When The New York Times published an early excerpt from Roz Chast’s Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?, I immediately rushed to my computer and ordered pre-publication copies. I could not wait to read it, and I thought everyone else would want to read it too, so I ordered ten copies.
Does anyone want a copy? I only found two people who wanted to read it, and one of them was a chaplain, the other the medical director in a retirement home. Yesterday, I offered one of my remaining copies to a new friend. She was pleased when she saw the cover and the name of Roz Chast, but when I told her what it was about, she pushed Roz Chast right back on my coffee table.
The first time I read “Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?” I thought it the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. Chast’s memoir, in cartoons, of course, describes putting her parents in a retirement home and watching them slowly die. It put right in front of me all the humiliating details of death that David and I knew were coming. I did not want to know about them, we both hoped desperately that he would die in his sleep to avoid all this. About six months before David died, I started finding the book really funny. Really funny, because it is ALL true. That being the case, what can you do but laugh?
David and I put a lot of effort into the death-deniers, and we made quite a bit of progress. David kept telling them he was going to die, and I kept crying. They thought I was hysterical and needed some psychoanalysis, but I do not let that stop me. I continue to grieve, and David continued to die in public, in front of everyone. Finally, after the funeral, everyone who didn’t talk to me while David was dying, hugged me. I had become an honest woman.
In September, 2013, when my husband David got a deadly diagnosis with a prognosis of 12 to 15 months, maybe 18, we decided to make something good come of it. We both thought since the cancer itself was so rare, and the early diagnosis so totally atypical, that our experience would be worth a book. During the next unexpected 26 months, I continued to take notes, captured over five hundred images, and collected a massive correspondence as well as medical documentation. Most importantly, starting in October, I recorded our conversations on my iPhone, towards the end, the recordings were not conversations, but mainly the words of a dying man.
This archive insisted that I write a book. David had to die, and I had to write the book. The book never left my unconscious for a minute, but it took 2 ½ years to assimilate. I was not ready to write, I had other work to do.
Finally, last December, I decided I was ready to pull all this data together. For a month, I did nothing but go through the archive, reading, listening, reliving. I needed a trauma specialist to get through the month. Within another month, I had a book proposal with fifteen chapters to send my agent. She found it fascinating and wants more.
Yet, writing this sort of book is difficult: emotionally, intellectually, and stylistically. Moreover, I usually take 7 to 8 years to complete a book. So, if I run out of time, while I write, I am putting the material I consider most important and useful in these blogs.
I stayed in the retirement home where David had died until the first anniversary of his death. After having a memorial service, I left the death place and returned to our home in the Allegheny Mountains. When we left our home in 2011, we add planned to return in 2 months, incredibly, we were trapped by medical circumstances for 5 years. During this time, David had frequently said to me, “don’t sell the Upper 80.”
With great anticipation, a friend and I drove towards home. I had brought my computer and notes with me, planning to start writing the minute we arrived. I had been paying a trusted caretaker to look after the house while we were gone, but, when we got to our driveway, something didn’t feel right. Trees were overhanging the driveway, and, when we got to the garage, I could see that something was terribly wrong. The garage door was missing, and somebody else’s cabinets were in the garage. The walkway was littered with pieces of metal and broken lawn furniture, my key did not work in the lock, neither did David’s. When we got inside, the furniture was askew, the house swarmed with mice, our clothes were covered with mold, the furnace leaked oil, and the lawns and gardens had disappeared. I felt as if David had died all over again.
I decided that even though I could not save David, I could save our home. I found a property management company willing to take on the job, and they responded most generously, saying: “we do not want you think that everyone in Bath County is untrustworthy.” I had to retreat for 8 weeks while the house was being sanitized, then returned via Amtrak to supervise the reconstruction. A year later, the house was habitable. This fall I moved our furniture and car back from the retirement home, and when I reentered the house this week, I felt as if I were returning home. It was finally just as it had been– except for one missing thing: David.
My husband, Dom Philip, died on May 18, 2015, of a very rare liver cancer. For 26 months, 2.2 years, 790 days, there was not a single second that we were unaware of his inevitable death, with a constantly changing prognosis. With love and anguish, with laughter and tears, I learned how to be a monk’s death partner. Dom Philip wrote his own obituary:
Rejoice. On May 18, 2015, David Edward Maguire died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Born on March 2, 1938, Maguire was a graduate of St. Mary on the Lake seminary, St. Hugh’s Charterhouse, Sussex, England, and the University of Chicago. He was most fortunate to live and work with exceptionally talented and caring people, most notably, his spouse and sparring partner of forty-eight years, Dr. Nancy Klein Maguire.
He died a monk. I appear to have survived and am finally starting to write again. More to come. Stay with me.