How to End an Era

runyanWe’re supposed to shake our heads when Daisy Buchanan, considering a summer solstice celebration on her East Egg porch, turns to Nick Carraway, and asks, “‘What’ll we plan? What do people plan?’” But I get her helpless bewilderment all too well.

I grew up in a family that doesn’t mark life’s transitions with much ceremony. My mother visited a courthouse for all three marriages, no pictures to show for it. When her parents died, she and an uncle or two I’d never met threw ashes in the ocean. Funerals were silly when a person’s spirit no longer resided in the body.

As if funerals are for the dead.

Even my move to college was completed without fanfare. I packed my car, drove to campus by myself, and set up my bed and shelves in less than an hour. When I watched the other students emerge from the dorm lot flanked with camera-toting parents and siblings, I smirked. You can’t even move into a small room without your parents’ help? I thought. This is college!

It wasn’t until I talked with a therapist ten years later that I understood I was the odd one. “It’s not that they couldn’t move into a room themselves,” she explained. “The parents came to mark the event.” I stared at her. Moving into the dorm was supposed to be an event? That had never occurred to me. [Read more...]

Songs Dead Men Sing

Guest Post Scott Warner headshotby Cathy Warner

In the backseat of our minivan I swig an individual serving of white zinfandel to numb myself from the terror that is I-5: long sweeping curves, cement barricades, and massive trucks pulling two and three trailers that sway and rattle.

When I’m in the passenger seat, my husband can’t help but react to my cringing, so we agree a sleeping pill and $1.49 bottle of wine are reasonable for the five-hour trip from Eugene, Oregon where our daughter attends college, home to Puget Sound.

Ten years ago, living in San Francisco’s Bay area, I tried therapy. “You’re afraid of death,” the counselor said as if I thought being plowed into by tons of steel would result in a chipped tooth. I wanted driving—and life—to be predictable and safe.

Tonight, when I awake after two drugged hours, my husband’s brother serenades us from the grave. Scott died eleven years ago yesterday of liver failure at age forty-five, the slow suicide of an alcoholic. [Read more...]

All Unhappy Families Are Alike

Russian-family-portraitIn commenting on my latest essay for “Good Letters,” a man “disabled from an odd condition” confided that, when his health crashed, he found himself abandoned by those he depended upon: “My family avoided me thinking that I repre­sented their destiny.” Years later “they still do,” he added.

Not everyone who lives with advancing death or a maladroit disability must live without his family’s succor and society. But I know exactly what this man is talking about, because my family too has avoided me since I was diagnosed with terminal cancer nearly seven years ago.

For five years my younger sister said nothing at all to me about the disease. My other sister will give a “like” to cancer updates on Facebook, but she never gets in touch with me. She doesn’t even leave a short encouraging comment. She clicks the “like” toggle and moves on. And, oh, oh, let me tell you about—but please stop me from tabulating grievances. Already I’m starting to remind myself of John McEnroe after a linesman’s bad call.

I also refuse to quote the first sentence of Anna Karenina, which is usually trotted out in these circumstances, principally because I think it is false. The truth is that unhappy families are more alike than happy families. Unhap­piness takes the universal forms of bitterness, resentment, and the symptom to which Kafka dedicated an entire novel—psychological arrest at an early stage, preventing emotional growth and development.

[Read more...]

Your Life Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

minecraft-chicken-hatchingOn the last night of Image’s Glen West Workshop earlier this month, after a moving concert by Over the Rhine and all manner of sniffling and hugging, Father Richard Rohr invited us to make spaces in our souls for worship.

“How you live this moment is how you live your life,” he said. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

His words nailed my heart to the floor.

I like to think I am “good” at worship. I often prepare myself by opening my hands, a posture that helps me focus. But my mind has a way of hairline-cracking within seconds: Do these people like me? Have they noticed my discolored tooth? On a scale of one to ten, how much of an idiot have I made myself today?

I like to think I lose myself in the beauty of God, but as my mind splinters and my prayerful hands go numb, I have to acknowledge that this moment of unrest reflects a life of unrest.

[Read more...]

How to Talk to the Dying

10142094Since being diagnosed nearly seven years ago with a lethal cancer, I have backed my old friends and new acquaintances into a quandary. What do you say to a dying man?

Strangers don’t seem to have any difficulty. Now that chemo­therapy has reduced me to a tattered coat upon a stick, I am routinely praised, when out in public with my four young children, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, you’re spending the day with your grandkids.” Under the guise of being nice, Americans can be breathtakingly rude. After about the hundredth time I was called their grand­father, I tried out a new reply: “These are my children. I am dying of cancer. The disease has prematurely aged me.”

Am I being cruel? Or merely repaying a pretense of frankness with the reality of frankness? The late Christopher Hitchens warned those who were blunt with their questions about his esophageal cancer to expect blunt­ness in return. [Read more...]


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