“There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” –Peter Sellers
I actually wanted to start this post with a quote from Milan Kundera. It’s somewhere in The Art of the Novel and I’m sure someone out there could give me page and paragraph number–it may even be findable on Google Books–but I can’t find it. What it said was that Kundera didn’t think he could ever make it as a poet because he despised writing about himself.
I vastly prefer to write short observational jokes or brief reactions to the state of the larger world or literature or drama or history or science or anything other than myself. I’m scheduled to read from my novel on Thursday, and even though I’ve often appeared on stage in front of large crowds, the idea of appearing in front of other people with only my narrative voice as a shield is nerve wracking. If I’m to read fiction in front of people, I prefer to read someone else’s. That way, for that time, I get to be someone else. It’s easier to take. If only the conventions of bookstore appearances permitted me to use an actor, both for the reading and the Q&A session afterwards, I’d be so much happier.
That said, I get by, largely by inventing a Jim Snowden who can get up there, read skillfully enough, and answer questions glibly. It’s largely based on the Jim Snowden who tutors students in English, who tells them jokes and stories that help them remember subject-verb agreement or the particulars of Andrew Jackson’s battle to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. That Jim is every bit is fictitious as Hal Nickerson, or Joseph K., or Oedipus, and I have his gestures down.
That works for me most of the time, but occasionally a situation arises that Invented Jim can’t handle.
My father’s approaching death is one such situation.
He’s dying right now, in a bed in his house in Sequim. My mother’s tending him, in exemplary fashion. One year after a stroke devastated the right side of his brain and the left side of his body, he is gradually shutting down. His appetite is gone. He sleeps all day. Always an intellectually engaged sort, he’s now lost all interest in the outside world. The hospice nurse–hospice entered the family conversation about a month ago–tells us that once he loses interest in drinking, his time will be just about up.
I was up there last weekend to pinch hit for my mother. She needs time away to stay sane. When I arrived, John, the caregiver looking after him until I arrived, told me that Dad had refused to take his medication and that I’d have to get at least the two small pills into him before I went to bed.
After John split, I hung out with Venice in our bedroom. I was paralyzed. I had no idea how to approach my Dad and get him to take his meds. Up until now, handling my Dad’s illness hadn’t been a problem. Visits to the recovery center were generally pleasant and even educational. Once he was home, I’d led him through the exercises meant to help restore his trunk strength and enhance his mobility. I’d changed and cleaned him. When he hallucinated and demanded a gun so that he could shoot the imaginary CIA men coming to kill him, I refused the request and got him to take the haloperidol that dispelled his visions. But this was different. As long as we were still using the word “recovery”, I could tell myself that, if we got to the other end of this problem, things would continue, maybe even get slightly better. We had goals, and they seemed worthwhile. Now that was over. When I went out to see him this time, it would be without hope. I’d look at him and know he was dying.
So I stood there in the bedroom, trying to work out a way I could go there. What finally made me able? I don’t actually know. At one moment I couldn’t go on. The next moment, I went on. (Maybe I’m still a character after all, and Samuel Beckett wrote me.) I went out and looked at my Dad. I abandoned all remaining hope. I woke him up. He asked for a drink. When I brought it to him, I placed between his lips the small pills, which he swallowed without complaint. His blood pressure would be regulated for another night, and his mood would be as elevated as pharmacology would allow.
I chatted with him a minute, but he didn’t say much that was memorable, or even cogent. I don’t expect that over the next few weeks or months that remain he’ll say the sorts of profound things that deathbed characters say in books and movies. This doesn’t surprise or even pain me much. My Dad’s brain is going the way of the rest his body. It’s wrong and unfair to demand much of it. If he says something deep during this period, it’ll be every bit as accidental as when a toddler says something funny. Shortly after his last sip of juice, my Dad went to sleep again. As the night wore on, I watched a movie but paid little attention to it. Instead, I wondered what my Dad dreamed about, if he dreamed.
I’ll never know. Even if he felt inclined to tell me, Dad would probably forget his dream, or lose the words to describe it, or fall back asleep before finishing the story. He’s getting unstuck from the rest of us. I hope he’ll be able to interact with the relatives when they come up over the next few weeks to say their farewells.
That’s all. There’s no final revelation, no coda to turn this into something life affirming. Having taken care of my father for the weekend, I went back home. I went to work, reviving Invented Jim for students and for the audience at the bookstore. At no point did I betray what was on my mind. Indeed, I often so lost myself in the part that I forgot. Only now, at night, sans distraction, do I come back to me.
Now that I think of it, the Peter Sellers quote I started with was more aspirational than descriptive. There is a real me, whose Dad is soon to die. A real me who knows that it doesn’t matter how the situations are played or the gestures executed because there’s no way for the story to end well. A real me who’s scared of what the world will look like with his Dad gone. A real me who will, nevertheless, go on, and will wonder how much he should hate himself for it. There is a real me. If only I could have him surgically removed.