Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement.
— Marguerite Duras
I walk for hours in the Arizona desert after I have talked with my mother. She is terrified, not only at the prospect of my father’s death, but also at the anger with which he responds to the small difficulties of getting through his days as an invalid. He shouts at her and criticizes her for small things, though nothing that troubles him is really her fault. His problem is that he is dying. She holds her tongue, finishes her task, which is usually feeding him or trying to make him more comfortable, and then she goes into the kitchen and weeps. She is afraid that she will remember him for these final bursts of anger and not for their long good years together. I tell her that I hope it’s like childbirth — you forget the pain quickly and remember the rest. I take my walks while my father is sleeping.
At first, in the desert, there are piles of trash and the remnants of parties. People drive into the desert in pick-up trucks. There is all sorts of junk — furniture, parts of machines, cars, domestic garbage. Old car or truck seats, presumably for sex, are left at party spots facing the ashes of small fires. I’ve watched birds tear fabric and sponge rubber from the seats for their nests. The party sites are surrounded by empty beer cans. Yellow shotgun shells litter the ground, though I have never seen or heard guns being fired.
After a couple of miles, I get beyond this stuff. Then there are only the bushes, the cactuses, the birds, the insects. The cactuses are majestic but raggedy, full of holes and dead spots from which the flesh has rotted away, exposing the woody skeletal structure. I once saw a rattlesnake out here, and I know that if I were bitten, I would probably pass out before I could get back to call for help. There are other, much larger snakes also, but I am not too frightened, because the ground is so bare that I am likely to see them before I get close.
I take off my clothes because the early spring sun feels so good. I walk along with my shorts, underpants, and t-shirt in one hand. I think of the woman and the long affair we have just ended. I am obsessed. I keep saying to myself, out loud and inside my head, incredulously, “My father is dying, and I am trying to get over a woman.” It is wrong, inappropriate. I seem inclined to mourn passion and lust as much as life. I feel disloyal to my father.
No sensible person sits down at a blank page with the conscious intention of beating death. Yet the written word promises permanence, an approach to a kind of immortality. The written word also subverts the promise, showing it to be fraudulent, bringing us face to face with the truth when we do not expect it.
My father has cabinets full of legal papers and I have boxes full of love letters. All of these papers were saved because the act of keeping them seemed to affirm the meaning and permanence of their contents and the experiences that gave rise to them. In fact, they do just the opposite. The papers eventually deny meaning. Time passes and the papers lose their importance. One sees little difference between the existence of these words on paper and their nonexistence. When the pages decay, turn yellow, and disintegrate to the touch, it no longer matters. Saving the papers is an absurd act, and so the attempt to cling to the experiences themselves or to their meaning is nudged a little closer to absurdity.
If the words on paper could just as well not exist, then the lives reflected by them are similarly tenuous. My father’s life. My loves. My life.
I sit with my father on the couch. He has cancer, and it has spread. Right now, he is getting stronger every day because he is recovering from the trauma of brain surgery and he is on steroids, which give him a sense of well-being, an appetite, and a respite from some of his worst physical symptoms. Our family is depressed and fearful, but we treasure these days of relative health. Beneath the sadness there is a temporary undertone of elation among us. Today he is definitely not worse than yesterday. A small miracle. He has a few weeks or months (or is it days?) before his deterioration will be visible again, and after that, the next crisis will probably be his last. He, like the rest of us, is resigned and brave. We have no idea how ghastly it will become and how much suffering he will still be required to endure. We don’t know how welcome death will be in a short while.
There are three metal filing cabinets in the garage. He has painted them different colors, and he remembers the contents of each. He sends me to the blue, red, or green one, and I bring piles of folders back to the living room. The subject is not money, for my father has long since gotten his affairs in order and explained the financial arrangements for my mother to us. He has done this quite calmly and with competence. More than that: there is satisfaction in it, for he and my mother have risen, during their adult lives, from poverty and indebtedness to affluence, almost entirely through hard work and frugality. There will even be money left over for the children (my brother and me) when my mother dies. My father is pleased to be leaving an estate.
As I sit on the couch with him, we go through his papers from the garage. None of this is particularly important. These papers could be discarded after his death. Reviewing them now is for him, I think, a way of preparing for or confronting death. For me, it is a way to be helpful to him, and it is an occasion for us to talk. It is the task that occupies the time each day when he is able to sit or lie on the couch.
My father is frail. He has little strength, and we go through the files for only fifteen or twenty minutes every afternoon. For the rest of the time on the couch, he tries to eat the food that my mother brings him. We chat. He no longer listens to the radio or watches television while he sits in the living room, as he did during the earlier phases of his illness when he was more fully of this world.
My father is a lawyer, and most of the folders that I bring from the garage contain copies of the papers of some of his clients. There are wills and leases and contracts. They come from the earliest period of my father’s career, during the Depression, before he was able to get a secure civil service job as an attorney in the city’s legal department. His clients were mainly older than he was, and they are long since gone, and the deals and arrangements that are recorded are even more remote than the people.
There is a folder labelled “The Da Nang Matter.”
“Da Nang — does that mean Vietnam?” I ask.
He says yes, and tells me that he had an aunt who married a rich man and went to live in Da Nang. She died and her will specified that her wealth was to be divided among dozens of relatives according to a complex mathematical formula. Several of the cousins hired my father to represent them in the litigation that followed. He hoped to get the estate to pay for a visit to Vietnam in the 1930s to collect the facts, but that never worked out.
My father tells me to keep the folder and its contents if I want to. I am the collector of family materials, and this was an interesting episode. Most of the time, however, when we are going through the files, the routine is different. I read the first few lines of the first page of a file, he remembers the case, and he waves his hand and says, “Throw it out!” Or sometimes just “Out!” His tone is curious. It is gruff, and it sounds as if he is disgusted or angry. I avoid looking at him at these moments, because I am afraid of the clarity with which I will see him confronting his death.
Papers that my father has saved meticulously are being discarded. He is coming to the end of his life, and these documents, which have until recently seemed worth saving, now have no value. The words on paper, filed and stored, probably once offered him a sense of importance and permanence. Now they clearly convey how futile it is to try to defy time.
Why did my father keep those papers when he moved, ten years ago, from New York City to his retirement in Arizona? They were not needed to verify events, since the events had long since been superceded by other developments or death. In any case, official copies of the legal papers in my father’s files were surely deposited in the appropriate courthouses and clerks’ offices for people who needed to document the sales or rentals or lawsuits or agreements.
My father was bringing with him the documentation of his own life. “When I was young and poor, I struggled in my profession,” the papers may have said to him. “I searched titles and drew up wills and leases. Then I did some contract work. Then I came to specialize in real estate and condemnation. And eventually I began to prosper; I found ways to support my wife and two sons. I accomplished a lot, and there was joy in it as well as struggle.”
My father wanted to write a book about himself, and this, of course, was a grander form of the illusion that the written word provides permanence or meaning. I vaguely remember that after he retired, he took a writing course and began working on the book and found that it was harder than he expected. He may have concluded that there was no point to it. Although I had never said to my father, “I have decided to try to be a writer” — I could never bring myself to utter the foolish, vainglorious words to him — he understood, and he may have been trying to emulate me. We liked and admired each other, and we used each other as models in some ways. More likely, he was responding to the same compulsion toward permanence that moved me, one that I probably inherited from him.
Why didn’t my father simply leave the papers in the file cabinets while he was dying? My mother would have gone through them, thrown most of them out, and saved the ones that might interest us. Perhaps she would have asked me to help her, just as he did.
I think that discarding the papers was part of the process of dying, of rejecting illusions. “I will be no more,” he was saying. “Parts of me may live on for a while, but they will not be the reflections of the things I have saved nor will they persist by my design. This is one last thing I cannot control. I dislike not having control, but I can do my best this last time to cope with natural limitations. At least before I die, I can discard some of my vanity, my illusions, along with these papers.” Or was he just being neat, and is this really the son speaking, saying what I believe I should do?
My friend Jim has become a Buddhist, and he confuses me. He has always been self-indulgent, spoiled. He still is, but, on some level, he now combines these qualities with a genuinely spiritual denial of worldly parts of himself and his former life. Or so it appears to me. He approaches me with a disgusting air of superiority. Large parts of his behavior put me off, but there may be a core of truth in what he says and does, and especially in his challenges to my way of life. When I credit him with wisdom, which is not always, I conclude that the right thing for me to do would be never to write another word. That would constitute an acceptance of myself and the world, a rejection of false vanity.
Writing words on paper is particularly arrogant. How presumptuous to believe that words on paper can capture meaning, freeze life, hold it for even a moment. That is the reason, I believe, that my father was, at the end, throwing away all those papers.
I return from the funeral and the desert and I look at the boxes of love letters in my closet. They are so important to me, and I feel that it is critical that my privacy be protected by the lock on the door.
We both felt that ours was the grandest of passions and that our letters to each other were remarkable.
I have recently arranged them in chronological order, all five years’ worth. We were careful to date our letters accurately. This was serious business. We thought we were making history, writing for a larger audience than ourselves, an audience that would be left breathless by the power of our love and our poetic expression of it. I have not recently read the letters through in detail, but I have read them so often that I find, as I glance at them, that I know what passionate word is coming next. We lived among those words.
I am ambivalent. Sometimes the words do indeed strike me as beautiful or erotic, and I am recaptured by it all. At other times the letters seem remarkable mainly for their repetitiveness, especially for the number of times I told her that she was beautiful, that I got lost in her body, and that she, for me, was the meaning of sex. The letters also bring back to me things I did not like about her and do not like about myself. I was, more than once, devious and sneaky as I wrote those letters.
She and I both expected me to write a novel about our love. But I do not want to try to write the novel at the moment. Indeed, I know damn well that there is no novel there, or if there is one, it is not the one that either of us imagined. It would be more dry, serious, maybe even ironic. It would be driven by intellect, not passion. It would be reflective, mocking, and not governed by the sensations of being swept away, though there is no doubt that we experienced those feelings in life. If I am to write about us, it will not be under the sway of the old emotions. But that is not the issue here. The question is what to do with the letters.
I sit in the room by myself for hours. I stare at the letters. They excite me. They bore me. I know that I must load them into plastic bags and take them to the garbage dumpster behind the building. I can’t do it. I taunt myself. I argue with myself. Wouldn’t it be the courageous and correct thing to do it now, rather than to wait until I sit on a couch, weak with disease, forced to do it by my impending death, which will be only slightly closer then than it is now?