perhaps it’s the poet in me who is interested in how the writer goes about compressing a life into the narrow confines of a column of newsprint. Generally, however, I skip the memorial verses, which are generally godawful jingles heavy on end rhyme.
For example, below you’ll find a bit of elegiac verse I copped from a publication called National Post. On its website, I found a page devoted to “Memorial Verses” with this option:
Choose a verse from the appropriate category. Alternatively you may want to copy and paste the verse into the place a notice order form. When placing a notice, please identify the verse by its number to your Classified Telesales Representative. You may also change any of the verses or write your own.
Conveniently, the editors have classified verses by relationships: “Mother, Sister, or Daughter; Father, Brother, or Son; Wife or Husband; Children; Friend or Kin; Armed Forces; Prayer Corner.”
Here’s the first choice listed for a mother.
A wonderful mother, woman and aide, One who was better God never made; A wonderful worker, so loyal and true, One in a million, that mother was you. Just in your judgment, always right; Honest and liberal, ever upright; Loved by your friends and all whom you knew Our wonderful mother, that mother was you.
Of course, in my native state of South Carolina, not many would want to tar the woman who labored to bring them into the world with that vile word “liberal.” Last night during the debate between Nancy Mace and Joe Cunningham, the former used the word “democrat” and “liberal” as if they were synonymous with depravity.
Thank (in this case, given the diction of the verse) God that the purchaser has the option of changing the diction.
Just in your judgement, always right;
Honest and reactionary, ever upright.
Indeed the alliteration in “right” and “reactionary” and “upright” is an auditory improvement.
So it has occurred to me that in my retirement from teaching, I could make a few extra bucks composing memorial verses.
Let’s face it, almost anyone could do better than whoever wrote the above abomination. I mean, the syntax of “One who was better God never made” is so tortured it’s possibly in violation of the Geneva Convention.
Perhaps I could target sentimental agnostics and atheists who want their loved ones remembered, but less hyperbolically.
Our mother has succumbed to a terminal disease,
A mother who taught us manners, to say “please”
And “thank you” and “may” instead of “can,”
Who raised us without the help of a man,
Our deadbeat dad who skipped town one night,
Forever disappearing in dishonorable flight.
Yet, Mom endured life’s hardships with stoic good grace,
An exemplary example for the human race.
Loved by her friends, her children, and pets,
We appreciate that she tried her very best.
Good night, deceased mother, may you rest in peace
Safe in the cliché of death’s eternal sleep.
What do you think? Should I give it a try? Bill myself for the hours and then write it off my taxes? Anyway, if you’re in the market – fortune forbid – you know how to get in touch.
 This reminds me of a bit of dialogue from a WC Fields movie I ran across yesterday thanks to my pal Ballard Lesemann. A patron at a bar says to Fields, the bartender, “I understand you buried your wife a few years ago,” and Fields replies, “Yes, I had to. She was dead.”
 Unfortunately, I myself have become a somewhat prolific obituary writer, having composed posthumous bios for both my father and mother-in-law, my own parents, my maternal aunt and uncle, and for my beloved Judy Birdsong. The stylistic part is not easy. The memorialist needs to deftly insert introductory subordinate phrases and clauses to break the monotony of fact-filled declarative sentences.
“Picture,” I’d tell my British Lit classes, “all that we’ve studied so far depicted on a cathedral-sized stained-glass window – the Pilgrimage to Canterbury, the pageantry of the Elizabethan stage, shepherds piping, Milton’s magnificent blank verse descriptions of Eden, the Augustans, the Romantics, the Victorians.”
Then I’d project the images below and say, “The top photo was taken in 1910, the bottom in 1920. Obviously, something profound has happened in the decade between 1910 and 1920 to have fashion alter so dramatically. Anyone have an idea?”
“World War I.”
“Yes. World War I shattered that stained-glass window, shattered civilization, and rather than trying to gather the shards and reconstruct the past, poets and artists and musicians picked up the shards and rearranged them in radical ways. For example, listen to this:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Of course, that description is over simplified. Picasso created “Girl with a Mandolin” in 1910. Other factors were in play. Otto Planck and Albert Einstein were shattering Newtonian physics in the decade before the War to End All Wars, and in 1900 Sigmund Freud published On the Interpretation of Dreams.
“Girl with Mandolin”
I’d do my best to explain Planck’s and Einstein’s theories [e.g., here’s a cool clip on the relativity of time I used: https://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/index.html (click on #4 “Time Dilation”).] I’d offer a bare bones summary of Freud’s divisions of the psyche, reminding them of Locke’s tabula rasa, then offer them the following “personal anecdote” of Freud’s theory in action.
I’d pause, feigning emotion, placing my fist to my mouth, breathing deeply, and say, “To help you understand how this theory works, I’m going to share with you something very personal, my own experience with psychoanalysis.”
Once again, feigning emotion, I paused, took a deep breath. “When I was a baby, whenever my mother changed my diaper, she stabbed my fanny with uncooked spaghetti. Not only that, while she was stabbing me, she’d screech the music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho’s shower scene.
The expressions on the faces looking up at me were a mixture of bemusement, shock, or horror.
“But Mr. Moore,” sometimes someone would ask, “why would she do something like that?”
Me, sighing: “That I do not know, but according to Freud, what would my mind do with such a horrible memory like that?”
“Repress it,” hopefully someone would say.
“Yes, like Poe’s Madeline Usher, bury it deep underground, entomb it in the subconscious.
“And I was successful in repressing the memory,” I’d say, “led a fairly normal life, the horror not consciously recurring like a bad memory of your youth, like the PTSD-inducing sight of accidentally seeing your Great Aunt Polly stepping out of the shower, which you can never un-see no matter how hard you try.
“No, looking back on it, the only really abnormal consequence is that in college, rather than socializing, joining fraternities, going on panty raids, or protesting the war, I “entombed” myself in the stacks of McKissick Library amassing the prodigious learning you’re witnessing this morning.”
“Mr. Moore, what’s a panty raid?”
“Anyway,” I’d continue, “I graduated, married Judy Birdsong, and lived on Limehouse Street in the bottom floor apartment, taught at Trident Technical College. Everything was going well till one day I went grocery shopping. In those days there was a Piggly Wiggly on Broad Street, a funky store with wooden floors, but a Piggly Wiggly nonetheless. It was just around the corner from where I lived, so I walked there to pick up some lasagna, but when I arrived at the pasta aisle, I suffered a severe panic attack. My heart raced, I couldn’t breathe, paramedics arrived, but after a battery of tests, my physicians couldn’t find anything wrong with me.
17 Limehouse 1978
“So I continued teaching and living the life of a newlywed, but then one night during a Chef Boyardee commercial, I had another attack. To make a long story short, these attacks became more frequent and more severe until finally we decided that I needed to travel to Vienna to receive care from a genuine Freudian psychoanalyst.
“Thanks to the Birdsong family fortune, I received the finest psychoanalytical care possible. First, I had to keep a dream journal (‘Last night I dreamed I was trapped in a bowl of slithering snakes’), then we’d do word association (Dr. Müller, ‘ropes’, Me: ‘linguine.’), and, of course, Rorschach tests (Vat does ziss look like, Herr Moore? Me: ‘O my God, vomited bruschetta’).
Eventually, after months of therapy and tens of thousands of dollars, one morning a memory burst forth from the fortress of my repression. I’m lying on my back, my mother in her nurse’s uniform, white cap and all, comes to me shaking a box of spaghetti like a maraca, and POP!, just like that, I was cured.
“Mr. Moore, that didn’t really happen, did it?”
“Who could make something like that up?” I would say. Then add: “You don’t get that at the Magnet.”
 I’d memorized these last lines of “The Waste Land” confident that no one in the class would know I was butchering the Italian.
 Obviously, an anachronism, I born on 14 December 1952, the movie premiering 8 September 1960, but then again, time is relative.
 Although none of them had read “Fall of the House of Usher,” I’d drop the allusion as if they did, trying to convey it’s fun and advantageous knowing a lot of literature.
 I told my students that my late wife Judy Birdsong’s family had a monopoly on paper products. “No you must skip lines, no you can’t write on the back, dammit!”
 I.e., the Academic Magnet School, our biggest academic rival.
At the tender age of five, playing a card game called Authors, I first encountered Alfred, Lord Tennyson with whom I would forge a rocky relationship.
The Authors deck held eleven sets of four cards depicting an eclectic array of writers, a disparate mishmash of talents: Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, HW Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, RL Stevenson, Twain, the insufferable John Greenleaf Whittier. You drew and discarded and drew trying to make a “book” of all four. I played Authors a lot with my mother when I was sick with rheumatic fever, so, I knew these writers’ names and faces before I read them – and the titles of a few of their works.
Although I don’t remember exactly, I probably first read Tennyson’s poetry in junior high. His “Charge of the Light Brigade” appears in virtually every 7th grade anthology.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Tennyson, as you probably know, is descended from Mother Goose on his father’s side.
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
Although I was obsessed with nursery rhymes in kindergarten, for whatever reason Tennyson never flipped my switch. I preferred Americans, Frost, ee cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose very name sounds like a poem. As an undergraduate, I took a Victorian Lit class for about a week but quit attending, not showing up again until the last no penalty drop day so I could cop the signature of the disheveled tweedy professor.
“So nice meeting you, Mr. Moore,” he said without irony. “I was hoping you’d show up again before the drop day passed.”
I smiled, thanked him, felt guilty.
I didn’t seriously study Tennyson until I took a grad course after I started teaching. That summer, I read him carefully, and although I prefer Browning, I learned to appreciate aspects of Tennyson, despite the Victorian bric-a-brac of his verse and his excessive morbidity. The man was a master of versification. Here’s my favorite phrase of his: “the slow clock ticking.” Try to say it fast.
It captures sonically the slowness of monotonous waiting.
On the other hand, the source of that phrase, the poem “Mariana,” gives center stage to a minor character from Measure for Measure who in Act 5 fornicates with her fiancé in a pitch-black room as part of a comic switcheroo. Her fiancé thinks he’s fornicating with someone else. It’s an elaborate ruse choreographed by the Duke, in part to force their marriage.
Here’s a parodist addressing the cognitive dissonance between the play and poem.
Mariana of the moated grange
about to get laid in Shakespeare’s play,
mopes in Tennyson night and day,
pretty fucking passing strange.
Tennyson’s poem imagines her waiting for her lover who has abandoned her because she lost her dowry at sea.
Here is the poem’s refrain, repeated with minor variations seven times.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
Nevertheless, I do admire Tennyson’s great elegy “In Memoriam,” that Moby Dick of mourning, written for his dear, dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam who had died of a stroke at the age of twenty-two.
Arthur Henry Hallam
The poem is written in a stanza now known as the “In Memoriam stanza,” a quatrain of tetrameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA, a very rigid form that makes fluidity extremely difficult (see above parody), especially when stringing several stanzas together.
After the death of my wife Judy Birdsong, I decided to reread “In Memoriam” to remind myself that mourning was in fact rather commonplace, that others, thousands, millions, billions have had to face heart-rending disseverment, “the blight man was born for.”
Well, I discovered my grief was in no way as profound as Tennyson’s, as deep as his, perhaps because I had had time to prepare myself (or perhaps because I am not as deep or as profound).
Nevertheless, these lines really struck a chord:
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Anyway, after teaching Tennyson for the very last time this week, it occurs to me that I must be practicing psychological projection, attributing to Tennyson unconscious qualities that I have denied in myself. How else to explain how often he has appeared in this blog? For example, here is a short story in which the narrator costumes himself as Tennyson to go panhandling as part of academic research. Type “Tennyson” in this blog’s search engine and eight posts appear, most of them mocking him.
Why the obsession? What is it within me that I’m projecting on him? Humorlessness? Hypersensitivity? Sing-song metrics? Pessimism?
Calling that great dissector of all things Victorian, Dr. Freud.
Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
Because I was bedridden for three months, my mother taught me how to read, even though I wouldn’t enter kindergarten for another month after my illness.
E.g., Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
During the last week of Judy’s life, I actually did algebra for recreation, sought escape in symmetry.
Is it merely my morbid imagination, or has this been a dreary spring weatherwise?
Today, for example, like yesterday and the day before, a leaden sky darkens the land, muting nature’s first green. And, since nothing gold can stay, it also follows that neither can gray, that the leaden sky and dank, chilly air won’t stay around forever. Obviously, weather is constantly moving from west to east as the earth spins, so we can look forward to bright days ahead, and dark days, sickness and health, until death slams the door and the picture making machine shuts off, which doesn’t faze me one iota. As the poet sez, “I don’t remember any problems I had before I was born.”
I do remember, however, it was a bright sunny but below-freezing day when I repeated after the pastor those words “in sickness and in health” and that Judy’s, my bride’s, expression seemed beyond earnest as she stared me in the eye, looking beyond sincere, and her ardor sort of surprised me, and I felt sort of guilty, abstracted there at the altar, thinking not about the vows but about how she looked and wondering what my expression looked like. In other words, I was distracted, out of time.
The good news is that we got to enjoy thirty-nine-and-a-half earth revolutions before death did us part, and it’s almost been a year since then, eleventh-twelfths of a revolution, a quick year, eventful, often lonely but not always.
I’m sitting here at school between conferences with someone else’s advisees (their advisor’s on maternity leave), and it’s the last time I’ll ever do so (mine or all seniors, and I won’t be assigned any new ones). Even though I’m not at all adept at negotiating the byzantine grids of requirement, I am good at engaging parents in small talk, playing the Yeatsian role of sixty-year-old smiling public man (what he calls “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”). Nevertheless, I won’t miss having advisees next year, the way I might miss teaching “Among School Children.” Will I even come to school on conference day or instead practice at being retired by riding my bike to the Lost Dog for a croissant?
I find myself less and less in a hurry nowadays, and when I eventually do retire, I hope to never be in a hurry ever again. Old age can have its compensations, educated offspring, paid mortgages, free time.
So c’mon, sun, break through; match my mood. I’m done with school for today. I get to hang out with Walker Percy for the rest of the early afternoon and then look forward to whatever.
View from A Rented Cottage in County Clare, photograph by Wesley Moore III
Although I’m certain I have a drop or two of Irish blood, I’m not of the Catholic immigrant variety with distant cousins in Kerry or Donegal. Nevertheless, ever since I saw at the age of seven Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I have loved that “little green place” and its soulful inhabitants, its poetry, music, fairies and leprechauns, its abundance of foxgloves, and those mountains in the distance so vaporous it looks as if you could puncture them with your forefinger.
And, oh my god, that rainbow I encountered in 1978 outside of Limerick!
Judy Birdsong Preparing Supper in County Cork, photograph by Wesley Moore
Ireland was the first place I went abroad at twenty-five, and I have been twice again since. In the previous century, Judy, our boys, and I rented cottages, burned peat, shopped at the butchers, drank and listened to music in the pubs, climbed Ben Bulben’s back, and crawled our way up Croagh Patrick.
Ned Moore descending Croagh Patrick, photograph by Judy Birdsong
We got to know our neighbors, so hospitable. Here below are the boys helping John Joe O’Shea shear a sheep near Bantry Bay on the Berea Peninsula in County Cork.
Ned and Harrison Moore and John Joe O’Shea shearing sheep
What truly astounds me about Ireland, though, is how an island the size of South Carolina could produce so many literary masters– Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, and Heaney, to name the ones who come immediately to mind.
Despite his kooky mysticism and rightist politics, Yeats is my hero, and despite his arrogance and sometime meanness, Joyce is my hero.
Joyce, of course, had his issues with his native land. For example, Dubliners isn’t exactly what you would call a flattering portrait of that city. I’m currently on Disc 30 of the Donal Donnnelly/Miriam Healy-Louie recording of Ulysses, “Episode 16,” the so-called Eumaeus episode when Bloom and Stephen seek refuge in a cabman’s shelter after Stephen has been punched out by an English soldier.
An old tar, DB Murphy comes into the shelter and asks Stephen if he knows Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, and Stephen says, “I’ve heard of him.” The seaman answers, “He’s Irish [. . .] All Irish.” Stephen “rejoins” (to use Joyce’s dialogue prompt) “All too Irish.” As a Southerner, I can certainly identify with Stephen’s love/hate relationship with his native land.
Anyway, listening to Donnelly read Joyce’s rich broth of Anglo-Saxon and French-derived words, I have gotten the cadences stuck in my head, and to purge them, I’ve composed this negative ditty, trying to stick with only Anglo-Saxon, through which I mean not to stereotype my Irish brethren but merely to make music out of misery.
Manic Irish Reeling
Slop flung from a window above
Splatters on stone in globby plops.
Curses, fists, flung and shook,
Shuffling brogans, baleful looks.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
After toil a stop at the pub,
Reeking redbearded guzzling swabs
Fritter away their coppery coins
Picking scabs by swapping tales.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
Baggy-eyed mothers fret
Greedy sucklings at their breasts,
Keening toddlers at their feet,
Their stillborns gone, but not forgotten,
Their overripe love on the road to rotten.
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
Out in the street across the way
Waifs and strays banding about.
Rail thin curs and scrawny cats.
Yelping and mewling till the sun comes up.
“With a high ro and a randy ro –
“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”
A couple of posts ago, I stated that I wasn’t going to do my annual review because I lacked the courage; however, I’ve changed my mind hoping that the exercise might provide some catharsis, serve as a purgative to wash away pity and terror, as I rent my sackcloth and tear out my few remaining strands of hair.
Prophetically setting the tone for horror over the horizon, my very first post this year was a New Year’s Day comparison of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, two doomed cool rocking daddies who both died on New Year’s Day 44 years apart. Click Here.
Of course, David Bowie would die later that month while those undelightful Bundry Boys, who later would be acquitted, occupied federal property in Montana. Instead of going there, I’ve linked the cautionary tale of my first acquaintance with alcohol. Read it and weep. Click Here.
In February my Aunt Virginia died, which led to musing on mortality as my siblings and I scattered her remains to the Folly River. Click Here.
Here’s also a review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which I listened to driving to a funeral home after a stranger in a bar the previous evening showed me photographs of her husband’s severed finger stumps, which he had acquired a couple of hours earlier. Click here.
Pat Conroy, the father of a close friend, died. She and her sister stayed with us during his hospitalization. Click here.
In addition, March brought us the news of the return of Judy Birdsong’s T-Cell Lymphoma, which, of course, was profoundly disheartening.
This post was created on Good Friday right after finding out the news. Click here.
Teaching Keats while in despair proved quite difficult but do-able. Click here.
And, of course, Prince, whom I dubbed “the Lord Byron of Pop, died. Click here.
Yet another death, this time a student’s. Click here.
And I review Don DeLillo’s just released not-exactly-upbeat novel, Zero K.
Edward Hopper: “Morning Sun”
June brought us a mass shooting in an Orlando Nightclub. Click here.
Ali, a sort of boyhood hero died, which took me back to the early 60’s when my father tried to teach me how to box. Click here.
So I decided to cheer myself up by reading the Brothers Karamazov. Click here.
Also, there was that festival of bad taste known as the Republican convention. Click here.
Adelson’s luxury suite
Okay, how about a little sunshine. I donned my anthropological pith helmet and crashed a bachelor’s party at Chico Feo (click here) and talked a colleague into letting me publish a brilliant letter she wrote to her students (click here).
Coincidentally today, on my 38th wedding anniversary, we finished Pride and Prejudice in the 10th grade Brit Lit survey course I teach. I’d like to think that over the thirty years I’ve been teaching P&P, I’ve managed to come up with ways to make it engaging for the students, even for some of the boys, who, if they read at all, prefer action-packed fare like Fight Club or sci-fi/fantasy titles like Fine,We’ll Do It in My Spaceship Tower. Unfortunately, for them, in Pride and Prejudice, Napoleon’s troops don’t invade Merton and shish kabob Mr. Wickham, only to be repelled by non-commissioned Darcy and Bingley looking fabulous on their prancing steeds.
Anyway, to prepare students for the pleasures of P&P, you first have to get across that the novel is prototypical, that it’s the mother of modern romantic comedy. 
Once that’s established, I concentrate on the characterization, and what a rich array we have. It takes a rather humorless drudge not to find Mr. Collins funny and a very unobservant one not to have encountered an asshole like Mr. Wickham somewhere along life’s escalator ride.
Anyway, today, we looked at the last few chapters, especially the tete-a-tete between Elizabeth and Darcy in “Chapter 60” when she asks him “to account for his ever having fallen in love with her.”
He replies that he couldn’t “fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation,” which could very well describe my own falling in love with Judy Birdsong.
Like Darcy, “I was in the middle before I knew that it had begun.”
Judy jokes that we have a “marriage made in Milwaukee” because we met in graduate school as bartenders at the student union bar – the not quite immortal Golden Spur — back in those halcyon days when 18-year-olds could drink legally. I must have first met Judy B right before the Spur opened for the semester in a meeting conducted by University employees in charge of the Russell House. I cannot say that it was love, or even attraction, at first sight.
In fact, alas, these are the very first words I said to her after she had benignly asked me how it was going.
“You can call me ‘Wesley’” I said, “or ‘Rusty,’ but don’t call me Wes.”
Call me FitzWilliams.
Truth is, I didn’t take much note of her or any of the other neophyte bartenders because I was pissed off. I, the only returning employee besides the manager, had to jump through the hoops of the work-study application process to get my old job back.
I do remember on opening night we had a reggae band and the manager assigned Judy to exclusively work the cash register, which was really stupid and unfair. I felt sorry for her stuck there for six-plus hours frenetically ringing up Schlitz Malt Liquors and Lays Potato Chips.
That was in August, but as the weeks progressed, I found myself looking at the schedule hoping that Judy would be sharing my shift. On the surface, we had very little in common. I dabbled in contraband; she didn’t. I had spent a night in jail; she hadn’t. She made straight As; I had racked up an impressive string of Incompletes. She supported Gerald Ford; I supported Jimmy Carter. Her family had a considerable amount of new money; my family had a considerable amount of debt. In short, I was wild, rebellious, immature, and penniless, and she was stable, a conformist, mature, and well-to-do.
Yet, over those weeks I came to appreciate her more and more. I remember one evening when I was checking IDs at the door. She stopped, and we chatted, and I felt ill at ease. I remember feeling a longing and loneliness bordering on hopelessness as she was leaving.
Miss Judy Birdsong
Unbeknown to me, the crush was mutual, but I could not imagine such a nice, attractive, clever girl being interested in a lout like me, nor did she think that a rogue like I-and-I would be interested in a nice girl like her. However, we started to flirt and “pretend” to have crushes on each other. In fact, I remember coming into the Spur when I had a date with an ex who had dumped me the summer before and Judy’s standing behind the bar with a theatrical frown as she pantomimed wiping away imaginary tears.
What a dumb ass not to figure it out!
The good news is that it didn’t take an elopement and rescue a la Lydia and Darcy to bring us together, but merely alcohol, the liquid Cupid. Although the University was closed on election night in 1976, the Spur was open, and Judy and I were behind the bar, which closed at one, but the staff and a couple of regulars stayed on to continue watching the returns. Somehow after Carter had been declared the winner in the wee hours, one of us made a move – we can’t remember who – but somehow we found ourselves sitting there on stools at the bar holding hands.
As it turned out, like Darcy and Elizabeth, we had more in common than we had thought, and despite some of Judy’s friends’ reasonable advice that marrying the 1978 version of me was a mistake, she did, and it’s by far the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me or that will ever happen to me.
Let’s face it, in this artificially flavored, dioxin-laden world of ours, either you or someone you dearly love is going to get cancer, especially if you manage to dodge the jihadists’ and nativists’ bullets to live long enough.
Obviously, people deal with cancer in different ways. Everyone from scientists to your Aunt Tessie will tell you to be positive, which, of course, is good advice, if not all that easy to take, especially if you’re facing chemotherapy.
For the last 17 months, my wife and I have shared our lives with a particularly rare and more-often-than-not fatal form of lymphoma known as Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified, or for shortness sake, PTCL-NOS.
Essentially, you can deal with cancer in two ways, the Dalai Lama way or the Woody Allen way, so I thought I’d recap my wife’s journey of the last year and a half focusing on her husband’s behavior, imagining him as either the Dalai Lama or Woody Allen so you can decide for yourself which role you might play if you ever face similar challenges.
9 July 2014
Woody Allen, husband of Judy Birdsong, spends the morning cleaning the house preparing for guests, an artist friend and former colleague who’s bringing an Italian mother and her two teenaged sons to go kayaking.
Judy has gone out “to run some errands,” and Woody is getting somewhat peeved because she’s been gone so long and has left so much of the housework to him.
Finally Judy calls.
“Where have you been?’ Woody asks.
“Getting a chest x-ray.”
“A chest x-ray? What for?”
“I have this lump near my breast bone. The doctor thinks it’s probably just some bone outgrowth. No big deal.”
“Oh, my God,” Woody thinks, “she’s got lung cancer!”
* * *
Tenzin Gyatso, husband of Judy Birdsong, enjoys picking up each individual knick-knack from the shelf and gently rubbing the dust cloth over its surface. Although he knows Judy’s getting a chest x-ray, he concentrates on the task at hand, gently returning the clay statuette of the Indian mother to her place on the shelf next to the hand-painted Mexican fish.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Woody, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He picks up the receiver just as Judy does but doesn’t hang up.
He hears: “The x-ray is inconclusive. It’s cloudy. Have you had any fever? Coughing? We don’t see a mass, but you have something called a pleural effusion, that is, fluid in your lungs, so you’ll need to come in tomorrow for a C-scan.”
Woody hangs up the phone and immediately googles “plural effusion.”
Numerous medical conditions can cause pleural effusions. Some of the more common causes are:
Woody spends a very miserable night, the worst one since his last night in jail (c. 1978), tossing and turning and speculating just what horrible type of cancer Judy has. Finally, because she’s had no symptoms, Woody becomes convinced that it’s metastatic ovarian cancer.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Tenzin, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He waits to see if Judy picks up, and she does.
After the conversation, she comes up and tells him the x-rays weren’t clear, that she needs a C-scan.
He takes a deep cleansing breath, then exhales slowly.
The C-scan did detect a mass, “a primary cancer probably a lymphoma,” according to the radiologist. Woody and Judy arrive at Roper Hospital for Judy’s initial visit with her oncologist. When they arrive, they discover the appointment is at a different facility across town, so they rush to their car and take off. Even though the receptionist has assured them they have enough time, this soundtrack plays in Woody’s mind.
They do arrive on time, and the oncologist, an acquaintance, the husband of a colleague of Woody’s, is a calming presence. He shows them the tumor on a screen and agrees that it looks like lymphoma, and says that’s what he hopes it is because lymphomas are curable. He introduces them to the paradox that the faster a cancer grows, the easier it is to kill.
Woody goes home and googles lymphomas, which indeed are very treatable if it’s the B-cell variety. T-cell lymphomas are a different story.
While Judy’s out kayaking with Tenzin, the oncologist calls and tells Woody they need to run about a thousand new tests on Judy to find out “what type of t-cell lymphoma we’re talking about.”
“Oh no,” Woody says. “T-cells are harder to cure, aren’t they?”
“They can be,” he says tersely.
When Judy returns, she can see it on Woody’s face.
“What’s the matter?”
He tells her. For the first time they weep together.
Tenzin has put Woody in a strait jacket, jammed a sock in his mouth, and locked him in a closet so he can call his sons and tell them the bad news. He also calls his siblings and closest friends.
Judy is stoic as well, suffering through a barrage of tests without a complaint.
They nervously wait to see how far it’s spread.
Good News! It’s Stage 1, confined to that one tumor. No bone marrow involvement. The treatment will be aggressive. 96-hour continuous hospital infusion, two weeks off, then another blast. There will be 6 to 8 cycles, then perhaps a stem cell transplant and even after that radiation.
28 July – Early December
Judy on the 5th Floor Balcony of Roper
Although Tenzin can sometimes hear muffled sounds from Woody’s closet, he – Tenzin – is very much in control. During hospital weeks, he wakes up at 5, walks their doomed dog Saisy, showers, etc., and delivers the paper to Judy on the 5th floor of Roper and sits down to enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he shuffles off in his blue footies, down the hall to the elevator, hitting the first floor, greeting the staff coming on as he heads to the parking garage and to work.
After only four days of chemo, the tumor has shrunk so much that the oncologist says he wouldn’t know it were there by external inspection.
Of course, everyone loves Judy because of her courage and exquisite manners. The nurses try to see to it that she gets the rooms that look out over Charleston Harbor. She walks a lot, dragging the chemo-shit along with her. She continues her work as a school psychologist from her hospital bed, and in the third week goes to work in Berkeley County wearing a wig. In the afternoons when she’s in the hospital, Judy and Tenzin sit on the balcony and note the beauty of the light as it falls upon the steeples of the city.
In October on a Friday, Tenzin returns from work to find a voice message from the oncologist. He’s delighted to inform them that Judy’s scan has come back all clear; there’s not a trace of cancer.
Nevertheless, they’re going to continue for two more cycles of chemo, culminating in a grand total of 6.
Late December 2014 – January 2015
Tenzin’s mother has had a stroke as Judy’s preparing for a stem cell transplant. Tenzin allows Woody to come out of the closet to google stem cell transplants, but marches him right back in there afterwards.
One morning they come downstairs to find that Saisy has died during the night. Tenzin and his neighbor Jim load Saisy’s carcass in the back of Judy’s SUV (Tenzin’s Mini isn’t an option), and she drops Saisy off at the Vet’s to be cremated. She then drives on to work as Tenzin does the same.
Over the next week, Tenzin tries to make it to his hometown to see his fading mother while meanwhile Judy suffers the worst part of her treatment, bone-marrow killing doses of a different type of chemo that incapacitates her.
When Tenzin’s mother dies, Judy’s very ill; she can’t attend the funeral because she’s been hospitalized. The good news is that Judy’s sister and sister-in-law have come to help. Despite all the negativity, spirits are somewhat high.
February – March 2015
Scans again clear. Time for radiation, which is no fun, but it’s much better than chemo.
Judy’s and Tenzin’s son is getting married in June, right after another scan. Woody, who has been released from the closet but remains under house arrest, thinks the scan should be put off until after the wedding, but Tenzin and Judy disagree. How great to hear the news beforehand they say.
But they don’t hear the news. Woody is not allowed to come up to DC for the festivities (though he does text twice). The wedding week is wonderful as Judy and Tenzin reunite with loved ones and enjoy interacting with their new in-laws. All agree the ceremony and reception are a blast.
When Judy and Tenzin return to Charleston, they learn the scan was “all clear.”
17 December 2015
Judy goes in for her six-month scan. Woody has been sneaking around googling, looking for PTCL-NOS success stories, and under that heading what’s below is all he can find:
To date: 17 chemotherapeutic drugs in 8 regimens. 4 of those drugs at least twice.
Knowing the redemptive value of suffering makes all the difference.
Woody also discovers that the median time for relapse is 6.7 months after primary treatment, and it’s been seven months since Judy’s ended. Plus her SED rate is way high at 38 (20’s normal). Woody googles for possible reasons for high SED rate. “Cancers: lymphoma, leukemia.”
18 December 2015
Judy tells Woody (who’s wearing a Tenzin mask) he doesn’t need to accompany her to her 3 o’clock appointment.
As soon as she leaves for work, Woody clobbers Tenzin over the head with a walking cane and shoves him in the closet.
Woody goes to work and grades one set of exams, attends a brunch, then goes home at one-thirty and tries to take a nap.
He falls into a fitful sleep but awakens.
The clock crawls. Three finally arrives. Why didn’t meet her there? Imagine a text message. Or if it’s bad, wouldn’t she call? Imagine her driving back by herself knowing. Poor thing. 3:05. Friday’s NY Times crossword puzzle. It’s impossible. 3:15. He imagines Judy being weighed, getting her blood pressure taken. 3:30, no word. 3:35 goes down to play solitaire. 3:50. Knows Judy might get irritated but calls.
She hasn’t been seen yet!
4:05; Billie Holiday’s text ring tone “Comes Love” sounds. He sees ”scan’s all clear” on the screen. Screams Yes!! Literally dances a jig. Judy calls. “Yes!” He texts his sons “Yes!” He texts friends. “Yes!”
He rides his bike down to the Jack of Cups where he finds the owner Nick sitting at the bar with Tyler, a Chico Feo bartender, sitting next to him, and Samantha, a lovely tattoo-covered “girl next door” stationed behind the bar. He shares the good news. Larry comes in. Lesley, Nick’s wife comes in. They all high five. Nick disappears and returns with six shots.
They raise their glasses and chug.
Meanwhile, Tenzin is just coming to back home. He walks slowly up the stairs to his study and takes from the shelf The Selected Poems of WH Auden. He looks at the index of first lines, flips to the sought after page, and reads: