When you’re recuperating from an illness, you find yourself with time on your hands. If you’re like me, you begin to clean and organize things. Photos and receipts and greeting cards pile up over the months and years, and it’s nice to go through them once in a while.



Receipts and greeting cards are easy to throw away, but photos are a little more difficult. I find that I’ve taken too many overexposed photos of Beautiful Scenery over the years, and it’s easy to toss most of them in the trash. When there are people in the photos, however, I hesitate, as if they exert some magical hold on me. Might some hypothetical future descendant muse over these photos, wondering at how distant and mysterious we were?



Well, hm. First of all: what descendants? Apart from a few mangy stuffed animals, I have no kids. I keep in touch with a few members of the next generation of my family, but none of them seems impassioned about family history.



Also, the sad truth is that objects like photos are not generally magical. I pull out old theater stubs and concert programs, examine them with regret, and toss them in the trash. They may have been magical for a little when then they were new, but time has taken their magic away. Photos are a little different, but even they lose their immediacy after a few decades.



How do you react when you see a photo of a distant ancestor? Curiosity, maybe; regret that you will never get to know them; sadness that things pass and people die. I think always of those family-reunion photos in which the kids are lying on the floor up front, clowning for the camera, and the older generations stand ranked behind them, with the oldest of all scrunched against the wall in back. I realized some years ago that (without ever quite realizing it) I had suddenly become one of those pale oldsters in the back of the photo – some forgotten great-uncle, what’s-his-name, the one who moved to Rhode Island and lived with another man and had no kids.






Well, hm.



Get to work sorting and labeling those photos, kids!



Maybe someone will remember you after you’re gone.


Death threat

death threat

My doctor talked recently about the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis. “One of my other patients,” she said, “compared it to peacefully mowing the lawn on a summer day and then suddenly being hit by a garbage truck that runs off the road. Where did that come from?” (Amen, amen.) “But it’s not like a murder, or a death sentence. It’s a death threat. Keep that in mind. Nothing can ever be the same afterward, but it’s only a threat, not a sure thing.”


Once more: amen, amen.


To be sure, life itself is a death sentence, last I looked. But most of us manage to keep ourselves blinkered, blissfully looking the other way. Once the word ‘cancer’ enters the conversation, however, things become altogether more serious, and more real. Life becomes far more precious. Those we love become far more precious. Death is a curtain with something mysterious on the other side – maybe something nice, maybe something nasty, maybe nothing at all – but all of a sudden I have very little interest in finding out. I’m far more interested in exploring the things Partner and I haven’t done and seen, the places we still want to go. We used to joke that we’d better travel while we’re both still ambulatory. Now the joke isn’t quite so funny anymore.


Hunger, they say, makes food taste better. Maybe the awareness of mortality makes us realize how sweet the things of daily life are.



And I am lucky: lucky to have had a life full of beautiful things, lucky to have known so many crazy difficult wonderful people, lucky to have traveled to so many places, lucky to have found Partner, lucky to have him with me at this awful time.
Most of all I am lucky to have Partner in my life. I am lucky to have someone to love who loves me back.


How could I ever want to give up so many lovely things?


From A. A. Milne:


“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”


Seward’s Folly Bookstore

sewards folly

Back in the 1970s / 1980s, there was a little bookstore on the corner of Transit Street and Brook Street in Providence, called “Seward’s Folly.” It was run by an older couple, Schuyler Seward and his wife Peterkin.



It was a small musty wonderland of a bookstore, and the Sewards were always very kind to me. I went there whenever I could. I wanted a book by Will Cuppy the 1940s humorist, and they managed to find it for me, and after that they knew me as “Cuppy,” because who in the 1980s remembered Will Cuppy?



Schuyler had a beard and mustache as I do now, and was very wry and very smart, and one online source claims that he was a speechwriter for the Truman Administration. Peterkin was small and walked with difficulty, but had a wonderful smile. They had two dogs when I knew them: a huge poodle and a huge bulldog – both elderly and tired – who had to be taken upstairs (where the Sewards lived) and showered with cool water from time to time in the summertime, so that they wouldn’t overheat.



The Sewards were lovable people, and very memorable.



I wonder how many people remember them now?



And who will remember me when I’m gone?



This is the very last bit of Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”:



“But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” 



Do you get that? We don’t last forever, but we will leave something behind.



The Sewards left me a wonderful legacy – a memory of two intelligent kind friendly people. I hope, when my time comes, that I will leave behind some tiny fraction of the kindly legacy the Sewards bequeathed me.



(Postscript: while researching this blog, I discovered that Peterkin died only a few months  ago – on July 30, 2013 – not far away, in Rumford, Rhode Island. Schuyler evidently predeceased her, though I couldn’t find his obituary. They are survived by their daughter Abbi.)



Sub specie aeternitatis

sub specie

Being ill (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) concentrates the mind wonderfully. You find yourself thinking about all kinds of things very differently.



Priorities, for example. What’s important? Is my job important? Earning a salary, yes of course it’s important to me, I need food and lodging and all kinds of incidentals. But am I making a difference in the world, or bettering the human race, by working at my job? Hmm. Probably not.



How about the things I do every day? The little tasks I undertake in my job (which can be very petty). The back-and-forth at home: clean this, put that away, arrange this. Important? No. But I do them anyway.



I am reluctant to waste time, but now I have time on my hands, and it makes me thoughtful about all kinds of things. History is suddenly very appealing to me. So is children’s literature, which seems to me to be more immediate and more important than sober grown-up literature (except for poetry).  And suddenly I’m listening to music again, and it’s very satisfying.



Maybe just thinking is important. Maybe just writing this stupid blog is important. Maybe talking to people is important.  Maybe love is important.



I have lived in Providence for over thirty-five years, and I love every dreary block and corner of it. But I looked up at the skyline the other day, and thought: it’s just a city. There have been hundreds of thousands of cities in the history of the world; most of them have tumbled into dust and are forgotten now. This one will be forgotten too, someday.



Sub specie aeternitatis means “under the aspect of eternity.” It indicates looking at something from outside of time, without regard to the present moment or its little difficulties.



As Partner and I are fond of quoting to one another in moments of acceptance: “In a hundred years, all new people.”



And in a thousand years, probably mostly new cities and mostly new national borders and probably also some pretty wild new seacoasts.



In ten thousand years, all new countries, and possibly people with gills and flippers.



Makes you a little vertiginous, doesn’t it?



Here’s one of my favorite quotes about the advance of time in a single person’s life, from the end of the last book of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”:



This is a very long quote, but a very good one. Please bear with me.



There came over me a feeling of profound fatigue at the realization that all this long stretch of time not only had been uninterruptedly lived, thought, secreted by me, that it was my life, my very self, but also that I must, every minute of my life, keep it closely by me, that it upheld me, that I was perched on its dizzying summit, that I could not move without carrying it about with me.


I now understood why it was that the Duc de Guermantes, whom, as I looked at him sitting in a chair, I marveled to find him shewing his age so little, although he had so many more years than I beneath him, as soon as he rose and tried to stand erect, had tottered on trembling limbs  . . . and had wavered as he made his way across the difficult summit of his eighty-three years, as if men were perched on giant stilts, sometimes taller than church spires, constantly growing and finally rendering their progress so difficult and perilous that they suddenly fall. I was alarmed that mine were already so tall beneath my feet; it did not seem as if I should have the strength to carry much longer attached to me that past which already extended so far down and which I was bearing so painfully within me! . . . .




We are all on stilts, which grow higher and higher, “sometimes taller than church spires. “



We might fall suddenly.



But the view is spectacular.


Sufferers, losers, and survivors

battle with cancer

There’s a language which appears to have grown up around cancer and cancer patients and cancer therapies. I think I’m considered a “sufferer,” although I’m supposed to be “battling cancer” also. Biff! Bam! Ow!

Those who have managed to overcome their cancers are “survivors,” and I approve of this term. Cancer, as one of my doctors told me the other week, usually comes to people as a terrifying and sudden bolt from the blue. “One of my patients,” she said, “said it was like mowing your lawn on a sunny day, and then suddenly a big truck comes screaming into your yard and crashes into you.” Something like that you can only survive; there’s no other word for it.

Here’s the expression I hate, though: “he/she lost the battle to cancer.”

Sorry, kids. My mother and father did not “lose their battles,” nor did my sisters, nor my niece, nor my aunts and uncles. They sickened and died, as does everyone sooner or later. Most of them were diagnosed very late in the course of their illnesses, so they didn’t have much chance to undergo successful treatment.

Much is made of “positive attitude,” and how it improves your odds. Certainly, psychologically, I see the point. It’s impossible, as one of my survivor friends told me not long ago, to think about cancer all the time; it makes you crazy and gloomy. You need to cheer yourself, and reassure yourself that not everything ends in tragedy. As yet another doctor said a few weeks ago: “If you look at prognosis statistics – and you probably already have – don’t let them worry you too much. You’ll either be one of the people who live, or one of the others. There’s no way of telling.”

My mother was a terrible patient, but she lived seven years after her diagnosis at age seventy-two. Her cancer never quite finished with her; she underwent repeated bouts of chemotherapy over the years, and each was a little harder for her to deal with; finally, in her seventy-ninth year, it was just too much for her. She began to decline seriously in September, and by November she was gone. Along the way, she exhibited every behavior you can imagine: self-pity, fear, anger, selfishness, mean-spiritness. Also kindness. Also a strange late-autumn sweetness.

My sister Susan, diagnosed in her forty-sixth year, was an angel. She suffered miserably with her cancer, but I never saw or heard her angry or upset. She spent time picking out her own coffin and the clothes and jewelry she’d be wearing at her own funeral. She was a wonderful person, and I kick myself that I didn’t see more of her and call her more often during her last few years.

My sister Darlene: I don’t know. We weren’t close. But I think she made great use of her last years: she underwent a clinical trial, and she did community work right up until the very end. She was always tough, and a good citizen, and I salute her.

My poor niece, who died only a few years ago in her forties, was surrounded by her family, and comforted by her faith.

None of them were “losers.” They sickened and died, but they were by no means “losers.”

So don’t speak to me of the “battle against cancer.” Cancer’s not an ideology or a bad guy or a rebel army. It’s a disease, that’s all.

We’re all terminal, after all. None of us is coming out of this alive.

All that really matters is how we use the time we’ve been given, cancer or no cancer.

Reasons not to die

why i cant die

I am sick at the moment, but it’s not terminal – yet. It’s curable, according to my doctors. I just need to be faithful to my treatment schedule. And everyone says that you have to maintain a Positive Attitude.

For me, it comes down to this: I don’t want to die.

Here are some reasons why not:

  • I don’t want to (as I said). Isn’t that sufficient?
  • Mom keeps appearing to me in dreams in which we’re going on a long trip together. I loved Mom dearly, but she was not especially nice to travel with. If I can put this trip off, I will.
  • People need me in the office. They need me to pay the phone bill and order stupid irrelevant office supplies and listen to them complain.
  • My student employees need me. (Or rather, I need them. I need to tell them stories.  They pretend to be interested, but that’s okay by me.)
  • Most of all: I don’t want to leave Partner alone.

This is the most beautiful time of year in Rhode Island. It’s sunny but cool, and the colors are very full: the green of summer and the shades of autumn are all together at once.

I’m glad I get to see a New England autumn one more time.

I don’t mean to be morbid. But still: one has to be realistic.

Just one more time.

(And many more after that, I hope.)

In memoriam: Cosmo “Gus” Allegretti

cosmo allegretti

You’ve seen me write about dead relatives, and the passing of friends, and even the passing of celebrities.



Well, a celebrity passed away a few weeks ago, though many of his fans didn’t even know his real name.



He was a puppeteer / actor / dancer named Cosmo Allegretti, known to his friends as Gus. He was a regular on the “Captain Kangaroo” program that ran from the 1950s into the 1980s. But you seldom saw him – during the first ten or fifteen years, anyway. He was always in disguise.



Sometimes he was Dancing Bear, who never spoke, but who communicated through clever little softshoe routines:





Sometimes he was fussy old Grandfather Clock, who had to be awakened very gently, and who told stories and recited poems:



grandfather clock

Later in the show’s history, he was Dennis the Apprentice, always dressed in a painter’s whites, big and earnest and clumsy (though at least he didn’t have to hide his face anymore):





Best of all, he was Mister Moose and Bunny Rabbit. Bob Keeshan, writing about the show, said that “these two were surrogates for children, demonstrating their playful power over adults.” I loved them both: they were sneaky and dishonest without being really bad. The Captain was often frustrated with both of them, but you could tell that he loved them too, and they seemed to love him too.



Mister Moose was a practical joker. He was always tricking the Captain into saying things like “Let ‘er rip!”, at which point a couple hundred ping-pong balls would fall from the ceiling all over the Captain’s head. And then Mister Moose would go into raptures. (Personal note: whenever I do a puppet voice, it’s Mister Moose’s reedy falsetto. Why not?)



Bunny Rabbit was silent, like Dancing Bear. He was small and wore glasses. He’d get the Captain’s attention by rapping on the tabletop, and he always ended up stealing all of the Captain’s delicious carrots.



Here they are together, bamboozling the Captain one more time:





So many good memories.



Rest in peace, Gus.




Sometimes, when I’m falling asleep, I hear voices: odd snippets of conversation. I’m sure it’s all in my head, and I’m half-dreaming. But sometimes I can hear my mother’s voice, or some other person long dead, and it’s exactly their tone of voice.



I usually can’t quite make out what they’re saying, and when I can, it doesn’t make any sense, which tells me that it’s mostly a dream.



Funny how my brain produces these old voices out of nowhere and replays them for me.



A friend told me once that, after his mother passed away, he’d call his aunt from time to time, just to hear her voice, because his aunt’s voice reminded him of his mother’s voice.



I understand this perfectly. What voice did we first hear? Our mother’s voice. They say you can hear it even when you’re in the womb. It must naturally be a very calming thing (although my mother was not perhaps the most calm-inducing person in the world).



And I like fooling myself sometimes. As more of my family and friends pass away, I feel better sometimes with the idea that maybe they’re not dead after all. I see and hear people all the time – in crowds, on the sidewalk – who look and sound, almost, like the people I used to know. My heart leaps up and I think: it was a mistake after all. They’re not dead.



And, just for a second, it makes me feel better.


Death on the Internet

death on the internet

A co-worker and dear friend – let’s call her Lily – passed away about two years ago. At the time of her decease, she had all of five Facebook friends, of whom I was one.



She used to fret over her Facebook status constantly. She hated the fact that Facebook presented her as both a graduate of Harvard and Simmons. “Why doesn’t it always show Harvard first?” she asked me.



“It’s Facebook,” I said. “It addresses itself to the person looking at it. It may think I care more about Simmons than Harvard, and it’ll show me Simmons first.”



She looked murderous. “There’s got to be a way to fix this.”



Well, if you’re on Facebook, you know that there are very few ways to outfox Facebook.



Anyway, as I said, she passed away. I did not delete her from my Facebook friends, because I like seeing her name come up on my “friends” list. (Three of my seventy Facebook friends are deceased. I refuse to delete them. I like seeing their faces and names on the list. It allows me to pretend that they’re still alive.)



And then, the other day, I saw the following in my Facebook news feed:



LILY posted (five hours ago): I’m on the 6th day of Raspberry ultra drops and have lost 7lbs already, it’s insane! the first 3 days alone I lost over 2lbs. it really is amazing… you gotta check it out!



Dear me. Evidently someone hacked poor Lily’s Facebook account (which was, of course, never deactivated), and is using it to promote Raspberry Ultra Drops, whatever the hell they are.



This is pretty funny, since (as I said) Lily had all of five Facebook friends, and I’m sure all of us were startled to see Lily posting on Facebook from beyond the grave.



But it made me think of George Carlin’s old joke: “If you die while you’re on hold, will the little light on the telephone stop blinking?”



We all have dozens of Internet identities and membership and accounts. What happens to them when we die?  Should I notify Facebook that Lily’s account has been hacked? If I do, will they do anything about it?



And what will your survivors do when you pass away, and suddenly six months later you come back from the dead on Facebook with news about a new weight-loss plan?



Probably it’s worth thinking about.



I love thinking about Lily, floating around in the afterlife, incensed about her Facebook account being hacked. Lily was the soul of propriety.



But I suspect that, wherever she is right now, she’s pretty calm about it.


Is everything all right?

is everything all right

So much has gone wrong over the past few weeks: the Boston Marathon bombings, the ensuing manhunt, the Texas factory explosion, the terrible floods in the American Midwest.

It makes you think.

Natural disasters – floods, tsunamis, storms, earthquakes – are awful, and take a terrible toll. But they’re not intentional. They just happen. The universe doesn’t care very much about human beings (sadly enough), and sometimes we get in the way.

Human disasters, like the Boston bombings, are another thing. They make us think about human folly, and insanity, and how easily our lives can be overturned by a backpack full of black powder and shrapnel.

They make us realize that, though we might feel comfortable in our lives, there’s always an unknown element. An asteroid might hit. A fire might break out. A madman might open fire.

Back in my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read a book by Michael Novak. In it was the following passage (I paraphrase):



“Your child wakes up in the middle of the night, crying from a bad dream. You come into his bedroom and cradle him, and say: Everything is all right.



“Are you lying?”

Yes, of course. We’re all lying to ourselves. We’re in peril every moment, and death is just around the corner.

But maybe that’s the silver lining in tragic events like the Boston bombing: they remind us not to be too secure in our daily lives, and to live fully.

Here’s the last line of a classic Latin poem, “Copa,” written maybe by Propertius, maybe by Virgil, maybe by someone else:

Mors aurum vellens, “vivite,” ait, “venio.”



Death tugs you by the ear. “Live it up,” he says. “Here I come.”

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