“She Read Books as One Would Breathe Air, to Fill Up and Live” — Annie Dillard

The date of the videoconference with Dan’s oncologist to begin the process of entering Hospice was, technically, “the beginning of the end.” To me, that day was the end of the beginning. I knew I was losing him weeks before. I had overheard his regular phone conversation with his best friend from college with whom he regularly exchanged political talking points, movie reviews, book suggestions.

When Tim asked what was on Dan’s reading list he answered, “I can’t really read anymore. I just don’t have the energy, the concentration.” His voice was wistful, but resigned. Not just his words but his tone knocked the wind right out of me.

He had already lost so much. Eating had become a chore, sleeping a nightmare, exercise a herculean effort. He still listened to music, but seemed to prefer just a few plaintive selections that he played over and over on his tablet. And now this.

My husband was a voracious reader. One of his proudest post-retirement accomplishments was becoming the founder of a nonfiction book club soon after we moved to our Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood. In a fitting tribute, its members are donating in his name to our local library.

Dan never really adjusted to reading books on his Kindle. A bit of a technophobe, he could never master digital underlining, or the insertion of marginal notes. Reading a “real book,” he could swaddle its pages in Post It notes, underline to his hearts content, dog ear corners to mark his place.

It has been a little over two weeks since I last held his hand, stroked his face, said goodbye. In that time I have carried boxes of books to Housing Works, the local thrift shop a few blocks from our apartment. He would understand and approve of this deaccessioning. Dan’s interests and mine diverged when it came to nonfiction.

A mediocre, unfocussed student who studied studio art at not one but three different colleges before graduating, Dan determined in his later years to fill in the gaps in his education. He read philosophy, the history of religion and science, biographies of the great men of the past, books on capitalism. These were subjects I had studied exhaustively in college and graduate school. Having taught history, philosophy and economics for most of my career, I was eager to read fiction, poetry, memoir in retirement.

So after Dan’s death off went volume after volume of those books I deemed “clean enough” to be read by someone else. Those that seemed to be exceptionally personally relevant to Dan as evidenced by copious sticky notes or marginalia were saved. Turning those pages, reading his notes, wondering why a particular passage resonated and was thus blessed with some visible means of standing out later — either inked or tabbed — that will be my way of conversing with Dan again once I can do it without tears.

For how else can I share in his wonder, be dazzled as he recounts with boyish enthusiasm his latest insights into the nature of man, the universe, truth? A lifetime of appreciation of art, sculpture, dance, the written word — it all enriched his spirit, became a part of his identity, his essence, the part of him that aside from his muscled calves, sensuous mouth, broad shoulders, drew me to him like a moth to a porch light. Where did it all go when he died?

Dan so earnestly lived to learn. He believed in the power of the mind, the heart, the spirit to create the conditions for goodness in the world. He was a seeker of truth who remained an optimist, no small feat in today’s world. And now I must learn to live without him, to remain an optimist myself.

I, too, lost the ability to read, to concentrate during the final six months of Dan’s illness. Whiling away the days with games of solitaire, endless scrolling on Instagram or Twitter, I felt as if I were losing myself. But I couldn’t shake off the torpor.

Going through our collection of books and deciding what to keep and what to donate, thinking of how much reading was a bond between us as we lay on the couch or in bed or on a beach somewhere, each with a book in hand, I knew the time had come to begin my own journey back to life, one book at a time.

A kindly neighbor, ten years a widow herself, lent me Joyce Carol Oates’s book A Widow’s Story about the sudden loss of Oates’s husband, the editor Raymond Smith. Oates became convinced that their cats blamed her for her husband’s death, that they knew she had failed him by insisting that he go to the hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection that along with his pneumonia did him in. Of course this was projection.

The night before he died, our cat Lizzie curled up on Dan’s chest while he stroked her. In retrospect, I think they had an understanding. She knew. He knew.

This morning as I reached the last page of Oates’s memoir, Lizzie placed her paw on my arm. “You are going to be alright,” she seemed to be saying. Or was it Dan, through her? Am I too projecting? Is that what widow’s do?

I will continue to fill my soul, my heart, my mind one book at a time as Dan did, hoping that somewhere, whatever happened to his knowledge, his insight, his essence — mine will join his someday, curled up, with a book.

22 thoughts on ““She Read Books as One Would Breathe Air, to Fill Up and Live” — Annie Dillard”

  1. About a year after my husband died I had one of those sudden hits of grief at night- ” I’ll never hold his hand again!” I wailed to myself in the assisted living facility where I now lived. The next day I used my scooter to go sit beside one of the many ponds around campus. I watched a red dragonfly crawl along a fenced railing. It turned itself to face me and then flew directly onto my hand. We sat there, the two of us for almost half an hour. Neither of us moved. Projection or not, I thought,” I am so glad we got to hold hands again.” When he finally flew away I had nothing but a few small tears of gratitude. Three years later I feel that I am opening up my partially shuttered heart to the business of loving life deeply again.


    1. What a beautiful story. I do believe that the universe can speak to us in very mysterious ways, that you did get to hold hands again. And that the natural world — the non-human world — can help us to heal. I so understand the phrases “my partially shuttered heart” and
      “the business of loving life deeply again.” I was dumbstruck to find that just eight months after her husband’s death, Oates met a man whom she married not too long afterwards. She had been so riddled with grief, depression, insomnia, suicidal ideation, self-doubt that I couldn’t imagine her “shuttered heart” would open again, yet alone so quickly, and to another lover!


  2. I love the word torpor. Early spring I arrived to the wildlife refuge each morning so as to see the Rufous hummingbird awaken from this beautiful state. For her, it was about self care and preservation and it was such a lovely awakening each day. May this be how it happens for you when you are ready. Thank you for sharing with such vulnerability.


    1. I like this so much…I do believe that my torpor was self care and preservation, and that I am now ready to awaken to a new life, if haltingly. Thank you for this insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The depth of loss must be incalculable. I wish I was one of those people who can brighten up others with wisdom and hope, but I’m not. Beyond catharsis, you’re creating art.


  4. Your words do make a difference. Of, course I usually have to look a few up in the dictionary before they can make that difference. Deaccessioning was one of those words today. Your posts are treasures.


  5. I so appreciate your sharing your journey in such heart-felt prose.

    Project away. I know that similar projection has gotten me through each of my life’s major losses so far. Besides, who cares whether it makes sense to anyone else? It brings comfort; that’s all that matters.

    I think you’re incredibly brave.


  6. Such beauty, such a lovely tribute to your Love, and your love. When my mother, never a reader when I was a child (“too busy,” so much lost time), lost the brain cells to concentrate on her beloved recorded books from the Library for the Blind, or to work so hard to hear, I knew the end was nearing. It was the last bit of joy she gave up on. I tried to read to her, but she couldn’t understand me and it was exhausting for both of us. It made me sad. Years ago, I acquired some writing books of a writer friend after her too-soon death. Like you, I loved her marginalia and her notes on the blank back pages. When you are ready, those notes will be such a blessing. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, “the last bit of joy.” So sad when the ability to continue to grow through reading ends. Even Dan’s handwriting, at the end so shaky, but in the books so strong brings me close to him. Thank you for such a lovely comment.


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