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.