I was aware of grief. This past July I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir written after her husband John Gregory Dunne died. I had not taken time to grieve, or rather, the gambling match the cosmos was running against me had left me no time to contemplate what all my losses meant. I understood Didion’s overwhelming sense of bewilderment over her loss. I shared, for instance, a similar sense of guilt toward my mother’s death as Didion did about her husband’s death; she kept thinking about how it might have been possible for her to recognize the signs of a heart attack and somehow save her husband. I have wondered if my sister and I could have saved my mother somehow. What if we had gone to see her a day early, taken a Thursday off and driven over and made sure she had been safely transported from one nursing home to another? I had the desire, as had Didion, of “trying to reverse time, run the film backward” to get at least one more chance to do something, anything different so the outcome changed, to recover the self I had before, an old life.
The third week after the surgery, one morose morning as we are getting dressed for work — a chore for me because I’ve become increasingly disappointed by the job, a sense of failure overwhelming me — the yearning to run the film backwards, to regain my old writing life surged. “I should’ve never left the paper,” I say to my wife. When I left the paper I was so put out with raging editors who didn’t follow the paper’s policies when it came to friends of the publisher that I didn’t bother making a portfolio of page designs and clips. Then I was finished with daily newspaper journalism. Now the newspaper had become an idyll, a place I loved because there I was a writer. I missed who I had been as strongly as I missed my mom, my dad, my . . . the boy who was no longer my son. (I had gains, of course, as rich as anyone could have — a loving wife and stepdaughters, an emerging sense of family. I can’t say enough about Chris without sounding like a treacly Hallmark. I love her dearly, though.) That same week I read the McMurtry post and then began to reread the essay, bit by bit, letting McMurtry’s words guide me to my own words, and nudging me — as reading often does — toward self insight.
The four of us — me, Chris and her girls — are heading to dinner one evening when I tell Chris about the McMurtry essay, about how I can relate to it, especially McMurtry’s post-op separation from himself. “Now, looking back from a distance of eight years,” McMurtry writes, “I realize that even in the first months after the operation, when I thought I was feeling fine, what I was really feeling was relief that I was alive and not in pain.”
Throughout my recovery, until a day or two after I had read the essay, I had put aside the possibility of dying from such a routine procedure as an appendectomy, from such an ordinary illness as appedicitis. I assumed all was well physically, at least. On the Web, when I look up appendicitis, I find the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (that there is such an organization is remarkable, I suppose) and I read about the illness and its complications. Appendicitis constitutes a medical emergency, the site tells me. “If the blockage is not treated,” the site tells me, “gangrene and rupture (breaking or tearing) of the appendix can result.”
My appendix had ruptured. Had gangrene set in? Gangrene left untreated kills. A ruptured appendix left untreated can kill, the site tells me. Complications of a burst appendix can lead to peritonitis, “a dangerous infection that happens when bacteria and other contents of the torn appendix leak into the abdomen,” the site tells me. “In people with appendicitis, an abscess usually takes the form of a swollen mass filled with fluid and bacteria. In a few patients, complications of appendicitis can lead to organ failure and death.”
“You’re lucky.” In various ways that’s what I hear when I return to work, as well as from my aunt on the phone.
If I were to run the film backwards to Monday, Feb. 18, and had taken more painkillers and stoically gone to work and had not gone to the doctor and had taken stronger painkillers that night and maybe one or two more that Tuesday and had waited too late, would I have died? How long would it have taken for organs to fail? My end, the end of the body and the self, of personality, of everything that goes with it was nearer than I thought. Perhaps like McMurtry I had failed to grieve the loss of self or personality, or that some portion of myself had truly vanished. That failure to grieve had interrupted the desire to write. If only I properly mourned, it would all come back.
It made sense to think that if by acknowledging death, I would somehow return to normal. Isn’t that the mode of the Hemingway hero, to confront death and either be strengthed by the confrontation or die gloriously and bravely and good? Dying would mean the end of fighting for all I wanted of life, an ultimate failure. No novel published. No more articles published. No more rants on the blog. No possibility of another book following the novel, or preceding the novel. No movie option. No essay collection. No short story collection. No interview in the Paris Review or an acceptance letter, finally, from the New Yorker for articles to rival John McPhee or Susan Orlean. No op-ed pieces in the New York Times. All the hours at a keyboard — for nothing. Nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada, eh, Papa?
(To be continued)