Wednesday, August 10, 2005
The sense of an ending
OK, so this is the fourth post I’ve put up today (and I’ve updated and revised it a few times, too). A new record for this blog—an unprecedented flurry of things in the past thirty hours, and not one of them—not Theory Tuesday IV on Althusser, not the Invasion of the Marriage Disaster Flicks, not my visit to the dentist, and not my tribute to the English department’s softball team—has a damn thing to do with the state of the nation. Once upon a time, this was a mostly political blog, specializing in bitterness, incredulity, and over-the-top satire. Now you can hardly find a passing mention of Karl Rove, Judy Miller, or Robert Novak around here.
But over the past few months I’ve been seriously rethinking the parameters of what this blog can and cannot say. It has not escaped my notice that there’s a fairly clear distinction between “raw” blogs and “cooked” blogs: the former offer to-the-moment musings on the lives and times of their authors (The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy, for example), and the latter present a clear surface, a finished product that betrays nothing about their authors’ lives or its vicissitudes (Tom Burka’s brilliant and brilliantly-named Opinions You Should Have, for example). Most blogs fall in between, and blogs like these seem to me to have negotiated the demands of the raw and the cooked most appealingly and impressively over the past year.
I’m well aware that I’ve leavened this blog now and then with a few immediate-family stories, most of which have to do with Jamie—partly because people keep asking about him, for good reason, and partly because he loves to see himself up on the Internets, also for good reason. But I’ve tried to keep most of my personal life out of this. I’ve even tried to keep most of my professional life out of this: while I’ll comment on Horowitzian initiatives in state legislatures and MLA resolutions, I won’t talk about most of my daily professorial routine here. In fact, for a long time last year I was reluctant to deal with anything relating to my day job—so much so that it simply never occurred to me that I could use the blog for things like Theory Tuesdays and extended responses to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?
And until recently, I would never have thought of writing anything about the EFF (extended family and friends) in this space—at least not in a serious way. Two weeks ago, however, a dear friend of ours, Jimmy Crofts, died at the age of 48 after a long and utterly inexplicable illness. He was married to Gail Corbin, who’s been Janet’s best friend since toddlerhood. Gail and Jimmy’s marriage was complexly intertwined with ours, even during the twelve years Janet and I lived in Illinois and saw the Connecticut crew only once or twice a year, and even though most of Jimmy’s family still lives in Ireland. Janet traveled to Dublin to attend Jimmy and Gail’s wedding on New Year’s Eve 1983; she and I had met but three months before. Jimmy and Gail moved to New Haven shortly thereafter. Gail is basically the fifth Lyon Sister (after Cynthia, Barbara, Janet and Todd), just as Mal Evans was the fifth Beatle, and Jimmy’s large family is almost the mirror image of Janet’s: the Lyon brood consists of four charismatic daughters and one charming son, and the Crofts clan consists of four charismatic sons and one charming daughter. Not that Jimmy lacked for charm; quite the contrary. He was stunningly handsome (Aidan Quinn, twenty years ago, was a pale approximation), multiply talented, impossibly witty, and unfailingly kind. And Gail: Gail is just incandescent—a passionate dancer (in the Doris Humphreys mode), a keen and wry wit, an exhilarating interlocutor. The two of them seemed perfectly matched.
Jimmy and Gail had two children, right around the time that Janet and I had two children: their Brendan is 17, our Nick is 19; their Anna turns 14 in November, our Jamie turns 14 in September. We all went through the stages of postmodern childrearing in the industrialized West at the same time, marking our offspring’s baffling attachments to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pogs, Nintendo 64, taekwondo, baseball, and stuffed animals. We debated Barney the Dinosaur: unmitigated evil, or post-post-parodic scourge? We felt very strongly both ways.
Then late last summer, we heard that Jimmy had fallen ill: his white blood count had plunged precipitously, and no one knew why. He was hospitalized late last fall. And ten months after the initial onset of this mysterious disease, no one knows what it is or where it came from. Not Gail, not us, not the head of oncology at Yale-New Haven. No one.
The last time I saw Jimmy, Janet and I were visiting him in Yale-New Haven hospital just before Christmas. Though Jimmy was barely able to walk, he and his brother Martin were bantering hilariously about the novels he’d been sent to keep him “occupied” during his hospitalization: someone had given him Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, apparently unaware that the Crofts family is ridiculously well-read, having memorized most of everything from Spenser to Flann O’Brien, and Jimmy and Martin had us howling about the Dan Brown Howlers. At one point the two brothers decided that the books were so bad that, on some level, they were aware of how bad they were, and had to be watched lest they slip off the shelf, wander into the back yard, and shoot themselves.
But the last time I saw Jimmy outside a hospital was at the funeral for Janet’s father on November 6 of last year. Janet’s father, Bradford B. Lyon, died on October 14 at the age of 83. He had been very ill for two or three years: there was lung cancer, and lupus, and his incomplete recovery from knee-replacement surgery. He was doing his best to manage his pacemaker/defibrillator. His hands, his legs, all his joints were out of joint—and this in a man who swam daily, skiied capably, and rode his bicycle well into his late 70s.
Brad was very much like Jimmy: not quite so quick a wit, mind you (for who could be so quick as Jimmy Crofts?), but every bit as charming and industrious and gracious. He flirted with death for most of last summer; though I had the good fortune to walk and talk with him alone for an hour along the southern Connecticut shoreline in May, I saw him only twice more before he died, and on neither occasion was he able to communicate verbally (though he did laugh noiselessly in his hospital bed when I told him I would not jump on his daughter Cynthia’s trampoline because you can’t get me into one of those chicken outfits). Janet left for New Haven four times last summer, each time for a week, each time thinking that it would be her last chance to see her father; and yet each time he rallied. Finally, in mid-semester last fall, Janet and I decided that it would be a good idea for her to drive to her parents’ house to see her father midweek. Against all odds, he had rallied from his summer’s many trials, to the point at which he was able to live at home (with ramps, and with much assistance from remarkable caregivers): to this day the family refers to this as his victory lap.
Bradford Lyon died while Janet was visiting him, on that early Thursday morning in mid-October. He died quietly while Janet was attending to him, ushering him into whatever awaits us when we pass.
Yet I did not grieve about Brad, even as his family walked with him through the valley of incipient death, back and forth, all summer long in the long summer of 2004. I was the Voice of Cold, Clear Reason. I pointed out that he had led a full and satisfying life: he had watched his children grow up, he had met his grandchildren, and he had fought off a series of very grievous illnesses before going gently into that good night, overseen by his devoted daughter.
His funeral was attended by about 150 people who loved him, all of whom testified to his exuberance and his generosity and his truly indiscriminate (and therefore often regrettable) sense of humor. I missed his presence at that funeral—he would have enlivened the proceedings immeasurably, so to speak—and I miss him today. But as I mourn his death, I do not mourn the mode of his passing. Instead, I ask this: let all of us die as peaceably and as gracefully as Bradford Lyon did in the early hours of October 14, 2004.
Jimmy Crofts’ death was, and is, quite another thing. And his funeral, this past Friday, August 5, was almost an affair of state: held at St. Mary’s Church in downtown New Haven, it drew about 400 people—all the people Jimmy’s life had touched, all the Lyon and Crofts families, dozens of people from the Wilton, Connecticut school district in which Jimmy had worked since 1994, and a number of Wilton policemen and firefighters in their ceremonial dress blues on a 95-degree day. At Gail’s request, Janet delivered the eulogy, and I don’t believe I have witnessed a more moving or brilliant five-minute address in my life. The eulogy spoke to Jimmy’s mother and siblings; it spoke to his children; it spoke to people who’d worked beside him for years, and it spoke to people who’d known him for an all-too-short lifetime. It seemed that almost all of those people came up to thank Janet, one by one, as the mass ended and we filed out of the church. The sound of the piper, as the pallbearers loaded the casket into the hearse, shredded everyone within listening range. And I thought to myself: it is for such occasions as this that this instrument was invented. I cannot imagine anything more plaintive or evocative. And then I stopped thinking, and silently watched the hearse drive away.
We all made our way to the Playwright, an Irish pub that Jimmy and Gail had regarded as their local for lo these many years. The air was an extraordinary mix of gravitas and levity and then more gravitas. But underlying the myriad busy-nesses of the day was the insistent reminder: this doesn’t make any goddamn sense, not a bit of sense at all.
I do not know how to represent such a thing on a blog. If you go back and look at my archives from May to October 2004 (no, don’t bother—just take my word for it), you won’t find a single mention of Janet’s father or her summer-long waves of grief and anxiety: back then, I thought that blogs—or, at least, blogs like mine—were not capable of dealing with such things. Better that they serve as vehicles for snarky political commentary and bitter satire, I thought. But over these past two weeks, as Janet and I talked about Jimmy’s death and Jimmy’s wife and children, she told me that it was jarring, ten or twelve months ago, to come upon my blog and find here no acknowledgment whatsoever of what we were all experiencing about her father. “Well,” I replied, “I guess I thought of the blog as a world apart from that kind of life, and that kind of emotional complexity.” Janet understood. But still, she said, it was weird to see that severe a disparity between the Erving Goffman front stage and the Erving Goffman back stage. That’s what blogs try to calibrate, in their bloggy way: some are mostly front stage, some are mostly back stage. Most of us try to strike some balance between the two. And until two weeks ago, I would never have dreamed of putting up this post. But the untimely and unfathomable death of a friend, in its brutal finality, provokes every kind of introspection and retrospection, about his life and about ours, especially since his has been so intertwined with ours. My apologies, then, to those of you whose expectations I have traduced in this post, and also to those of you who might have wondered why I’ve never posted anything quite like this until now.
I’ll leave you with the words of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, because I cannot improve on them:
Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.
The ends of our lives will recast everything that has gone before; we will never discover how it all turns out until it all turns out, which, as Kermode says, is one reason we tell ourselves stories that begin in genesis and end in revelation. But in the meantime between now and the End we imagine, I offer this post in memory of Jimmy Crofts and Brad Lyon.
I’ll be back on August 22 or 23.