2009. I came up with a rule a few years ago. It was one of my usual half-baked ideas to improve my life — like going gluten-free or overdosing on kale — that usually has the shelf life of a ripe banana.
But, no. This plan was a little better, I thought, a little more life-enhancing. At a point in my life when illness and death and grief weren’t the surprise visitors they once were, when the casualties were increasing among people I loved, the people I didn’t love, the total strangers in the obituary columns who were my age or younger, maybe I should do some things a little differently.
I wouldn’t stop going to funerals and hospitals, God knows. But I could make it a point to show up at happy occasions — the parties, the celebrations, the anniversary dinners, the weddings — with the same sense of commitment I brought to marking the end of someone’s life. Why not celebrate when I could, as often as I could?
One of the first happy occasions I insisted on going to was the 25th anniversary party for our old friends, Dan and Toni. It was in Boston during the summer of 2009. As usual, my husband and I could have come up with a lot of excuses not to go, since it was a long trek for a short party, and there’s never enough time and money. But I was brimming with the conviction of my new, life-enhancing idea, so we went.
We went, we had a great time, we drank too much, we toasted, we told stories. Dan and Toni were such a perfect couple that most of the married couples in the audience developed a massive inferiority complex in a matter of minutes. Dan and Toni basked in their mutual adoration; they glowed with happiness; they had two almost-grown daughters who were perfect, too. If we all hadn’t loved them so much, we would have had to kill them.
We went home. I congratulated myself again and again on my wisdom about showing up for celebrations. Hadn’t I been proved right? Our Boston trip had been lovely.
2013. As I mentioned, illness and death and grief are no longer the unexpected visitors they once were. But they still shock and unsettle when they appear, no matter how old you are.
My husband and I are back in Boston with Dan and Toni, this time at their house.
We have known them since they first came together, decades ago, as a young couple. We knew them as a couple in their prime, both with demanding careers and strong ambitions, bringing up a family. Now, we know them in their last months or weeks together. We are seeing how it will end.
My husband, who talks to Dan every couple of weeks, already told me that Dan and Toni were passing some evenings by reading aloud love letters they exchanged when they were first in love and separated for a summer. This, at least, is something Dan can still do. He’s almost completely helpless now, his body ravaged by ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which was diagnosed two-and-a-half years ago. He uses an oxygen mask connected to a machine to help him breathe as his lungs give out.
When Dan has to wear the mask, Toni or his caretaker position a microphone in it so that his voice booms out from a nearby speaker. His same voice, his same mind — sharp and witty and probing. Hearing him so minutely, listening to his regular breaths, feels as if we are all inside his head. We can temporarily forget he’s in a wheelchair, his head propped up, three of his four limbs useless.
Today, Dan wants all of us to tell him a single adjective or so we think defines us. Then, we will tell him the single adjective that best captures his essence. My husband comments that Dan never had any use for personality psychology before: What’s this all about? A single modifier that captures a person’s essence? Where did that come from? Dan tells my husband to shut up and think.
This conversation — our last, we know — is like that. By turns, it’s deeply serious, raggedly emotional, searing, brutal in its detail — then casually profane, acerbic, lighthearted, gossipy. After all, we’re old friends. In many ways, our conversation is relaxed and familiar, reminiscent of other times. We’ve been here before, right? No, we’ve never been here before. Not like this.
Dan thinks I’m worldly, which I think is a crock. I was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, I remind him. I can’t be worldly. Sophisticated, then, he says — another wrong answer. I want to be compassionate and perceptive. Nobody says that, though.
Dan says Toni is effective, which doesn’t entirely please her. She wants something more. He says my husband is curious; my husband is fine with that. Men are so easy.
And Dan himself? This is what the game is about, we all understand. Who is Dan to us? How will we remember him? How well have we understood him? Can we give him what he wants to hear? Will it be enough for him? We have to be honest, of course. None of us has ever had much use for artifice. Fuck artifice.
Witty, we say. Inventive. Intellectually curious. Playful. We go on and on, thinking, fumbling, failing.
How does he want to be seen? we ask. He wants to be clever, he says.
Clever! My husband and I shake our heads at this. Of course Dan is clever. Everybody knows that, which is why we didn’t mention it. It’s just that clever isn’t enough. He’s so much more than that. Clever’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t want to leave it there.
The evening passes. It was, I tell my friend Marie the next day, an incredible time, both wonderful and terrible. The two were intermingled so tightly, you could never have separated them. Funny I had thought that you could only celebrate the unambiguously happy occasions. But this was its own kind of celebration, vibrant and gut-wrenching, joyous and bleak.
I would describe the four of us old friends as being agnostics — irreverent agnostics, at that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t find a certain holiness in our lives. Sometimes, we find ourselves surrounded by everything we consider holy — like a long and loving marriage, deep friendship, a shared past.
Clever, holy, however you describe it. Sorry, Dan, but a single word just isn’t enough.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Funny how even expected news can change your life