Boundary Riders

I’m giving a talk tonight about Nina’s book, The Bright Hour, for the Greensboro Library and Greensboro Hospice & Palliative Care. I’ve done book events before, and it always gives me a chance to reflect on what it means to stand in the shoes of someone who’s died, to be their stand-in.

It’s weird, for sure. Talking about my dead spouse and her work publicly was odd at first, but that’s not even what I mean. Actually, talking about Nina is one of my favorite things to do, so that was never much of a hurdle, just took some getting used to.

I mean more that I would never have spoken for Nina while she was alive, at least not without regretting it. I’d almost certainly have mangled her thoughts, or at the very least been guilty of some pretty hefty patriarchy fouls (to be pellucidly clear: when your partner is a woman who is also smarter and more talented than you, don’t speak for her). So it’s weird to be her primary spokesperson, even if I’m doing it solely because of her, well, unavailability. I mean, it’s not like she just stepped out of the room to pee and I’m inveighing in a conversation on her behalf. But still.

What’s become particularly clear to me is that of all the things about which I know what Nina would have thought, probably the one I am most positive I DO NOT understand is death and dying. Yet these themes are at the center of her memoir and therefore at the heart of the conversation about her book. I think that’s appropriate, The Bright Hour has a lot to offer the conversation about death and dying. But I’m a consumer of that information, not its font.

Standing close to the abyss might be unnerving, but it is not falling in. And no matter how close you are to someone who’s dying—and I could not have been closer to Nina unless I’d pulled a Silence of the Lambs and worn her skin suit—you are not actually experiencing mortality. You are witnessing it. Bearing witness is important, but it does not mean you are going through it. I spent countless hours with Nina in the year plus we knew that her disease was terminal. I was in the trenches and I thought about it constantly. But I never experienced, as she did, the inexorable shrinking of my world as terminal disease progressed throughout my body. I saw my kids and wondered how they would get on without their mother, and I was wracked with fear and anguish thinking about Nina and what she must have been suffering, both physically and psychically. But I never felt any of it directly.

I don’t care how empathetic you are, nor how faithfully you follow Montaigne’s advice (and I commend it to you) to have death as an ever-present reminder that life’s project is constructing your own end. Until you are walking with that shadow beside you, stalking your life in an immediate and real way, I don’t think there is any way to understand what facing that kind of finality means. 

Nina used to relish any chance to chat with her friend Ginny, who was diagnosed with the same type of cancer at almost the same time. They were friends for only a short while—basically the duration of their course of disease, which was unmercifully short in both cases. But they found a resonance in each other’s words that went beyond the fact that both were sharp, funny, caring, generous people. They heard intoned in those conversations things that I suspect, had they shared them with the world, would have been lost on anyone who wasn’t also dying. I’m not talking about spirituality or the music of the spheres, just the resonance of words, their meanings and connotations in that very peculiar context only discernible to them. I like to imagine the dialogue between them was like seeds being cast, each of them talking to the other across the boundary fence, trying to keep the other’s field yielding up fruits from the earth that would swallow them both imminently. Terminal cancer farming. It’s the next big thing in metaphors.

I also remember the very fact that I couldn’t understand what was happening with Nina—more and more the closer she got to dying—was a source of anguish for me, and possibly the only thing we really fought about while she was sick. There’s a scene in her book that depicts this gulf, and it’s one of my very favorite passages in a book full of favorite passages. It’s hard to witness someone you love suffering and dying. But it’s also hard to feel that suffering estrange you from your person. And yet it’s inevitable. Everyone dies alone, they say, and while that’s maybe overstating it, I certainly believe no one can understand what it means to die until their own death is upon them.

Our most important project as human beings is leading a meaningful life, which if you believe Montaigne (and I do), means constructing a meaningful death. They are the same thing. Parts of a single whole. Life is nothing more than steps towards life’s end (death). Every breath we take uses up some tiny quotient of our capacity to draw breath, but it also keeps us alive. Until that day we have exhausted all our vital capacities—or maybe when we’ve very nearly done so—we don’t really know what death is. My mistake with Nina was clinging too tightly to the idea that she and I shared everything. We never did. She was always her own person. She always spoke for herself. But I loved her so much and held to the idea that she and I were fellow travelers so tightly that it actually skewed my perspective when she needed me to recognize, as her death became imminent, that she was walking a boundary that I couldn’t even approach, let alone understand. I needed to take her word for it, to allow her to travel in that “suspicious country” (after which she named her blog) and try to support her without conflating her journey with mine. And ultimately, I think that’s where we arrived by the time she died—but it took me some hard realizations to get there.

She also didn’t leave any specific answers for what to do when she wasn’t around and lots of people wanted to know what she thought about this, that, and the other thing. But she did give me the basics. Nina told me, not more than a week or two before she died, that I should do as much or as little of the book-related stuff as I wanted. As much as I could handle, as much as it helped me to process, grieve, and move forward after she died. I’m not going to translate that as “carte blanche,” but I’m also not going to feel overly circumspect or self-conscious about trying to represent Nina’s literary interests or promote her work.

On the other hand, I’m never going to pretend like I actually understand what she went through, nor what she’d make of the unkempt scene today, 18 months after she died, wherein I am asked repeatedly about her thoughts, her process, her views, her life. I never rode the boundary with her—that was Ginny’s job. I’m just here to report on how it feels to have been inside the fence watching as she worked.

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