Scott Korb | Longreads | June 2019 | 14 minutes (3,467 words)
Some of what you’re reading I was writing a few hours after taking half a Valium, prescribed by my doctor, partly for anxiety and partly for general neck and shoulder pain, and also a tingle and numbness that I was then feeling down my left arm into my fingers. It began with a yoga pose. It’s hard to know now what exactly I wrote while under the drug’s influence, such as it was. When I took the Valium I was 39; now I’m 41.
These 40-odd years, if Schopenhauer is right, have given me the text of my life. “The next 30,” he says, will “supply the commentary,” of which this, I hope, is an early part.
The pharmacist, who was younger than me, with slick hair, and whom I’d gotten to know a little over the years since my wife was treated for breast cancer, used the word spasm when referring to the orders faxed over from my doctor’s office. I nodded, yes, muscle spasms, even though that didn’t seem right; maybe I don’t know what spasm means. I said nothing about the low-grade anxiety I’ve felt for much of my life, which has gotten worse since my wife’s treatments finished up. “Low and slow,” he recommended. So I took half a pill. I’d never taken one before, and I’m cautious.
While discussing the pain in my neck and shoulder, the facial tics I’ve had my whole life, I also told the doctor I’m reluctant to take drugs, even Ibuprofen, though my wife has told me Valium can be fun. She recalls a day just before Father’s Day, 2014, wandering through New York City’s West Village, buying me expensive t-shirts in the late-spring heat, a week after major surgery, without a worry in the world.
I decided to take the Valium in advance of an MRI my doctor had prescribed to capture images of my cervical spine, hunting for disease. The pill would help get me through the test.
The diagnostic radiology center is down the street from where I live in Manhattan, in a neighborhood known for a park you need a key for. After the paperwork, while I waited, I read from a memoir by a writer whose father was killed in a motorcycle crash at 47 years old. This book is where I found the line about life’s text and commentary, from Schopenhauer, whom I’ve otherwise never read. It occurred to me while reading that grief is aimless and voracious, which is what I would write about the book when I reviewed it for the magazine Bookforum in August 2016. “Where the writer’s father is concerned,” I said, “it’s not our reading but his own living — and by this I mean his own living through grief — that still seems paramount.” This I meant as a criticism. Grief memoirs are supposed to make something of the grief, not just expose it, I was saying.
The pharmacist, who was younger than me, with slick hair, and whom I’d gotten to know a little over the years since my wife was treated for breast cancer, used the word ‘spasm’ when referring to the orders faxed over from my doctor’s office.
Someone called my name. I walked back through a door. This part is a little hazy. Then I was on my back.
“Are you claustrophobic?” the technician asked.
“No, but I think I have some anxiety.”
This didn’t seem to matter, and the technician, who was kind and seemed adept, told me to lie absolutely still, that the scan would take about 15 minutes. He placed a gate over my face, a few inches away. He gave me earplugs, then stepped out and pressed some buttons to slide me into the machine, which made loud sci-fi noises, whirrs and beeps and grinding, like techno beats. Once or twice I tapped along to distract myself because he said I could move my hands. I practiced breathing in the ways I’ve learned through an app on my phone that I have very occasionally used to try to meditate.
The room was warm; the woman who took my information at the desk suggested I think of it as like the beach. It was nothing like that. I love the beach.
After the MRI I came home and lay on the hardwood floor of my apartment for about 30 minutes, dozing, just as the pharmacist said I might want to do on Valium: “Don’t take this on a day when you might have to be productive,” he’d said. Then I got up and started to write. Some of this is that.
My uncle Lev, a great-uncle and the youngest of five children, never seemed to age, never seemed old, the way his elder siblings did. Aunt Frances, whose house smelled like meat stew and the gas stove, had always seemed ancient; Aunt Bootie, whose real name was Mildred, did too, perhaps because of her old-fashioned name. Both of them had permanents and had faced loss early on: Frances’s son Lee, and her husband, Al, had died; Bootie’s husband, Roy, died, too, before I came of age. Roy is hardly a shadow in my memory. I think those deaths may have aged these great-aunts, or aged them in my mind. Aunt Jane’s husband, Bob, had had polio, and got around with crutches and a motorized cart, and so age and death hung around them, and their house, throughout my childhood, too, though I wouldn’t have put it like that then. They were both just old people, my cousins’ grandparents. My own grandmother, Marion, 91, who hasn’t held a new memory in a decade, is the last of them, now that Lev has died.
And it’s not that Lev — short for Levens — ever seemed particularly lively; he was known not to smile. He hardly talked. But his wife was, is, vivacious. Together they were capable, had a little money, a convertible car. They were involved in politics. His kids, too — they did track and karate, led teams in RBIs during family-reunion softball games because they played hard and ran fast. One made gnarly clay sculptures and drew, in charcoal, outrageous heads sprouting tree trunks.
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The basement of the house where Lev and Vivien lived in the years I’m thinking about contained all that art and a punching bag, and pads for your fists. The fun we had there — the kids downstairs; the grown-ups, entertained with their beers on the patio — made Lev and Vivien seem full of life, laid back adults to aspire to. There was a creek in the back we could follow a ways into the woods; they may have had a pool. But what I mean is that together they seemed youthful, though not at all childish, because they encouraged the things that keep people young by living how they did — engaged in the world — by not dying on one another, and by raising kids who were older than me but roughhoused in the pool they may have had, made art, oiled mitts, threw a spiral, and danced.
But eventually Lev died in his chair, at 86, covered by a blanket, is what my mother said. He’d come from the hospital with bad news about his heart and had just taken two TUMS to relieve some discomfort. Vivien found him and took the TUMS from his mouth into her hand.
Any time I consider death, especially family dying, I’m taken back to the crash. It’s not often I have this train of thoughts, though — that after the crash, I did not visit my brother’s hospital room. I was too young then, and we — my mother and baby sister and I — had to go north from Florida to bury my father. But reports were that in the days after he was air-lifted from the site, in a medicated state between sleep and wakefulness, my brother, whose skull had been fractured, cursed his nurses up and down. My brother is older than I am. In late May 1982, he was 9 and I was 5.
My father was killed, an aunt and an uncle were severely injured, and my brother, everyone feared, would be a vegetable. This is what I heard. This is the word people used.
I grew up Catholic enough, pious enough, that it should have horrified me that he’d said what he’d said: shit, goddam, fuck. Where’s my fucking dad, bitch? He said this to a nurse. Variations on these words and phrases filtered back. But I don’t remember that this horrified me; it intrigued me. Where had he learned to use these words? Were they contained in everyone? The stories about my brother’s convalescence came from adults talking around me, who may have laughed despite themselves because it’s funny when children curse.
For instance, I laugh when my son, who is 6, says fuck.
The word vegetable made me think of real vegetables. But I knew just what they meant: my brother would be what we then called “retarded.” This was another word we used. And I don’t remember that even this possibility affected me. If I’d had my way, or my choice, if personal loss was weighed on a cosmic balance and someone had to go, I remember thinking at 5, my brother would be dead and my dad would still be alive.
But no, my brother — I’m grateful — lives comfortably in a big house not far from where we grew up; his daughter is in college. He and his wife have a new dog.
I live in relative comfort, too. The MRI showed no disease in my spine, some compression, but nothing to worry about, my doctor said. Physical therapy should stop the tingling down your arm. You’ll feel those fingers again. (I do.) Acupuncture could help the tics. (It hasn’t.) My doctor looked at my blood work and said I was sure healthier on the inside than I felt on the outside.
A short time after the MRI, following a two-week vacation at the beach, my son, who was then still 5, asked if I was a teenager when my father died. The way he talks about his teenage years makes them seem very far away.
I said no, that I was about his age, and I saw the wheels turning. I could see him thinking, Fuck.
What’s funny about the way I see the illness and deaths in my great-aunts’ lives — that Bob’s polio, and Lee and Al and Roy’s all dying young somehow aged these women — is that the deaths in my own life have had the opposite effect on how I’ve seen myself. That is, the death of my father when I was 5, and the death of my step-father from cancer when I was 25, have often left me feeling young, at once comfortable in the ways I still resemble a child — shirking the office job, the mortgage, the car, permanence — and yet still uncertain, longing to be a grown-up, to mature from out of their shadows maybe, to be men like they were.
Part of this youthfulness, I know, is generational. Nowadays, adults wear hoodies and v-neck t-shirts in public, sometimes to work; we all listen to Beyoncé. There’s yoga. Meditation. Life with kids is different for dads now than it was for dads of earlier generations. We play. They worked. Or, this is what I’ve told myself.
Any time I consider death, especially family dying, I’m taken back to the crash. It’s not often I have this train of thoughts, though — that after the crash, I did not visit my brother’s hospital room.
Another part of the youthfulness reflects privilege: exceptional health insurance with low co-pays for Valium; the fact there are days when I might not have to be productive; a school across the street from my Manhattan apartment, with basketball hoops for my son and me, and a playground where the goofiest of television’s late-night talk-show hosts sometimes brings his daughters; good-paying work I’ve cobbled together for two decades; summers off, and yearly vacations to a beach, where I read novels and try to surf, or boogie board.
I can’t know for certain and am probably wrong to assume that these things make me different from the men who helped raise me, or that these men considered themselves men in the way I mean: a man like Lev was. But I guess that’s the point: I’ll never know. They’re dead. And this is just how I’ve always thought of them.
I’ve never owned nicer t-shirts than the ones my wife gave me for Father’s Day, that year. The brand was James Perse. The cotton is specially treated before it’s spun into yarn, and the shirts fit well. The men wearing the t-shirts in the online store resemble me — youthful, bearded, white, slim — though their arms make me think they work out. The website says these items drape.
The shirts go for $60. An even nicer one is $90. Neither of my dads ever owned a shirt that draped. Over the years, mine have gotten threadbare, and a white one has developed small holes. The seam at the armpit of a gray one has given way. A blue one I tossed in the trash after it tore. My son repeats a saying he picked up from my wife: Money’s not the end of the world.
But there’s no denying that it helps. That you can’t take it with you. That it doesn’t buy happiness. And all the other clichés. And all the other truths you face when, at 36, you’re about to start chemo and enter whatever world my wife entered, and wander into a shop and see something nice that your husband would like and buy whatever it is. I suspect that’s what was behind the purchase of those t-shirts, and why, for a few years, she hand-washed them with her delicates instead of having me run them through the machine with all our other clothes.
Before he died, shortly after my father, my aunt Frances’s son Lee, who, like me, one day dreamed of being a priest, had a son. This son grew up, and though he and I are not so far apart in age, we have never been close. There are explanations for this. Lee’s widow was never family, exactly — she married in — and though she was loved and invited to parties and the yearly reunion after Lee died, and still is, the distance has always felt greater between her and us than perhaps it should. This seems common with in-laws. Lee’s wife also remarried, which naturally took her farther away from our family. I’ve always thought that to a new husband, a dead husband’s family would only remind him that he had been his wife’s second choice. If things were otherwise — no cancer, no car crashes — he would not be welcome here. He wouldn’t even know about us. (It’s different with divorce. As the husband of a divorced person, I have the advantage of being the one she really wanted, not the one she rejected. We can joke about how terrible he was, which tells me how much better I am. From this distance, we can ignore how she loved him in their youth, mainly because it ended badly, with the worst of times.)
In the particular case of Lee’s son and me, I suspect that our own mothers’ widowhoods made them uneasy, that face-to-face they reminded each other too much of their own individual losses, and so they couldn’t bear to spend much time together. Whatever the case, Lee’s son and I have never been close. I could blame myself and my temperament, the way at a gathering I can go quiet and sink into my own thoughts; we, too, may have feared reminding each other too much of what we’ve lost, if we’d ever been given the chance to be close.
So I was surprised when Lee’s son reached out soon after I’d posted on Facebook the essay I’d written about the grief memoir. I’ve since left Facebook and deleted my account, so I can’t retrieve the notes he sent, or my replies, but I remember he agreed that grief is aimless and wondered if we could talk on the phone.
The call came about a month later, after I’d forgotten he’d asked. He was about to become a father. His wife was half-way along. Congratulations, I said. That’s great news.
But it wasn’t great news for Lee’s son, not necessarily. He and his wife had planned this, but he had no confidence that he was ready. He hadn’t had a father, and so how could he be one, he wondered. He’d never felt such responsibility. My own son was a kindergartener by then: How had I done it? His panic struck me as existential.
Over the hour or so we talked I tried to assure him: we got ours to sleep; you do what you have to do; children are durable; you will make mistakes. All the other clichés. I asked whether he’d seen a therapist. Had he talked with his wife? Try not to worry, I said, while mainly he talked about his dad and asked me about mine. Everything came down to the aimlessness of individual grief and the elusiveness of adulthood. There were men in the generations before us and they had died. When we got off the phone I had not convinced him otherwise.
Lee’s son created a kind of wake with these calls to the family, I later found out. He talked with one of Jane’s sons, two of Lev’s, and he talked with my brother. He talked with Lev himself. I haven’t spoken with Lee’s son since, and by now he’s a father. He’s calmed down, too, is what I’ve heard. On a visit to my hometown, while having coffee with my mother and Jane’s son, I learned that Lev, in his call, had expressed his own collection of doubts, his own lifetime of anxiety. He told Lee’s son that pills help.
There’s a favorite essay I read now and again, and have read again now, that I find heartening in the way that Lee’s son seems to have found Lev’s advice and his openness heartening. In it, the book critic James Wood frames a series of anxieties concerning life’s ultimate questions this way: “But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night.” Why, he asks, echoing the novelist Virginia Woolf, “Why is life so short, why so inexplicable?”
I can’t know for certain and am probably wrong to assume that these things make me different from the men who helped raise me, or that these men considered themselves men in the way I mean: a man like Lev was.
My shoulder hurts tonight, though it’s the other one. My wife is asleep in the bedroom, jetlagged from a trip to Europe, though it’s also getting late. My son’s been asleep for a few hours. Lev’s been dead a week now. I was visiting family in the days before he died, and one afternoon I helped my mother use the Facebook Messenger app on her phone to forward a text from Vivien about Lev’s options — open heart surgery, medication to break up the obstructions — and his decision to go home. I’d made the case in front of my brother and his wife that, at 86, the surgery would have killed him.
When I read Wood’s essay in the summer of 2011, at 34, months after my son was born, when all the clichés were true, I didn’t at first see what’s apparent to me now. What was heartening then was both the urgency and the artistry, the way Wood’s art (and Woolf’s) expresses such urgency. Why is life so short, why so inexplicable? It was as if I’d never heard these things before. But why had it felt that way?
Because all our tired ideas come to life, anew, in each new one of us. This is, in a sense, the text of a life — what you see as yours alone, for better or worse: the unique rush of adventures at a creek in the woods, the pain of losing a father and the perverse pride in how it sets you apart, the singular panic that arises in the middle of the night when a pregnant wife stirs, the hiccup when your kid says the darndest thing, the loneliness of a chemo port, the fun of half a Valium, the feeling of two wet TUMS in your hand. And it seems to me that we move on from what Schopenhauer calls the text of life and face adulthood when our particularity becomes too much to bear, and you reach out and find that nothing is yours alone, you’ve been wrong all along, and the cliché you’ve become becomes a comfort. There is no new thing under the sun. The rest is commentary. That’s what’s heartening now.
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Scott Korb directs the first-year writing program at The New School’s Eugene Lang College and is on the faculty at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. He is the author and editor of several books, includingLight without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones