I owe Jon Katz so much. First and foremost, he’s the one who persuaded me to start a blog, especially after my husband, Bernie Glassman, came down with a major stroke.
“I don’t have time to write,” I told him on the phone. I drove back and forth to Springfield every day and collapsed at night, staring out at the darkness and wondering what’s ahead for us.
“You can’t afford not to,” were his unforgettable words to me. Right then and there I decided to write a blog.
We then started a discussion about whether blogs are real writing (yes, Virginia, I think they are) and whether anyone will ever consider them fine writing (yes, Virginia, I think they will). Jon, whose blog is read by many, many people (I don’t have a clue how many read mine), is way ahead of most writers when it comes to technology, choosing to see the latest changes in the publishing world as a blessing rather than a curse, showing many ignorant and narrow-minded folks like me that the technology that took down so many publishing houses also makes self-publishing, photography, music, and art easier than before, democratizing creative opportunities for all of us.
“Don’t be such a literary snob,” he told me. Great advice.
Recently Jon wrote about how he reacted to a question I posed to him one night when we talked by phone: “How’s your health, Jon?” He told me briefly it was fine, but emailed me the next day wondering why I asked. I told him it’s a question I ask of friends, family, and students because they’re precious to me. Jon then wrote about it in his blog saying that to him it sounds like “old talk,” in his words, talk that enables our society to define older people according to medical health and age rather than accepting them as the full human beings that they are, and added that he didn’t wish to be defined this way. Thus began this dialogue.
I don’t just ask older people about their health, I ask everyone I’m close to. I started doing this very deliberately after my husband got his major stroke and I witnessed how catastrophic illness changes the rules. It doesn’t mean your life is over; it doesn’t mean work and love are over; but it does change many things. Whether that’s an opportunity or a curse depends on the person.
In the holistic system I call my body-mind, no one can tell me where the body ends and the mind begins, or where the body ends and the imagination begins, or where the body ends and the soul or spirit begins. Nothing gets compartmentalized. In some way or other, illness goes throughout the system, it doesn’t just stay is some small organ or other.
When the Zen group where I teach has meetings, we do a brief check-in first: How are you doing, how are you feeling, and what should we know about your life that affects your participation in the meeting. So if somebody had a bad night and is grumpy or impatient, we don’t take it personally. If somebody just heard that they’re losing their job or their daughter got a cancer diagnosis, that information provides some context for what may come up later.
Context is everything.
A friend of mine died 6 days ago in California at the end of many years of struggle with cancer. This is not the time to recount her travails, only to say that, already in hospice care, she decided to declare victory and move on. I got a letter from her several days after her death. In that letter she wrote that she was ending her life and made two points: 1. Life is beautiful and glorious, and 2. We should repay this undeserved gift by being of service.
I’ve looked at this letter every day since it arrived, always imagining her as I saw her the last few times, twice looking out at the trees surrounding our house here in New England, or else looking out over the Pacific Ocean in front of her home, the big waves crested with surfers crashing on the beach, whales gliding up and down the channel, and pelicans flying low looking for fish. Skeletal and beautiful, she kept on saying again and again, even in the middle of incredible bouts of pain and nausea, that life is an indescribable gift.
Did those words affect me, and continue to affect me, way deeper than a healthy 21 year-old happily gurgling with plans for life and love and future? You betcha. I love hearing young people express confidence and optimism about their life, but the joy my friend expressed on the threshold of self-extinction is mind-boggling. She also deeply appreciated the opportunity to contemplate non-existence and unabashedly discussed it with her family.
I think “old talk” or “sick talk” can be mind-boggling. It can challenge our fears and anxieties, it can open up a whole new vista on what’s ahead. We always think that what’s ahead is for younger people, but my friend didn’t buy that at all. She knew a great mystery lay ahead for her, and talking about it was good.
I think we need more of that kind of sick or old talk, not less.
My husband, Bernie Glassman, knew many people. Only a fraction of them got to see him after his stroke when he could hardly travel anymore. I’d tell the others: You should have seen Bernie after his stroke, he was a whole other person. He didn’t deny anything, he didn’t pretend. He worked incredibly hard to achieve mobility from a half-paralyzed body and he knew his mind changed as well, becoming slower and denser. But feelings arose he’d never experienced before. He talked more about love in the last 3 years of his life than he did for the first 77. He showed more grace, vulnerability, and tenderness. He cared about human beings, not just about being.
Those who did get to see him, either in person or online, later told me that he made a deeper impression on them towards the end of his life, professing love and faith even as he lost his teeth, his right arm hung limply in his lap and his talk was labored, than in all the years when he’d been so vibrant and innovative, so full of ideas and life.
When you’re a lot younger, you’re a little like the sun, your energy and health blaze through even in cloudy, challenging days. When you’re older or sicker you’re more like the moon, with phases that conceal and reveal you in turn as the month goes by. Moonlight filters through those shadows onto the grass and the trees like diamonds. It doesn’t pretend to be the sun, it is what it is, but without the shadows, you lose the gleam and the magic.