Years ago, I found a picture of my mother and father with their first-born son. Tommy is perhaps two years old, balanced on my father’s knee. All three look straight at the camera and smile, dressed in their fifty’s finery. They appear to be in a photography studio, posing for a family portrait. But this is a family that I never knew. I am not in the picture. I have not yet been born, nor has my sister; we are missing. Looking at my father in this faded photograph the child that survives in me is startled to see that I am old enough to be that man’s father, though he has been dead for a quarter century. As for my elder brother, he died when he was nine (he had but seven years to live when this photograph was made). I am old enough to be his grandfather. Handsome as the boy is in the picture, I think: he is going to die. I shrink before a catastrophe that has already occurred. But isn’t this true of every photograph ever taken of me, or you? Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this same catastrophe.
Having attained an age when more and more friends depart, I experience more keenly than before time’s lacerating speed and the gathering force of memory and mourning. Nearing seventy, in life as in writing, I have a sense of an ending.
An interviewer once asked, “How do you know when a story or a poem is finished?” I blurted an answer that surprised me: “When I can no longer hear the music.” I’ve since written many more stories and poems. As in the childhood game of musical chairs, each time the music stops I am left to wonder: is it my turn, will I be without a chair, at last?
Though I suspect I carried more of my childhood along with me than most people (how could anyone know this to be true?) Much of my childhood is locked in vaults I’d prefer not to open. I’ve heard writers and “method” actors claim that only what happens before the age of eighteen is essential; there the treasure lies, buried. But is it a treasure we wish to find? With every gift comes a debt. Would we prefer to leave the child buried?
I wish I could recall the three-year-old who fell out of the back seat of the family car one night on busy Central Park Avenue in Yonkers, New York; the child who tottered to the side of the road by himself to wait for help. I wish I could recall any conversation with my older brother. I wish I knew something of Tommy’s interior life before he died that snowy February morning, one week after my fourth birthday. What lies submerged in a four year-year-old’s consciousness? Did he witness mother having a breakdown, did father pull out his hair? From conversations overheard, did he understand that his father blamed himself for his son’s death? Is it true that his devastated six-year-old sister was separated from him, both shipped off to the homes of relatives? But for how long? There is no one in the picture alive to ask. Only the ghosts.
Parents may try to shield their children from the big, dangerous things in the world, a world so awful that thinking about it too long will turn your heart to stone. If we are lucky, parents protect us from the big stuff, but who protects parents? To watch a parent suffer is a terrible thing. I don’t know by what means my parents came to terms with their grief.
For her birthday I once bought my mother a journal. Delighted, she filled journals for the rest of her life. I retrieved them from the room in New York where she spent her last years. One day I pulled from the pile her last journal. She’d written her last entry months before her death in a spidery handwriting that dipped beneath the lines of the page in a spiral notebook with purple cover; I was frequently in its pages. She recorded my impending visits from Ohio, lamented my frequent delays, offered prayers for safety and direction in my life, expressed her anxiety and disapproval over my divorce, the struggle to accept it, the placing of it all in God’s hands, her inner life poured out like a libation. And there in her final entry, a reference to my brother. More than half a century had passed, but she was still thinking of him. Tommy’s last words to her, before he ran outside and was accidentally asphyxiated in the family car: “Mommy, can you make me some French toast?”
I stopped reading. My mother’s journals are gifts I cannot receive; they lie on the floor in a bag beside a bookshelf, heavy with memory.
One of my professors at University of Denver introduced me to the writing of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Jere Surber was seated behind an oak desk in his brown leather chair blowing smoke rings with his Irish briar pipe. I sat across the room, near the window. We had been talking for twenty minutes or so when Jere jumped from his chair, grabbed a book from a bookshelf and lobbed it over. “Here, read this,” he said. Halfway through OfGrammatology,
the book that launched the movement that came to be known as “deconstruction” and soon dominated American academic discourse, I knew I was a lifer. Derrida’s writing is playful, transgressive, funny as hell, erudite, passionate, demanding, and at times mystifying. Reading Derrida brought me joy, something I hadn’t encountered much in philosophy.
In October 2004, I was in New York to give a talk on Derrida, the future, and the democracy which is yet to come. I knew Derrida had pancreatic cancer but had heard from one of his close friends that he had recently traveled to a conference and presented a paper and seemed to be doing better. Coming out of a movie theatre the night before I was to give my paper, I glanced up at the electronic news ticker that wraps around the fourth floor of the building at 1 Times Square and received the news in five-foot neon letters: FRENCH PHILOSOPHER JACQUES DERRIDA DEAD AT 74.
I avoided reading Derrida’s biography when it came out some years later. Reading the biography of a dead man is always a peculiar experience as a reader since we already know the ending. The strangeness is enhanced when it is someone you have known and cared about; reading towards his death, one feels oddly complicit.
Going to the movies as a child I often saw those two words on the big screen, THE END. I saw them on the last page of the many books I carried home from the public library in Yonkers, books I held lovingly in my hands as I read in my boyhood bed. Reading deep into the night the pages fell away as I traveled through imaginary worlds immersed in a time that seemed to me, even as a child, to be so thick—the time of my reading, the time of the story, the time that expired tick by tick as I waited– for what I knew was coming, what I could postpone but not prevent, what I had been reading for yet surely did not want. I sensed in each sentence the slippage of time, the way they pointed to an ending that all of us face sooner or later, the knowledge that we cannot claw back fragments from the debris of time to stop our descent. All good writing does not trick us in this regard or give us false hope. What remains is the love, the love that I have felt for writers I have known and loved and the characters and ideas they brought into this world; for the many gifts they have given me, a debt I cannot hope to repay, and for opening in me the capacity for pure, oceanic feeling. For helping me to be able to give and to receive love myself, and for making me more nearly human. This is why I read: To feel that I am alive and that I am not alone.
Our ambivalence toward endings of every kind is not merely literary, but existential; it signifies the certain knowledge of the descent to our last end. It is dreadful, yet we accept it, embrace it if we can. Reading is a kind of preparation for death.
Pari, Jack & Jacques: Friendship and the Work of Mourning
My friend Pari died in October 2021. I write these words on her birthday, September 7, 2022. She would have been forty-nine years old today. We were friends (on some days, more). We supported each other through difficult divorces. There were eerie similarities in our stories. Years before we met each other, we had both celebrated anniversaries with our spouses at the same hotel on the Amalfi coast. We were both writers, both working on memoirs. We were both impulsive, poor with personal boundaries, prone to regret. We were also big readers, the kind who could read the epitaph on the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s tombstone and smile with recognition: All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.
One day on the phone Pari announced, “I will come see you for Christmas!” She booked a flight from Newark to Dayton, then cancelled it the next day. We had come to our senses, but the pain endured. To have cancelled Christmas the year of my divorce felt overwhelming. On Christmas Eve I set out for New York to stay with my mother, who still lived in her home at the time. It was a long drive from southwest Ohio, and I stopped for the night in a barren hotel in western Pennsylvania. I woke Christmas morning and thought of Pari and wondered if she would call. Of course, she did, our relationship an orbit around an imaginary solar system, both of us out of our minds with sadness and grief and shared longing. As I listened to her Jersey voice coming through the speakers of my car, I didn’t tell her I had reset the car’s GPS from New York to her house in Monmouth County, New Jersey. I drove slowly past. Pari called again. By then, I was back on the Turnpike headed north. She never knew.
When I returned to Ohio, there was a package on my porch step. Pari’s Christmas present. Of course, it was a book. Today, it sits buried on a bookshelf downstairs, still in its Christmas wrapping.
In time, Pari met someone. If I tell you that I could have handled things better, will you smile with recognition? A few years later, I met the woman who would become my wife. My mother had struggled to accept my divorce. For someone of her generation and religious persuasion, this was difficult news to receive. But when I took Resea to meet her, she welcomed her with an open heart. She adored the lilt of Resea’s Tennessee accent. Laughter and love filled that tiny corner of the nursing home; where I had once visited alone, now there were three. My life began to take on a shape I could recognize.
We all got sorted out. Pari and Jack, my ex-wife and her boyfriend, Resea and me. One day I had a text from Pari. I hadn’t heard from her in months. She was in Paris with Jack and the kids. That was the good part. The bad part was that she had late-stage colon cancer. The texts came sporadically during 2021, sometimes ominous, but with her characteristic flashes of humor.
“Chemo will be always. I am on a break now and am just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Just don’t know what it will look like when it falls from the sky. A boot? Ballerina slipper? Just, like, a sock?”
Ten months before her death, she tweeted: “This morning my 11 y.o. woke and shuffled into the kitchen, retainer still in her mouth, and hugged me. I felt the love like butter on the tongue. “What made you hug me like that?” I asked her. “I felt a rush of joy,” she said.
Pari finished writing her memoir shortly before she died. Someday, when it is published, I hope to read it, though I won’t need to. She’d long ago entrusted me with her story; it had imprinted on my heart.
Resea accompanied me to Pari’s funeral. Then all the way to the grave, where family members and friends took up shovels. As the dirt from the shovels thudded onto the casket below, Jack stood stoically near the grave. Pari’s two kids were beside Pari’s mother. The kids’ father, Pari’s ex, was somewhere nearby, a spectral presence. Like a sentinel, Jack held his position. No tears, but a grim determination. I had once thought of him as a small enemy, but my mind had cleared, finally, and I was able to see him as he was, and I was glad for that, and then immediately stabbed with sudden pain. He had accompanied Pari to every one of her chemo appointments. Pari and Resea had both had colon cancer. One of them had lived. I realized that I understood nothing.
Not long after Pari’s funeral, I sent Jack a message expressing my condolences. It was the first contact we had ever had, and I debated whether it was appropriate, but it seemed important to tell him that he was in my thoughts, and how sorry I was for his loss. I pressed “Send” and wondered again if I had done the right thing, but told myself that the only alternative was silence, which is wounding as well. He wrote back immediately to thank me. “It was your loss, too,” he said. Later, he would tell me that he had returned to New Jersey to retrieve some things but had left all my books on Pari’s shelves, right where she had placed them. He bought copies of my books for himself, rather than remove them. And I realized that I had made a new friend. And that it was all Pari’s doing.
The intimacy of friendship, Jacques Derrida wrote, lies in the sensation of recognizing oneself in the eyes of another. We continue to know our friends, even when they are no longer present to look back at us. From the time we enter the world to meet our parents, or the moment we befriend someone, we are always already preparing for the possibility that we might outlive them, or they us. Of the many desires we attach to friendship, then, “none is comparable to this unequalled hope, to this ecstasy towards a future which will go beyond death.”
I would often see Derrida at philosophy conferences in the 1980s, near the height of his fame in America. Although I wanted very much to speak with him (I had written my doctoral dissertation on his work, which became the first book that I published), something held me back. Some necessary distance, a strong desire to leave him alone, which mirrored my own need for solitude; yet also a desire not to abandon him. At these events he would sometimes smile, a smile I returned wordlessly. One day I finally approached and handed him a copy of the book I had written about him. He wrote me a letter, in French, thanking me for the gift. He had kind words for the book, which found a place on one of the many bookshelves in his home outside of Paris. I have since lost the letter, but not the memory of his smile.
“I live in the present speaking of myself in the mouths of my friends,” Derrida writes, “I already hear them speaking on the edge of my tomb… Already, yet when I will no longer be. As though pretending to say to me, in my very own voice: rise again.”
My parents were my first friends. They are gone. I have lost my older brother and my sister. We are dying in birth order. Against every rational belief, I want to say that I will see them again and will know them again as if for the first time. “For to love friendship,” Derrida writes, “it is not enough to know how to bear the other in mourning; one must love the future.”
We bear the wounds of friendship and kinship. We choose to keep each other’s secrets. At the same time, there is the human ecstasy of feeling that we have been known! When we ourselves no longer hear the music, when night falls and day is done, and all that can be heard is the sound of thinnest silence, our friends will listen and breathe for us, and the story will continue.
Contrary to Jewish tradition, and with a last ironic gesture to his friends, Jacques Derrida asked not to be buried too quickly, “to give resurrection a chance,” he joked. Before he died, he composed his own epitaph, which was read by his son Pierre at the tomb:
Jacques desired neither ritual nor prayer. He knows by experience what a trial it is for the friend who performs them. He asks me to thank you for coming, and to bless you, he begs you not to be sad, and to think just of the many happy times that you gave him the chance to share with him.
Smile at me, he says, as I will have smiled at you at the end.
Always prefer life and never stop preferring survival.
I love you and I am smiling at you from wherever I am.