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What If?

Collection of Catherine Woodard and Nelson Blitz Jr.
Edvard Munch: The Lonely One, 1896; from the National Gallery of Art’s recent exhibition ‘Edvard Munch: Master Prints.’ The catalog is published by the museum and DelMonico Books/Prestel. Illustration © 2011 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Lecturing and historical exposition sometimes beset the book. (“The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer… argues that, at least in Britain, the First World War played a huge role in changing the way people mourned….”) Its stop-and-start quality can be summed up not just by the epigraph from Murdoch but also by O’Rourke’s quoting of La Rochefoucauld: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.” Even the scattering of her mother’s ashes, for various reasons, is done in stages and takes over a year to be completed. “The body that I had loved lay in a sandwich bag.”

O’Rourke’s mother, Barbara, a beautiful (she is thought to resemble Ali McGraw) and companionable woman of “calm vibrancy” beloved by her entire family, is diagnosed with colorectal cancer when she is in her early fifties. (Her back story includes having been her husband’s high school student—she was married to him at seventeen—but the book chooses only to mention this in passing.) When Barbara gets the news of her cancer’s metastasis to her brain, it is from someone named Dr. Popper who before he leaves the examination room says, “Yeah. Two over on the left side…. Very unusual. So I’ll get Dr. Chi.”

And then it is the patient’s turn to speak.

Well, THAT was awfully casual of him!” quips O’Rourke’s mother, who soon is in last-ditch experimental treatment with someone named Dr. Nougat. The doctors’ names alone cause dread to engulf the reader. Barbara dies at fifty-five—the halfway point of the book. Meghan O’Rourke has up until now proceeded with the vitality of a first-rate dramatist and her mother is a character well suited to it, equipped with an irrepressible spirit and a Christmas Day death, on a bed in the middle of the living room (so that death will be less “bureaucratic and fluorescent”), breaking the heart of everyone.

I knew that a Christmas carol would make me cry this season,” O’Rourke says later, during the anniversary of her mother’s death.

I just didn’t know it would be “Frosty the Snowman,” that least dignified of all carols…. I was driving to Trader Joe’s on a rainy Sunday to buy poinsettias and eggnog…. As I distractedly pressed the radio buttons, I heard the familiar bumptious chorus, and my stomach turned with nostalgia: “Thumpety thump thump, thumpety thump thump, look at Frosty go.” But it was when Frosty, knowing of his imminent demise, tells the kids, “Let’s run, and we’ll have some fun now, before I melt away,” that tears leaked down my face.

This is the kind of thing O’Rourke does well—situating her grief amid the absurdities of everyday life. Moreover she seems to know her mother much better than Bialosky was able to know her sister and so her mother emerges less as a rough sketch and more as a completed portrait, a lively and memorable person, placed as if on a pedestal that is also on a stage:

Our mother was a fierce driver. A leased BMW was her one luxury…. The summer before she died, Jim came up to Connecticut with me for dinner; he’d just bought a used Audi. “Barbara,” he said, “I have to show you something.” My mother had just begun her final round of chemotherapy, but she disentangled the chemo purse from her chair and walked haltingly out to the driveway. When she saw the car, she cried out in glee, looked at Jim, and said, “We should race!”

If like Bialosky’s book O’Rourke’s fails to pose some of the larger impersonal and unphilosophical questions—O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention—it may seem a missed opportunity. Though epidemiology and public policy might disrupt the poetry of bereavement, a reader can long to see eloquent tears made useful. Memoirs often exist precisely for this reason—and their improvised form allows for accommodations of this kind without intruding on any narrative magic. Certainly Bialosky’s sister and O’Rourke’s mother remain engaging subjects deserving of the deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction of heroines in good prose fiction, but real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story, something no memoir reader necessarily expects. Advocacy of a certain kind can be a memoirst’s muse and companion and in any case is not a guest that will ruin the party. Even Nabokov’s canonical Speak, Memory does not give us the brilliantly vivid and coherent dreams of his novels—because it simply can’t.

A third memoir came my way while reading these other two. Entitled Dear Marcus, it would seem at first glance to be a fuller demonstration of the democratization of memoir that Neil Genzlinger so derides. Dear Marcus is a self-published first book by someone with no connection to New York publishing. At the age of twelve its author, Jerry McGill, was shot in the back in Manhattan’s East Village on New Year’s Day by someone he never saw. He has spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. (As with O’Rourke the anniversary of his tragedy is a holiday and unlike O’Rourke he gives himself a treat every year—a fancy meal at a restaurant, a trip to London.) His book is subtitled “Speaking to the Man Who Shot Me,” and since this man was never found McGill gives him a made-up name and then cries out to him about his life.

There is sorrow and fury, but this is not the Book of Job. McGill clearly possessed the charm, attractiveness, and spirit to avail himself of the help and care that came his way—both within therapeutic settings and outside—and he managed to have girlfriends, graduate from Fordham University, write screenplays, make films, and subsequently become a teacher and advocate for the rights of the disabled.

I, personally, feel like I am up for this challenge of being a person with a disability and I have had many a wonderful experience in this role, but it is hard, damned hard…. It is not for everyone. I have had tons of disabled friends over the years and the misconception that we are all strong, inspirational beacons of hope is an immense fallacy perpetrated by and subsisting on images in the media….

Nonetheless, although he can list the difficulties he has had with bathrooms, housing, and employment—“the powers that be in Hollywood don’t think there is a huge market for stories about people with disabilities despite all of the Oscar-winning portrayals that have come from actors playing disabled characters”—he also lists, to astonish his invisible assailant, the “marvelous globetrotting pleasures” he has experienced: from sipping coffee in a Costa Rican rain forest to performing at a vintage theater in England with a troupe of disabled performers. His book is short, sweet, homespun, and inspiring in the very way that he is skeptical of. He shares with Bialosky and O’Rourke a desire for alternative outcomes: all three books wonder in many directions, posing what-ifs, and their authors toughly poke their own wounds and search the sky. One never doubts the psychic injury, but objective criticism in the face of it is like quarreling with a fish. Yet of the three authors, McGill—the African-American man with the bullet lodged in his spine—is by far the most cheerful. As he writes himself, “You can’t make this stuff up.”


Banality Inside Out July 14, 2011

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