Thursday, February 17, 2011

"A Happy Marriage" by Rafael Yglesias

In "A Happy Marriage" we have another fictionalized memoir, though because of the rawness with which it is written it seems like the only things changed are the names of the people involved.  This has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read.  From the outset we know it is the story of Yglesias's marriage and his wife's protracted, painful death from bladder cancer.  It seems obvious to me that Yglesias wrote this book in order to try to exorcise ghosts (his father's death figures in the story as well), and I hope it did that for him.  I have to ask myself, though, what the reader is expected to take away from this account of profound misery.

I am reluctant to admit it, but I sort of feel that Yglesias gives us too much information.  "The Death of Ivan Illych " is Tolstoy's meditation on death.  It is philosophical and universal.  "A Happy Marriage" is so private as to make this reader feel like a voyeur.  I even had to skip parts because they were simply too intimate--not sexually intimate, even more private than that.  There is nothing left to imagine about his wife's illness, operations, chemo treatments, bowel function, her body pierced with drains carrying unspeakable fluids.  We see her fear, her pain, the complete exposure of her being.  I know that Yglesias, like his writer parents, believes in unmediated realism, but realism to what end?  There are many literary references throughout the text, as if the author were trying to borrow seriousness from Zola, Balzac, and other 19th c. realists, but while Yglesias's prose is serviceable, it hardly approaches the stature of the greater writers he admires.  I prefer realism too, but with a subject like this it is art that makes it bearable and, perhaps more importantly, meaningful.

I feel churlish criticizing this book; the pain with which it was written is all too obvious.  I do not find fault with his reaction to the events depicted, nor with his need to write them out of his system, to the extent he ever can.  But what I got from the book has less to do with Yglesias than with what I hope for myself.

When I was a young mother, I was terrified of death, even the merest mention of it.  "Terms of Endearment" is a movie I truly wish I had not seen.  I hated visiting the cemetery where my beloved grandmother is buried.  The few funerals I had been to had upset me for days.  Things look different now.  While I certainly hope the end is not imminent, I do realize it's a lot closer than it used to be, when time seemed to stretch to an invisible horizon.  That horizon is not quite so invisible anymore.

My grandmother died when I was twelve.  I remember asking my mother, when I was about six, if Grandmother was worried about dying.  She might have been 70, an age I no longer consider old, but to me she was as ancient as the hills.  Mother told me to ask Grandmother herself, and I did.  She told me--and I remember this clearly--that as you get older your ideas about things change.  When you are old death doesn't seem like such an enemy.  She said that when she was a girl people would say that pneumonia was the old people's friend.  She showed me that what you fear at six or twelve or thirty-six is not what you fear at 65.  The worry now is how it will all play out.  One thing I am more certain of than ever because of reading Yglesias's book is that I don't want to go through what his wife Margaret did.  I do not want to be destroyed by illness or treatments that rob me of my dignity and autonomy.  I do not want machines to take over what I can no longer do myself, and I don't want the last thing I see to be the blank wall of a hospital room.  I'd rather go outside on some clear winter night and look up at the stars, wait for the chill to reach my bones, and forgo the antibiotics.

My other grandmother died when I was about four; I barely remember her.  But I do remember my parents and my father's sisters discussing her last day.  If they'd known I was listening so intently, they might have changed the subject, but I'm so glad they didn't.  It seems my aunts and perhaps some other relatives were gathered in the living room where my grandmother lay on a bed.  Picture a tiny house with no indoor plumbing, save for a hand-cranked pump in the kitchen.  I don't know whether there was electricity or not, but there was a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room for heat.  I can imagine the quiet conversation of the relatives as my grandmother dozed in her corner.  Near the end she stirred and said she believed it was getting dark.  Then she was gone.  She was old, as one hopes to be.  She was at home in her own bed, beneath her own quilts that she and her daughters had made.  The last things she heard were the quiet murmurings of her grown up children, the ticking of a clock, the flapping of a curtain at the open window.  Obviously I'm adding a few details here, but my point is that my grandmother's death was peaceful.  She was not interfered with by strangers, however well-meaning.  There seemed to be no fear.

In today's world of high-tech medicine, world-class hospitals, and advertisers' promises of eternal health if we just spend the money, death has become an alien invader we don't know how to meet.  Dylan Thomas wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light."  He was a young man, with a young man's perspective, when he wrote that about his father.  For all of us there will come a time when raging against the dark will be as futile as Cyrano trying to beat back the waves of the sea.  Sometimes, Ulysses, it is time to yield.  I was so young when I lost my grandmothers, but I am grateful to both of them for showing me the way.

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