Posts Tagged ‘jim’s illness’

Home again

Dear friends and readers,

The temperature going down to freezing here; I’ve flowers in all three patches, white tulips, soft lavender, clumps of different flowerets and buds.

For these weeks I’m feeling I am moving in and out of peopled worlds in Pittsburgh and here in DC and Alexandria, where I abide. Who knew there were so many constantly reforming clouds of people. And then Izzy finds herself over the moon after several 10 hour days watching ice-skating at Junior World Championship in Boston.

For myself: Around Thursday noon I started off. So many miles. Thanks to my “garmin,” which talks to me with a bland American women’s accent, I had little trouble driving from Alexandria, Va to the Omni William Penn Hotel. The voice is most important at these transition moments when the highway gives out, you have to come off and drive through some series of low-cost gas stations, “family” food restaurants, and motels that have grown up precisely because this the highway gives out here. She tells you a few minutes ahead to bear left or bear right, cites the sign accurately, and with ease you get back onto said highway going in the right direction.

The route in the city reminded me of old highways in Brooklyn, and then I had simply to drive up a wide street, turn left twice and there I was, in front of the hotel. Nearly 5 hours each way. Homeward I worried intensely at one point because my gas was low and I had to realize that there were no on-highway gas stations. I got off said highway and nearby filled “‘er up,” and back on I went. I began to feel dizzy once I was near home, so got off the highway and found myself in a traffic jam around an accident.

This led me to stop off at Noodles and Company for a pasta dish to bring home; I downed it with Shiraz wine while watching yet another episode of the very well-done 1972 War and Peace scripted by Jack Pulman and the 2nd episode (Of 3) of the utterly inadequately adapted Dr Thorne, scripted by Julian Fellowes: a friend has likened him to Popplecourt; it’s as if Popplecourt were explaining Trollope’s art to us. I’ll write about this film adaptation separately too: coming to and going from I had listened half-way through Trollope’s Dr Thorne as read dramatically well by Simon Vance. I collapsed into bed, by that time my pussycats staying close by.

I had a good time while there: it was rejuvenating to go to sessions filled with varied intelligent talk and papers on new aspects of a subject matter I’ve spent my life reading about, studying. I’ll write of these separately. I was at two nights of receptions. I renewed old friendships during the first night’s dinner and first day’s lunch


40 years on Robin Ellis returns as the deeply reaction Halse and Aidan Turner defies him (2015, scripted by Debbie Horsfield)

My paper, “Poldark Rebooted: 4 Years on” went over well; the three other papers were from different points of view and done differently yet all linked as about recent TV and movie films (Outlander among them). The audience was not too small and we got good questions. The second night I seemed to gravitate towards the Burney group, and spent the second night’s dinner time and the next day women’s caucus with them. I can’t say I participated in intellectual political talk (as I do regularly now at the OLLI at AU in DC), but I did hear about local politics in different places from friends as well as happenings among books and writers and coming conferences (at Chawton). What people were working on, their topics of special interest and told of mine. One woman on sabbatical reading Burney’s manuscripts in the NYPL, living in Brooklyn for the year.


The William Penn Omni hotel is a beautiful building: art deco central hall or lobby downstairs, and the grand ballroom beautifully carved. It was the second time I’d been there: before with Jim I arrived at 11 at night and remember we got a meal!

As a memento I found on sale Norma Clarke’s probably highly readable biographical Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street — its cover takes the left-hand side of Hogarth’s picture, enrichens the browns and yellows, suggestive of Grub Street life.

William Hogarth, The Distressed Poet (1736)

The experience occurred in the context of the two OLLIs, going to the Jewish Community Center, Smithsonian, the Folger, so I felt how I enter into and float out of differently peopled worlds. How different this is from the way I lived by Jim’s side. It’s like a quiet merry-go-round or roundabout. You get off and find under this pavillon a set of numerous people having adventures, stay and talk in whatever form is appropriate, then you go back to the path towards the merry-go-round and get on and off at another place. Interesting and informative discussion over lunch at Temple Baptist Church (one of the AU OLLI locations) by a retired lawyer and an economist about the importance of the supreme court, how much of US civic life corporations through their control of media is being poisoned.

But how and why do all these people keep it up? Cheerfully too. I feel so aware of these worlds’ fragility. That’s the strange and built-in dangerous thing: the necessary disconnect between casual friends and other people all the while you renew what you can or just have fleeting good talk. Here’s a question: how do you define friends?

Outside Izzy’s window in Boston: celebratory and commentating snow ….

Izzy had taken a 10 hour train trip to Boston via Amtrak. She had a long trip there and back and there was an accident at Philadelphia the day before she came home. No money in the US for public transportation. Fortunately her trip back was only (only) 40 minutes longer, so it took 11 hours. But she was comfortable the whole time. A decent seat, decent enough food available (real sandwiches with people to serve it), free wi-fi. She was not continually photographed or scrutinized as in a airport. She did not have to sign up for “paid privileges” which allow a cell phone or ipad to work, and separately for any music or movies (as in abusive airplanes).

She stayed in a hotel in Boston, from the which there were trains each day going back and forth from hotel to convention center. She found herself coming back to the hotel with the same people each night. Her day sometimes started after 10 or 11 or once noon. She often returned at 11 at night, once much later.



She got herself to the Museum of Fine Arts twice (it was a stop on her train), and explored the first floor. She said it was huge:


She saw a sign outside “to the Isabella Gardner museum,” but did not have the time for it. She walked in the city commons, on three different mornings, and late in the evening ate in different places around her hotel room, mostly Italian restaurants. Those nights she did return early it was very cold out; her window high and the winds strong. So she stayed in with her ipad and books.


Since she had the same seat for all but one day (as did most others), she sat behind the same group most days: British women who talked to one another and briefly to her too. Her sense of ecstasy as she watched and watched and the experience mounts she captured in a phrase she used to my question, “How’s it going?” “I’m over the moon.”

Miss Drake

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Sophie and I at the National Gallery this week

Two years ago today, a Saturday, Jim and I were told that the cancer had metastasized into his liver. That was not the way it was said. In low tones, the doctor said “liver mets.” Jim had been feeling unwell for days; we had been to see the imbecilic Kaiser doctor on the Thursday who had been all cheer and declared he was doing very well. But that morning he got up in extreme pain and looked at me and said “something is dreadfully wrong.” So we went to the Tysons Medical Center which I myself visited about 3 weeks ago now. I did not know what the phrase meant until we got home and I looked it up on wikipedia, and did not realize it was a death sentence and soon until a few days later.

Yvette has finally uploaded her YouTube of herself singing an appropriate song, Snow Patrol’s Run. These are hard to do by oneself. Especially hard the videoing and sound parts. I am moved by her choice of song, its lyrics and music type. That’s our spinet piano you are hearing.

This past Friday night I went with a new friend, a woman I met at the OLLI at Mason (she was in my class, around my age, divorced), let us call her Phyllis, to listen to someone who had the professional accompaniment Yvette lacks: we went to a sort of nightclub, www.CreativeCauldron.org it’s called on-line, a room functioning as place for plays, music and cabaret in Fairfax, Virginia. Sandy Bainum has a throaty-pleasing voice, dresses in conventional sexiness (complete with piled blonde hair, sequins around her neck, tight black outfit, CHFM shoes), but the music chosen was tepid, her talk between songs puerile and tedious, and some of her numbers astonishingly embarrassing: at one point she came out in a apron with home-made cookies, declaring she was imitating a 1950s housewife such as one might see on TV at the time. We paid only $13 each,and there were three touching songs with some sincere emotion towards the end. The audience was mostly seniors; there were tables you could reserve by buying a bottle of (not very appetizing) wine in the lobby. I wondered what they thought. All polite, clapping at the end (as at the Barns theater in Wolf Trap).

Phyllis declared it was the worst thing she’d ever seen there, most of it is nowhere as bad, some even good. Still the last time I went to a cabaret was with Jim more than 25 years ago and it was somewhere in Northern Virginia — Alexandria. I don’t recall much except we never went again. After this, I have to admit to a non-enthusiasm for the next 25 years.

Sophie and I were luckier at the National Gallery on Thursday afternoon. We endured the dreadful heat to meet up. I watched the insanity of sweating tourists going in and out of the fierce air-conditioning in the museum; who would come to DC in August? can they not think of anything better than grinding through the Air and Space museum in the torturous glare? When I was in my thirties I used to marvel at bedraggled women who take their children (their work after all) with them and call this a vacation. Have they no brain, no individual response they are in touch with?

Well, beyond some paintings in their permanent collection I had not seen before, brought up from their capacious basement, and very worth the seeing (early 20th century American), and a few favorites:

Turner, Mort Lake Terrace (1827)

Three rooms of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638) revealed that the Renaissance had its deeply vulgar stupid art too. The man could paint like a virtuoso when it comes to realistic depiction, but there was hardly a picture not directly or not-so-subtly pornographic. Much violence in evidence too. Prurient pin-ups for clerics and princes made respectable by classical stories. I wish I could have Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell’s sardonic reaction. As the curators had written such solemnly blind blurbs next to the pictures, I did wonder if others beyond me saw what was in front of them. As I tried to tell Sophie, I could see I grated upon people around me. But on Friday night one of my friend’s friends who came with us spoke of this exhibition in terms that made me realize she at least (and probably others) understood they were doing to see exercises in hypocrisy — and didn’t mind in the least. Had the pictures been more neutral in their depictions (fluid sexuality) it would have been easier to take, but there was too much anal intercourse of man upon woman, just women offering themselves salaciously to men. One depiction of a kitchen (not mythic) reminded me of a Millais and was the least absurd, but the brochure I picked up does not include the title, and Sophie was almost kicked out of the museum for attempting to use her cell phone to photograph it. I found this version on the Net:

Its busy overabundant disorder is representative — I do like the cat and fish

On the whole, Sophie and I decided we still had had a richer afternoon than most plays locally done, most movies on offer this summer could give us. She did say she went to a Millenium Stage piano concert of good music well done on that same Friday night.

I am enjoying watching a couple of superb BBC serial dramas: Danger UXB, about a unit of men whose dangerous job it is during WW2 to defuse bombs the Germans showered Britain with in WW2; stark, simple, truthful, it’s a powerful statement about war. The use of footage from the period reinforces the effectiveness. I’m re-watching the recent Upstairs Downstairs, also on WW2, but from the angle of an upper class family with Nazi infiltration and connections. Listening to a fine reading aloud of Graham’s Ross Poldark by Oliver Hembrough, and Yvette had downloaded for me another of Demelza read by Claire Corbet. I can no longer get myself to drive to the JCC (25 minutes by highway) to do water-aerobics as the exercise is non-existent; I swim every other day, 4-7 laps depending on when my chest gives out (I get breathless and have pain), every other afternoon. 6 minutes there and 6 back. Takes half an hour to swim as much as I manage. Water refreshing. I still go to Dance Fusion at the JCC for two early mornings. My favorite thing for exhilaration.

I am almost finished with my paper on Trollope’s colonialist writings, fiction and non-fiction and know that this one shows I have nothing new to say. What I write is accurate, but what Trollope scholars will want to hear that I feel that the way Trollope’s repugnant views are got round by themselves, doesn’t stand scrutiny?

Small things Charlie, my Haven counselor, would have told me to remember in comparison to the catastrophe Jim and I experienced in August 2013 and the hideous often cruelly administered treatment he was subjected to (the punning meanings of medicine come to mind) for the last two months of his life. As soon as I’ve finished this paper, I’m going to take off from all job-connected reading and writing. The first book on my pile is Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. Jim read Barnes’s books as they came out and this morning I read his latest essay in the LRB (“Selfie with Sunflowers”) where he wrote poignantly and funnily on all that surrounds Van Gogh’s works, all that gets in the way of reaching them.

An early Van Gogh, Restaurant de la Sirene at Snieres, Summer 1887

The results of his death for me are inexorable. I’ve tried to build a new life but it’s hollow all that I do without him and I don’t enjoy much of it — what I enjoy are reading at home, writing, watching movies because these absorb my mind most fully. For me the teaching is a help because it gets me doing thoroughly books I love more; my old-time Florida friend is teaching again too, economics at a nearby university in Tampa. As she said to me (also a widow now) last week there is no replacing the companionship we had, no bringing back or recreating in any form a long life’s meaning each of us had with this man we loved and who each loved each. When widows stay sad, it’s the result of the present they have to endure. I understand that the way society is organized is natural and people who last as a couple remain in the pair and know happiness and all that do is arranged around that. All a widow like myself can do is find resources within herself and try for peace there, turn to old friends and to pass time sometimes find stray people like themselves sufficiently.

Paradoxically though I’ve said how I love my home I have to get used to being in it alone — with my cats as living-alongside companions.

Yesterday evening I cooked a meal for myself for the second time since Jim died. Yvette was out. Again it was pasta (farfalle) and I microwaved some sauce from Trader Joe’s and had left-over cold chicken on the side. Again, washed it down with Paisano wine. Watched PBS news while eating both times too.

Miss Drake

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People in a gallery

One must live with great seriousness like a cat — a play upon an utterance by Nazim Hekmat

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to tell of one last adventure Yvette and I had while in NYC: Friday morning until lunchtime we wandered all about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhausted ourselves there too, for me seeing paintings and art work I regard as old friends and with her looking at new art.

Well, we happened on an exhibition of photographs by Thomas Struth. The ones used to advertise his work are like the one above: people looking at vast art, people making things, not just beautiful art, but everything one might think of in an industrial building, wandering in and out of cities, esplanades, woods filled with twisted branches: ephemeral beings given some kind of larger meaning against the shape of seemingly permanent or continuing structures. I’m told that Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary where he filmed the worlds of people doing things, talking in the institution in the UK called the National Gallery is rapturous. By contrast, Struth shows a family of artists whose living is made by restoring pictures working in the basement of an old church thus:


So (or but) if you go to one of Struth’s actual exhibits (not spread across the globe on the Net), you find there is another sort of photograph among them:


People submitting to technology: the above is a surgery for hymenoplasty. I melted into quiet crying upon seeing one of a woman on a table covered by surgical lines, with IVs all over her, bags of liquids, long sharp instruments all around, of course sheeted: she was having an operation for some dire cancer. I cried because I wished I had seen that image before I agreed to agree with Jim he would have that esophagectomy that made his last 8 weeks of life a living hell of nausea, starvation, pain. On the wall was a little plaque assuring you the woman as still living as of some date. Right. I can’t find a replica on the Net of that photo or a couple others in the Met that day. I knew that the photo was invasive and voyeuristic, but I wish everyone could see that or the other photos before they agree to a surgery. Since the advent of anesthesia people submit to operations with their eyes closed — metaphorically as well as through drugs. We ought to imagine these; maybe we will agree less often.

This is prompted by my having overheard a man at the Toyota Dealer this morning on the phone for over half an hour scheduling a series of appointments for what was clearly a major surgery, which was to be proceeded by a visit to the famed Mayo clinic (for cancer), and a number of other visits to this or that doctor. The man was all eager docility, cooperation itself. He looked about 70, white, had a briefcase thick with papers (perhaps a college professor). I was there waiting for my PriusC to be inspected so I could get my yearly sticker attesting to the safety of my car: it’s put on one’s window shield in Virginia. I wished I had the nerve to ask him what kind of cancer it was.

Don’t misunderstand me. I felt jealous. I sat there remembering how I could not persuade Jim to try to go to Boston, Massachusetts, where we were told we might be able to see a super-famous, (probably) super-expensive oncologist who never did esophagectomies (as he thought them horribly maiming) but poured intense chemotherapies into people to try to subdue, diminish, put the cancer into remission.

I realized that I never saw Jim being active on behalf of his health that way. In life for other things he was often a person who made many phone calls, set up all sorts of schedules for us to travel, engineered itineraries. But when it came to his health he often just submitted to doctors, didn’t question them. He did read about his cancer when we were told, and early on told me what the Kaiser people were doing was common protocol. Was what doctors did when the case was esophageal cancer.

At Kaiser there was no need beyond minimum appointment making. They found for him a man trained at the Mayo clinic (a surgeon outside Kaiser), a radiation doctor, another to do chemotherapy (in the event we never had them because the cancer metastasized into his liver before the series could start). Jim was I know not just thinking of the price, but thinking it would take time to go to Boston, precious time to try to reach this doctor, have his advice, and then maybe go for Kaiser anyway. He didn’t want to stop what was set up already.

I wasn’t sure of myself so I was afraid to say no, let’s not do this operation, let’s go to Boston, let’s insist on chemotherapy first, lest I was wrong — and he suffer from it, he die.

I worried about the worried looks in the eyes of the non-surgical doctors: did they think this guy a jock eager to cut Jim up and that he’d be better off doing chemotherapy first? Maybe he would have lived had he had chemotherapy first and the cancer would not have metastasized? It was a judgement whether to do the operation first because chemotherapy could burn the tissues and then the operation afterwards might result in dangerous complications as parts of the organs would not heal readily at all. So he said.

I found myself wishing I had persisted and made some kind of intense effort to for once listen to me — would he be alive today?

I was like am now a person walking down a stairway where the handrails have been taken away

I asked myself, Is this man I am watching and listening to, going to be alive 10 years from now because he’s doing this? I envied him. I should not have. Sitting there doing that so politely was an ordeal he was controlling. We do not see the terror inside other people. He will be like the people in Stuth’s photographs. I do not know; maybe he’s having his pancreas removed. He was determined the operation should not be put off and all his appointments fit in. I will remember his aging face, short hair, thin body and briefcase.

My car passed inspection and the honest people at Toyota (I’ve been there before and the people there have been all courtesy to me too) charged me $16. I drove home listening to Simon Vance reading aloud Trollope’s Dr Thorne and all day and until now (many hours later) had this man’s image in my mind and knew I would write this blog about Struth’s photograph of a woman having a cancer operation at last.

Struth, Milan Cathedral, 1998


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Dear friends and readers,

I regret to report that the cancer epidemic has reached Jenny Diski. In a determinedly comic column Diski announced she had been diagnosed as having a form of inoperable cancer which features cancer traveling into your lypmph nodes and (“very bad” she writes) into the esophagus. Statistically she is told she has 2-3 years before she dies: in the case of cancer you ignore statistics at your peril: I ignored the 40% of all people diagnosed with esophageal cancer dead within a year, and we went ahead with a horribly mutilating operation (if in doubt remove it) for him, which when the cancer metastasized only made him die quicker and suffer much more. I hoped he’d be in the 60%.

She writes:

One thing I state as soon as we’re out of the door: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. But I sense that I can’t avoid the cancer clichés simply by rejecting them.

Jim too thought this kind of language ridiculous but eventually was driven to say the physicians had intended to battle the cancer in his body. All they did was ruin his body.

She jokes:

So – we’d better get cooking the meth,’ I said to the Poet, sitting to one side and slightly behind me. The Poet with an effort got his face to work and responded properly. ‘This time we quit while the going’s good.’ The doctor and nurse were blank. When we got home the Poet said he supposed they didn’t watch much US TV drama.

I hope she does keep a cancer diary in public; from my reading of so many of her essays (whenever I come across one, I read it, pronta), she will be perceptive and wise. Her book might tell of the hurt, the pain and lies, will be another voice calling attention to the crying need for fundamental research.

People in the world writing, reportage, and in colleges need to know that this epidemic is killing out of all proportion old, middle-aged and now young, rare cancers no longer rare.

Just now I’m reading Diski’s Skating to Antartica, which is lending me courage to go on the trips I’ve planned this fall. I realize I should read her Stranger on a Train. As a regular essayist she’s in a league with Hilary Mantel, Lorna Sage, Margaret Atwood, Diane Johnson, Anita Brookner; among men, Richard Holmes, Richard Davenport-Hines.

Poor woman. Cooking did distract Walter White and that “lost waif,” Jesse Pinkman.


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The piano a couple of weeks ago

Dear friends and readers,

I took that photo of my spinet piano a couple of weeks ago when Yvette had left a composition book on it. She had devised a song, sung it and somehow took a photo and recorded herself so as to put a video of herself singing on her blog. I wrote of this more than two weeks ago and how I was planning to begin piano lessons for myself. I finally did this week, one hour with a woman named Julie. We wrote out clefts, notes, begin playing on her Steinway grand piano. The sounds coming from the teacher’s piano were lovely — harmonious, bright like a bell. Full with an echo when you left your finger on a key. I like calm rhythms. As I said on facebook when I began to play I cried because I wished I could be happy while playing these. I felt I ought to be. I remember I wrote shortly after Jim’s death I felt I was living in a house which had lost one of its four walls. Now I understand the meaning of Haushofen’s Wall better: she said it was about how this transparent wall was between her and the rest of the world: Lessing said of the book it could have been written only by a woman. Maybe it’s good then that my spinet has a much tinnier, thinner sound. I don’t have to feel I’m can’t reach something I was surprised to feel I wanted.

I want the lessons for myself too: when I was 12 I asked for piano lessons, but my parents would not buy me a piano. My father insisted I learn guitar; he had some vicarious dream of me playing guitar to others at parties. How little he had to have imagined me for real to dream such a thing. But it was an old guitar; one he had picked up somewhere so I was ashamed of it. Nonetheless I took weekly lessons for three years. Looking back I realize that I was discouraged from the start, told I had no ear, or would not be very good at it by the teacher. Why I persisted I don’t know. I know why I quit but that belongs to a rape story. Suffice to say here I quit so as not to have to take a long walk past a big park by myself. Not that the teacher regretted my absence, though once I remember him worrying about me one day when I looked in some distress, and offering to phone my parents. Well now I’ve no one to tell me I will never play well. Not that I expect much more than simply learning to play songs and make music.

I looked diligently to see if I could find a photo of Jim playing, but I never seem to have taken one of him doing this. There’s only one of me one Christmas (2005) sitting next to the piano as it used to look with his books piled on the top for when he wanted to play anything. Why would I have taken such a photo? He didn’t play to show off to others; I didn’t expect I would have to remember him playing.

Julie’s a cancer widow too; she’s about 76 — 4 years ago her husband died age 72 of a horrible lung cancer metastasized: it had taken 2 years. The first time I met her (last week for an introductory brief time) she said by the end his death was a relief. She said she was “fine” now; this time she said as how when she used to look at a kind of flower he liked and they would drive by, she would cry but now when she drives by, she rejoices to remember he loved it. Her smile when she said this was slightly frozen; such a statement is of course a sign of madness.

This is a very sad weekend for me. Last year after several days of feeling bad (and going to one of several godawful oncologists at Kaiser who pronounced him as looking “really great,’ like all of them hardly paying any attention for real), and then telling me he could not drive to Caroline’s wedding, on August 3rd he awoke early and said in a kind of deep panicked voice, “something is very wrong.” A strange very bad pain; we rushed to the 24/7 Tysons Corner medical facility and by 12 the tests were done. It was some time after that a much better doctor sat down in that cubbyspace with us and pronounced two words quickly and softly, “liver mets.”

I had no idea what she meant. I felt bewildered. Later that afternoon when we were home and I looked about metastasis and then liver, did I realize the gravity of what had been said. Jim was not up to going to Caroline’s wedding that day; the reform rabbi who was performing the ceremony brought a computer person with her and they set up something which permitted Jim to watch the ceremony from home with Clarycat on his lap and to be seen by everyone at the wedding doing so. I think he heard it too. Still I did not understand this was a death sentence at first nor how soon death would come. I kept using the word probably for a week or so. Maybe it was when the doctor dismissed us to a hospice — how Jim hated them when he still had some strength, tried to throw them out, showed what scorn he could for the first woman’s phony spiel. He looked upon me as deluded by them; if I was at first (as I am a little slow this way), within 2 weeks I saw what most of them were.

I did eventually get a decent nurse (an ex-doctor from the Philippines who answered my questions instead of telling me what a good question that is and avoiding any answer lest they compromise their position with anyone, risk anything) twice a week, and it was due to him that the last four days we did have a round-the-clock second decent nurse. Once near the end they exasperated him to the point he removed a rubber sheet they had forced on him and he laughed to find this kind of emotion could still stir him.

It was a terrible two weeks last August, filled with pain for him: he was also pretending to be more delusional than he was to avoid talking to me. I just keened on and off. August 3rd is in some ways far worse for me than October 9th (the night he actually died). All hope died. Hope gone. It was the end of the life we had lived. He had used the metaphor of a wall too. When we still hoped he was going to recover for a while, live yet for a couple of or even few years, he’d say he was on the other side of a wall where cancer patients dwelt. That no one who had not had cancer could know what it was to experience it. No matter how I empathized I was on the other side — I felt that was not quite so, since the world had gone grey for me. I’d see as in a distance farmer’s markets with people buying food and crafts cheerfully. The brightness on the other side of a wall.

Polser’s film of The Wall

A musical weekend: Yvette plays and sings weekend mornings and I began practicing twice a day for 15 minutes. I bought a metronome. Furniture polish to make the instrument look better. We also ventured forth for the first time in two years to Wolf Trap: to hear a favorite folk-rock singer, Mary Chapin Carpenter, sing with the National Symphony Orchestra (and her own band intermingled with them). What a journey — and a hugely crowded set of parking lots. It’s not a trivial trip, and without Vivian it would have been much harder to get there and taken much longer getting home. The National Symphony Orchestra made such beautiful sounds — especially the exquisite opener, Yvette and I considered getting a subscription. Vivian said the first piece of music was the best. Yvette called it a wonderful night of music, only the orchestra out-performed her. We will keep an eye out for concerts we might like and go to the Kennedy Center on the occasional Sunday. Carpenter’s voice in real physical life is a deep harmonious melancholy mezzo soprano too — she was singing a new kind of song for her, more emotional, “Songs for a Movie” a new album. I did miss her rousing, raucous ones but they wouldn’t go with that orchestra. The evening was cool, the sky pretty — until it began to rain after we were driving home.

I like music. Thus far the class I genuinely enjoy at the JCCNV is the dance fusion workshop. This week I went once to waterarobics and the instructor had a tape of disco music. There is one jolly woman who doesn’t bother follow the instructor and she was water-dancing the whole hour.

A friend told me about Stephen Grosz’s Examined Lives, a book partly about grief. He writes about popular beliefs, saying that death and grief are quite distinct. (So Kubler-Ross is a codification of the social lies I outlined the other day. I remember when Jim was still thinking he might recover him ironically going over the stages, telling me where we were in this scheme of things.) She wrote: “With death there is closure – the person dies. Grief is different – there is no such closure, only a gradual lessening of the pain over time.” Perhaps accurate words wanted are bereft and gradual numbing. But I am not numb.


The man I hired to see my lawn mowed each week has obligingly grassed over both little plots I made for Jim and I to have flowers in for our retirement years together. All that is left is the circle around the maple tree. It’s so small even I can weed it, but if there are no daffodils after this year, that will be fine.

I thought of Emily Bronte’s Remembrance with its opener, “Cold in the earth,” and read it and it helped to reconcile myself to Jim’s having been cremated (though never fully) — at least I don’t have to dream of him cold in the earth. But Marina Tsvetaeva’s stanzas as translated by Elaine Feinstein are more appropriate to a world where missiles drop bombs on sleeping people who had the temerity to want to eat more:


Tonight — I am alone in the night,
a homeless and sleepless nun!
Tonight I hold all the keys to this
the only capital city
and lack of sleep guides me on my path.
You are so lovely, my dusky Kremlin!
Tonight I put my lips to the breast
of the whole round and warring earth.
Now I feel hair — like fur — standing on end:
the stifling wind blows straight into my soul.
Tonight I feel compassion for everyone,
those who are pitied, along with those who
    are kissed.


Who sleeps at night? no one is sleeping
In the cradle a child is screaming
An old man sits over his death, and anyone
young enough talks to his love, breathes
into her lips, looks into her eyes

Once asleep — who knows if we’ll wake again?
We have time, we have time, we have time
    to sleep!
From house to house the sharp-eyed
watchman goes with his pink lantern
and over the pillow scatters the rattle
of his loud clapper, rumbling.

Don’t sleep! Be firm! Listen, the alternative
is — everlasting sleep, Your — everlasting house!

Here’s another window
with more sleepless people!
Perhaps — drinking wine or
Perhaps only sitting,
or maybe two lovers are
unable to part hands,
Every house has
a window like this _
A window at night: cries
Who sleeps at night? No one is sleeping.
In the cradle a child is screaming.
An old man sits over his death, and anyone
of meeting or leaving.
Perhaps — there are many lights,
perhaps — only three candles.
But there is no peace in
my mind anywhere, for
in my house also, these
things are beginning:

Pray for the wakeful house,
friend, and the lit window.


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Daffodils ‘that take the winds of March with beauty … before the swallow dares ….’ Shakespeare

The crocuses and daffodils that we planted last year in early March have come out this morning; a photo he & I took together last year at this time.

Dear friends,

I had a notice from the Animal Hospital of Alexandria (the name the group veterinarian practice I take my cats to calls itself) that today is Ian’s birthday. This day He is 5 (or maybe 6). A favorite photo where his inward personality — playful, affectionate, so attached — comes forth:


Why I did not get one for Clarycat I don’t know as I was told they were born from the same mother cat and litter.

It is also the day that last year the Admiral drunk down his barium swallow at the Kaiser Springfield facility — it had become apparent that he was having trouble swallowing and this was the first thing he was asked to do. As yet at this time last year I had no idea he would not be here with me and our cats for years to come.

This year — last night — as I came home from the Kennedy Center it snowed, iced, sleeted and rained on me, and my next door neighbor’s tulip tree which I see out of my study windows is already drooping. It flowered too soon and will not bloom properly this year.

Susan Herbert, detail from Wild Poppies (after Monet)


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A solitary axe-blow that is the echo of a lost sound …

The blaze of death goes out, the mind leaps
for its salvation, is at once extinct … — Geoffrey Hill,
another poet the admiral liked to read when he was young

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday a friend reminded me of a trip Jim and I took to Cleveland last March where I met her in a restaurant, and he didn’t come to dinner with us. That was not unusual, as he often avoided social occasions, but he had had the additional excuse of it being hard for him to swallow. She wrote she was “so clueless about the significance of this. It was indeed the calm before the storm; or did you have premonitions about what was to come … ”

In retrospect yes. People will say retrospect doesn’t count, but upon being told on April 28th, he had cancer, I remembered back to August 2012 when highly unusually before the set vacation time in Vermont (we were staying in a Landmark house, built first in the 18th century), Jim had turned round to me and said, “it’s time to go home.” And began making preparations. And so I did too.

I admit I didn’t mind, I never minded going home with or to him. He was the one who insisted on lengthening out the vacation time to say the afternoon of the last day so we would rush off to some museum or last experience in the morning (luggage stowed behind a stairway or inn counter) and have to wait for a plane in the evening. I admit we had lost electricity there and the house being so isolated and in the dark left us frightened. But the people taking care of the property had come by within a couple of hours and the power had come back by morning.

So it did strike me. Something about his tone felt ominous. The utterance bothered me. I thought I dismissed it from my mind, but I didn’t, couldn’t.

For some reason I find myself remembering Jim liked the poetry of Geoffrey Hill when we lived in Leeds together and Ji reading to me the text of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy by Geoffrey Hill:

Hill reading his poem upon the place a huge carnage took place

I told Cheryl that no one who had know Jim fully or for real was at the funeral — but me. “What a shame,” says she, I believe, seemingly blaming him, suggesting to me you don’t want to be that way. But few could have understood him. The selection from a poem sent by a friend who spent an afternoon with us and had a brief meal out, as appropriate for Jim, Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, XXIII, 27-38), I read aloud, but no one but me understood it.

I must stop listening to people. He did manage to say “goodbye” to Yvette on that Monday, October 7th. She was off to work, and for once she came in to look and take his hand. He came out of consciousness and said to her, “Goodbye, Isobel,” smiled and fell back.

He told me not to care about what other people think (shades of Feynman) but try to follow my instincts, which are strong however hard it may be to come up to this.


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