In three months—late December 2009 to late March 2010–three women I admired have died prematurely. On Christmas Eve, the poet and editor Rachel Wetzsteon committed suicide at forty-two. She was found three days later in her Upper West Side apartment, by her mother. On New Year’s Day, the Canadian-Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer at thirty-seven. And on March 23, a day before my own forty-seventh birthday, I learned that Naomi Prawer Kadar, my teacher from a Yiddish course the previous summer in Tel Aviv, had just died at sixty. I had known Naomi was ill, but not how ill; I had expected to see her, perhaps even to study with her, again, having been captivated by her teaching style.
I knew none of these women well, and Lhasa least of all; but her website seems spot on in saying, “She dared to open her heart on stage, allowing her audience to experience an intimate connection and communion with her.” Communion: as though one drank from her cup, took in her voice so that it became part of one’s own bloodstream. The last time I listened to her final CD, and the mystical song about death-as-rebirth—or rather, return to the womb–in which she declares, in refrain, “I’m going in,” I could not stop weeping. Her voice snaked its way into my ear and took up residence, and now I hold her within me.
Her website says that it snowed for more than forty hours after her death in Montreal.
I met Rachel Wetzsteon at a literary conference in 2007. The minute I encountered her, she beamed and thrust out her hand for a vigorous shake; perhaps she’d heard of me before, but it was one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received on first meeting. A month or so before her death, I sent her some poems at The New Republic, where she had just become poetry editor; I apologized if I seemed to be presuming on our brief acquaintance in addressing her directly. She wrote me the kindest of rejection notes and invited me to send more work. In late January, I heard of her death. Snow was falling constantly where I lived; the prairie stretched out on all sides of my small, warm house for miles upon blank, cold miles, and I could not stop thinking of Rachel, begging her in my head, “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” though it was too late—just as I had begged my painter friend Elizabeth after her suicide in 2003 not to do it, not to drive the car to a distant lot, connect a hose to the gas, insert the gas through a tiny space of window, and lay her head on a pillow to sleep forever–“Elizabeth, WHY?” When it’s too late to speak to the dead, the monologues go on and on.
And I’ve been speaking to Naomi, whom I had the privilege to learn with in Tel Aviv– Naomi from New York and Tel Aviv, who’d grown up speaking Yiddish, whose sense of humor was matchless, whose kindness was a balm. I, a professor, wanted to be teacher’s pet. Naomi was always sweating, begging us students to turn up the air-conditioning while we sat and shivered in layers; it was my pleasure to bring her ice water at the break, and when the course had ended and we were both back in the States—she, enviably, on the Upper West Side (so near to the other dead woman!—and it was on the Upper West Side, incidentally, that I saw Lhasa de Sela in concert)—and I, in lonely Illinois, I sent her a little Chinese fan to cool herself with. Naomi, why didn’t you tell me you were dying? Naomi, come back! There is so much more I need to learn from you. I wanted to see again her blue eyes that protruded from deep, dark sockets and seemed to bespeak the intensity of her will to communicate. I felt angry at her when I heard the news of her death.
More and more, in late winter especially, I have the feeling that I am dying—or, to put it more accurately, that the best of my life has happened and my decline has begun. And this is a bitter feeling—wrong, too, I hope. If I indulge it, I can begin imagining doing what Rachel did, what Elizabeth did. “And who can’t?” I was going to say, except that I have at least one friend, also a painter, who swears suicide never even occurs to her. How good that would be, never to imagine succumbing to despair.
The winters are so very, very long in the Midwest; my town is so very bleak; and across the cornfields, eight hours away, through Indiana where all you see along the road are shops for buying fireworks, live my parents who are themselves ailing and elderly, and with whose ageing, no matter how I try, I cannot seem to come to grips.
In a large body, a body increasingly difficult for her tolerate without pain and effort, my mother the person is concealed, and often, lately, I cannot find her. We had an enormous political argument last fall, the kind that splits families, that did split Jewish families and perhaps still does all over the world—an argument, crudely put, over defensiveness versus skepticism regarding Israel, Zionism versus cosmopolitanism, fear versus hopefulness, in which each side thought the other simple-minded. It was the first time I had openly deviated from my parents’ view on these matters, and it seemed to me simultaneously that their view had hardened beyond recognition. Dr. K, who sympathizes with me more than I sometimes sympathize with myself, says I chose this particular controversy for an opportunity to “take the gloves off.” What kind of a person am I, though, if I need to punch out my parents in their old age? A person who didn’t have the nerve, or the know-how, to argue back when we were all younger, perhaps. A person with a mid-life crisis (the real thing! or so says Dr. K) who needs, in this second version of adolescence, to differentiate herself at last.
And oh, how lonely it is to differentiate, to let go the breast! Dr K says it’s only the bad breast I’m rejecting. But during the worst of the period of estrangement, I felt I had to reject both, the whole package, the mater entire, in order to get the right distance. There were two horrific weeks, during which she injured herself badly while gardening and I suffered an excruciating medical procedure, during which we never spoke on the phone except when I was emerging from the inadequate anesthesia to say I was all right—and this after years of speaking nearly every day! I’m not sure I’d ever felt so deeply lonely as I did this past winter, despite the presence of my loving husband and various good friends; despite the fact that I had, for whatever reason, my best teaching term in years (but oh, how tiresome I often felt it to dress for class, to wear, day in day out, the same tall boots for negotiating snow and ice, to expose my face in the unflattering light of the classroom—harsh window light, harsh overhead light—to plump my ageing body and dangle my tired shanks on the desk at the front of the room, to remember not to frown and make faces as I increasingly do while listening . . .). Every Midwest winter, it seems, I think, “This is the worst winter yet,” but as Edgar says in King Lear, “As long as we can say it is the worst . . . .” As long as we can still speak of it, it isn’t tormenting us to death, though the characters of Beckett, for instance, often seem to be speaking through torment—or through a lassitude and decrepitude so great that one could wish them out of their misery, if they weren’t also enormously entertaining. (A few of my students this year “got” Beckett, and that alone was enough to brighten my February for a moment or two.)
I write these words in Berlin, where I’ve come for the spring and summer, and where I found out on arrival about Naomi’s death and celebrated my birthday the next day. Here in Berlin, my mother regularly caroused when she was my age and I was a child. No, wait: when she was my age I was getting ready to leave for college. Younger, then. Now she won’t return, though an old friend lives here and Neil and I are here for nearly half a year. She doesn’t want to revisit old haunts in her present state; it’s too difficult. And I find in the old friend, a painter I’ve known since I was a teenager, the same reluctance to leave her shell and the same horror of her own physical deterioration. Like my mother, Nikita won’t let herself be photographed any more, nor am I allowed to convey to others (e.g. my parents) her occasional confusion of names and her verbal slips, though one of these the other day was priceless and not only perfectly understandable but witty as well: Kofi Annan for afikomen, the matzoh that parents hide from children during the Passover seder.
In our first week here, I escaped into a book, as I always do when culture shock and confusion get the better of me. I read an eloquent and honest memoir-in-essays, An Accidental Autobiography, by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, whom I’d known previously only through her wonderfully scathing critique of Joan Didion (written long before Didion’s own losses and heartbreak). Harrison is prolix and sometimes precious; her long quotations and catalogues must be skimmed if one is to make the whole four hundred-page voyage with her; but she left me feeling I’d found a kindred soul, and longing to meet and talk with her. She wrote the book during a period of illness between her 58th and 60th years—an illness which, I found out after I finished reading and tried to learn more, killed her seven years ago. “Another one down,” I thought, and renounced one more dream of communion with a wise, funny, smart and humane woman. Why must I no sooner find than lose these?
I still have my mother, and that is happiness. Though I have lost my idealized parents—my two soulmates, I had always thought them, right and trustworthy in all their assertions, penetrating in their insights and correct in their judgments—I’ve still got the flesh-and-blood people, and I’d better love them while time remains. My mother visited before our departure for Berlin, and her company remains warm, entertaining, and preferable to that of most other people. One afternoon, she took a long nap, and when I went to wake her, she lifted the blankets for me to join her, and we cuddled as we used to, my head on the good breast, her lips nuzzling my hair, me telling her the little anecdotes of my life she loves to hear: what the good student said, what the impolite one had the nerve to write, what so-and-so recently accused me of and what X made a point of thanking me for—all the little triumphs and disappointments she so gratifyingly shares in, and swears she’ll continue to share in until the day when all she can do is give herself over to my care.
When I lament the ageing and death of other women, is it really my own I’m thinking of? Are we—am I—that selfish? Is all flesh ultimately one’s own? Have I put my mother at arm’s length because I fear becoming her? I no longer have the conviction of youth: I will never be that way. I remember my father’s mother telling me how she had used to deplore old women’s shapeless ankles—”and now, look at mine!” she said, wryly. I remember my horror in locker rooms, as a willowy teenager, when confronted by the sight of women whose bodies were slack and wobbly. I’m getting used to my new body now; it’s a body that’s out of fashion in our fitness-conscious age–pale, translucent-skinned, and somewhat less than firm–but it’s mine and I’d better love it.
This question of self-centeredness—does everything really come back to me, and my concerns about my self?–is another element of my mid-life crisis. A few years ago, I decided I was excessively egocentric, to the point of arrogance, certainly to the point of wounding others, and that I really must re-learn my relationship to my world. But even in trying, as I concertedly did, to “be kind, above all be kind,” I found I could not control people’s feelings about me. My teaching evaluations, for instance, did not change—I consistently fail to achieve the cult status of some of my colleagues; my style can seem sharp, and liking me as a teacher is like liking cilantro, you either love it or you can’t bear it—and I lost some friends as well as gaining new ones. Yet the new ones I gained were such treasures, the lost ones so obviously problematic, that I must have been doing enough right, and in the last year or so, contiguously with my “differentiation” from my parents, I began to feel I can loosen my self-vigilance.
Often lately, I ponder Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation about self, others, and the necessity of immediate action: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” It gives me trouble, as it should–that the proverb is posed as a series of questions rather than a clear formula for action elicits a lifelong grappling. Is the first question, for instance, an espousal of individualism—encouragement to focus on the self—or is it, rather, an admonishment against excessive dependence upon, even exploitation, of others? The second implies that my life has no meaning if I don’t care for others, and that all subjectivity is intersubjectivity. It suggests I am morally void if I don’t exist for other people. (I imagine Hillel would have been shocked at a woman’s decision to remain childless.) The third is perhaps the most tormenting, as I am always painfully aware of all I’m not doing either for myself or for others, and all that I am not able or willing to do, now. How much of the world’s suffering I simply pass over, in my inbox, in the newspaper. An occasional contribution, an occasional letter, and a diffuse effort to radiate good will in my own circle of influence; then a return to the torpid feeling that most people’s lives are too distant from my own to take into account. As for tending to myself, much of the time I live in a place that witholds the fodder I most require. Like Persephone, I live a dual existence. Two thirds of the year I feel sorry for myself and wonder if such a thing as a pomegranate or a museum truly exists (–all right, I confess, our local Walmart stocks pomegranates at Christmastime); the other third, I am gorging myself on fruit and culture.
So: my mid-life crisis. It contains an ample dose of shame about the past and uncertainty about the future. How badly I comported myself in so many situations! How “success” seems to recede from my grasp with each passing year! But these are prosaic thoughts. Above all there is the desire for something lyrical, to be attained, to be expresssed. Hence, my growing love of opera, and my tendency to be downcast afterward; there ought to be a term for postoperatic tristesse. The “Marschallin,” sung by Renee Fleming in the last Met season, just about slew me:
We talked about her,
the Marschallin, only
thirty-two, and her lover,
seventeen, though the singers
were fiftyish, and we ourselves
approaching there, though our
lives have not reached their
pinnacle. Will we ever
roar with our whole voice
and soul, cry out that way
with all life crying through us,
or will we walk on, obedient
and tired in our traces, as the round
orange sun goes down
across the long, white prairie?
In our little warm car, we drive
into the white arms of the fields,
leave behind the mall and
the Marschallin, return to
the small town to lie
under the glassy moon
and dream of a gold curtain,
of young limbs entangled,
and renunciation clad in violet.
Spring is almost here. Back home, it’s fully sprung, but in Berlin, the trees are slow to bud, the air is still chilly. Melancholia is a part of life, I tell myself. The Zen sages say that one’s impatience with painful states is a greater problem than the painful states themselves; Americans, especially, make the mistake of thinking happiness should be constant, and that there is something wrong with oneself or with the world when one is unhappy.
I picked two tiny daffodils on my walk with the dog just now, and observed her capacity to bound and frisk even when the path is dirty and the sky blank. If not for myself, then for the women I’ve lost, I must dance and sing when I can; their premature deaths cannot become an excuse for despair. “I tell myself,” writes Grizzuti Harrison on the penultimate page of her story, “it is never too late to learn how to live.” The “I tell myself” is poignant; it suggests the effort required every single day simply, in Beckett’s words, to “go on.” Sometimes I feel I have to learn it all over every morning, “building it up,” as Mrs. Dalloway feels herself to be doing, at age fifty-three, after a long illness, and that this is more effort than I can stand; but sometimes, just sometimes, I awaken with pleasurable anticipation to a world in which Renee Fleming will sing on and on and the silver rose will be forever proferred.