A story. This is what happened to the American writer, Andre Dubus, who died in 1998 at the age of 62. He was injured in a car accident on the night of July 23rd, 1986. Driving from Boston, he stopped to assist two disabled motorists. As he was doing so an oncoming car swerved and hit them. One of the motorists was killed instantly; the other survived because Dubus pushed her out of the way. Dubus was badly injured. Both legs were crushed. After a series of unsuccessful operations, his right leg was amputated above the knee. He eventually lost the use of his left leg. He spent three years undergoing a series of painful operations but despite his efforts to walk, chronic infections confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He battled clinical depression. His third wife left him, taking with her their two young daughters. Some years before the accident, one of his daughters had been raped.
The night of July 23rd. Andre Dubus driving home from Boston. There had been a moment before he got into the car. There had been a moment when he waved goodbye to friends or colleagues. There had been times, no doubt, the road stretching out ahead of him, when he had thought about his diary for the next day or the day after or the day after that. Diaries are a definition of optimism. Life is full of such moments. But we can never know. We can never know because at any given moment we are excluded from the full picture. An artist has painted a landscape. We visit his studio and remark upon the qualities of light, the disposition of tree, hill, flower, how it appears to encapsulate what it means to be free in the fresh air, under the sun, safe beneath a benevolent eye. Later we visit the studio again. The artist has been working on the picture and now, instead of the wash of brilliant colour we were treated to previously, there is a dark cloud on the horizon, casting the landscape into shadow, giving it a claustrophobic and stultifying aspect. We thought we knew this picture. We’d formulated what we considered was a valid opinion about it. But, unknown to us, the artist had decided to alter it so radically that, whilst being the same familiar view, it has become altogether different, almost unrecognisable.
Perhaps Andre Dubus had taken that journey from Boston on other occasions. He was, perhaps, at home in the landscape, his landscape, a place known, a safe place. But on the night of July 23rd 1986 everything changed. The road was no longer the same road and whatever he thought he knew up to that moment became a transformation of the environment which was essentially an irrevocable alteration of being.
A moment in March of this year. A doctor stands at my bedside and tells me I have cancer of the bowel. Of course, I have no idea what that means. Does it suggest imminent death? Does it suggest a long period of therapy and recuperation and even debilitation? Is there hope? Is there hopelessness? I have no idea. I only know that the landscape is no longer the same, that this moment is somehow different from those that preceded it. They perform an operation which, by all accounts, is successful but the cancer has spread to the liver and so they give me an ileostomy in order to facilitate any future liver operation and this necessitates my wearing a bag for the next few months, a procedure that in all probability will inhibit my lifestyle. It does. My moments have taken on a stranger hue, a more subdued shade, a little more grey in tone, rather more grisaille. This is a very different panorama to the one I’ve been used to seeing.
I stop going out as much as I did. I read. I write. Yes, I still teach, but mostly I read and write. And actually this turns out to be a good thing. My reading expands my horizons. My writing is an outpouring and long overdue. I think about my stay in the hospital, in St Thomas’s, from where there was a fine view of the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Bridge, London Eye. As I sat up in my bed I wrote: “.. people in pods, on holiday, having a good time. He saw them as shadowy outlines, silhouettes, nothing clear. They couldn’t see him at all and even if they could, they couldn’t. They wouldn’t want to. They were in pods and protective of the happiness they were manufacturing for themselves. He lived with the ill, the dying, the lachrymose, inhabitants existing on the other side of happiness. The recessed, the temporarily, or permanently, extinguished. The progenitors of euphemisms.”
In darkness, too aware of the moments that surrounded me, I picked up a pen and wrote: “In the night they listen to their bodies. They wish them peace and rest, attuned to any sound of dissatisfaction or apparent ill will. At the very first sign of such they tremble, knowing that they aren’t strong enough to fight, that their strength is sapped and vestigial. They fear that the first spasm will not be the last but will lead to a great upsurging against which all they can do is fall back. Then their bodies twist and shudder. They search for some impossible position in which to find ease, inconceivable geometries, hoping for mercy. And then the night becomes the night, not measured by the revolutions of the clock, not measured in that way at all, but by the peculiar gyrations of the body, wracked in pain, nauseous, fearful of the prospect of a longer night than they have ever known. They watch, listen, wait, adept at catching the softest rattle in the gut, the bowel, the heart, exposed to imaginary meanings, their ears, eyes, touch, constantly on the body even as they try to dream.”
There were always moments such as these. There are still such moments. I look out for them in the realisation that it takes a lifetime to be able to listen just as it takes a lifetime to be able to see. I am, I think, just beginning to see and to listen, a late developer surveying, in anticipation, in expectation, a less illusory landscape.
A story. In Persia, in the time of the Arabian Nights, a servant was walking in the garden of his Master’s house when he met Death. The expression on Death’s face terrified the servant, so much so that he ran to his Master and begged to borrow the fastest horse on which to escape to Teheran. The Master consented and the servant fled. That evening, the Master was strolling in the garden when he too met Death. “What do you mean by frightening my servant like that?” he said. Death shook his head. “I didn’t mean to frighten him, it was not my intention,” he replied. “But I was surprised to see him here. You see, I was under the impression that he and I had an appointment to meet in Teheran tonight.”
I’ve thought about relevance a lot. There are those who say that by putting Shakespeare into contemporary dress we make him relevant. What that seems to imply is that Shakespeare is irrelevant unless modernised. In which case, why is he taught at schools and universities at all? Shakespeare is relevant because what he has to say is relevant and not because the styles in which the plays are performed differ with each new generation. Jan Kott: Shakespeare Our Contemporary. But I’m not thinking about Shakespeare, not really. I’m thinking about cancer and what it is to be human and what it is to find meaning out of each of the moments which constitute our lives. It’s what actors have to do I guess, find the meaning in every moment. It’s what people have to do.
I ponder George Orwell’s essay, ‘A Hanging.’ A quote: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…” A man is about to be hanged but on his way to the gallows he circumvents a puddle. Orwell was right to see in this something mysterious. The act itself might, depending on one’s view, be wrong but it is also a mystery. Why would the man do that? Why, in those final seconds, should it have been so important to him not to get his feet wet? And how many of those mysterious moments are happening right now? Each one,an expression living at the heart of things, impossible to articulate, only truly accessible to feeling and emotion. Each moment is a reaching out of the silence.
I would like to visit the caves at Lascaux and Altamira. I would like to look at the paintings of bison and deer and of the hands of people whose desire was to leave their mark, all those thousands of years ago, in a flickering firelight that failed to disperse the darkness.
I have, unless the landscape changes yet again, decided not to have the liver operation. A suddenwhim? Not really. In all honesty, I’ve carefully considered it. Will that mean that death is certain and soon? I don’t believe so. In any case, it’s a decision and whether good or bad it’s mine to stand by, without regret but with acceptance.
On the rare occasions when I do go out I often like to be solitary. I walk in the silence of the streets, for however loud it is, they invariably remain silent, and immerse myself in the faces of passers-by. They don’t see me. They are too busy. But I see them. Usually they are preoccupied with the past or the future, with what pertains to their lives, clinging to them, refusing to countenance any course of deviation or detachment. They are self-consumed. Well, that’s all right. Let it be. Never judge. Never expect. Never demand. In the short space they reside here, making whatever mark they can in the dimly lit aloneness of the cave, they are attempting to find a little bit of happiness and fulfillment. We do whatever we are able.
A few years ago, in a small churchyard in Gloucestershire, I studied the gravestones. It was instructive. Some bore witty inscriptions. Others were the epitome of Victorian sentiment. There were others, however, that were impossible to read, so weathered were they, so abused by the elements. No message, not a single name, was open to decipherment. They were slabs, merely, signposts to absence, to loves that meant and moved and had their being.
I have in my possession a book of twenty sonnets written by Arnold W Smith and published anonymously in 1919. Arnold was a teacher at Battersea Polytechnic School and the poems he wrote were inspired by the departure of one of his pupils. He loved him, that much is clear. The poems are not great works though they are elegiac and full of longing but the point is this: Arnold Smith loved him, he loved that boy and no one knew and he made his verse secretly out of that same love and loss which weremoments of truth for him, which were true moments, which were his alone, to live with and suffer for. And this is what we do.
In the hospital I watched the nurses as they came and went. I remembered a line from Whitman: “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, straight and swift to my wounded I go.” It must be a fine thing, the finest, to be a wound dresser.