With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My mother-in-law is writing a memoir about my husband’s life. Robb died in 1997, of a heart attack, at the age of thirty-seven. Many deaths are unexpected, but his felt especially so, as no particular reason emerged for why this healthy man would wake up one morning and have a heart attack. Not that people didn’t search for a reason: He must have smoked. No. Then he was overweight. No. Did he exercise? Yes. High blood pressure? No. Cholesterol? Fine. His parents must have died early deaths. No. People wanted an explanation to ward off their own fears: If Robb had high blood pressure, and they don’t, then they won’t die. For Americans every tragedy must have a “why”; even a vague murmur about “God’s will” can suffice. To imagine that life — and death — might be random is terrifying.
Or liberating. Ultimately, I found that worrying about “why” was pointless: he was gone. That was more than enough to cope with.
Now, all these years later, I have different concerns. Living with the death of a loved one is a lonely journey with no destination, a constant meandering through a thicket of confusion. There are books and therapists and websites and many others who have experienced significant losses. It seems everyone can recite the stages of grief, and our nation has an obsessive need for “closure” in all things. Nevertheless, when people say, “I know how you feel,” they don’t. Not even another childless woman from Iowa, now living in northern Virginia, whose Chicago-born, Detroit-raised husband died of a heart attack one April morning when he was thirty-seven could know exactly how I feel or could advise me confidently through the various challenges I face.
For example, what about my husband’s family? What we had in common for ten years was Robb. Then we had his death. Now we have memories of him, sporadic e-mails, Christmas and birthday and Father’s and Mother’s Day cards — all from me, a poor substitute for their son, who was always so good at remembering holidays. Sometimes I’m not sure that’s enough for a real relationship; other times I’m equally sure that it’s more than enough.
Recently, while working on her memoir about Robb, my husband’s mother e-mailed to ask if I knew when he had first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the famous novel about European colonialism in Africa. Robb had taken a life-changing trip to Kenya in college, a year before I met him, and she thought that Heart of Darkness might have been on the reading list for the class. She remembered it as Robb’s “favorite book.”
I remember differently. Though I have no doubt that Robb, a voracious reader, encountered Conrad’s book at some point during college, I was the one who encouraged him to reread it. In the way only an earnest young college girl can, I declared that one must read Heart of Darkness at least three times to fully understand it. We were in that early stage of dating when you still believe you can change someone, just a bit; when you think you might be willing to change for someone else.
As part of a carefully negotiated deal, I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and Robb reread Heart of Darkness. The trade didn’t have the desired effect: I didn’t care for The Quiet American, and he didn’t understand why I loved Heart of Darkness. Our book exchange continued unsuccessfully for a few more books — The Year of Living Dangerously for Play It as It Lays; V.S. Naipaul for J.D. Salinger — then fizzled as we accepted and embraced our stubborn differences.
I’ve now read Heart of Darkness at least five or six times, and I still wouldn’t say that I fully understand it, which explains why it’s one of my favorite books. The story seems simple, but of course it’s not: Marlowe, the protagonist, journeys up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, a charismatic madman who has created his own empire within the dark jungle, brutalizing the native people. (The movie Apocalypse Now was based in part on Heart of Darkness.)
I should have answered my mother-in-law’s e-mail exactly like this: “I don’t know if he read Heart of Darkness for the college trip to Kenya. Sorry.” Instead, I explained that Heart of Darkness was not on Robb’s shelf of “favorite books,” or even his shelf of “favorite Africa books,” both of which I have kept intact. I mentioned that Heart of Darkness was actually one of my favorite books. (My college copy — a worn, scribbled-on Norton edition complete with footnotes and explanatory essays — sits on my own favorite-books shelf, between Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby.) I also explained that I have not come across a second copy of Heart of Darkness in our house since Robb’s death, though I’ve rearranged and culled our books on many occasions. The man literally never threw away a book; if he had owned it and cared about it, I would have found it.
I would like to say that I provided this information to his mother because I have a steadfast interest in the truth, but that would be a lie. I told her all this because I was angry that she was writing this memoir of her son’s life, and that it will contain misperceptions that he will never be able to correct: Heart of Darkness was his favorite book. Why, as a teenager, he rebelled against joining family dinners. What he thought about that Firebird he drove for a while. Why he chose Jamaica after college instead of a nice nine-to-five job.
She knew him as a mother knows a child, with a deep intimacy that’s inherently limited by who he once was, that little boy who became the man I knew. My own parents persist in thinking I’m grouchy in the morning because they remember those teenage years when all I wanted was to sleep until noon. They’re surprised when I eat coconut because “you hate coconut.” Robb told me stories about his childhood that no one else knows: his version of family car trips, Cape Cod vacations, playing on hockey teams, how he felt being teased about his long hair and bandanna.
Oh, please. Leave the poor woman alone. She’s his mother, for God’s sake.
And that’s the heart of the matter right there, straight out of Dear Abby: She’s the mother, and I’m the wife. Now that we’ve worked through the immediate pain of losing Robb’s physical presence, neither of us wants to relinquish one bit more. We have books on a shelf, photos, letters, an old sweat shirt, all those inadequate objects people leave behind when they die. But what we guard and value most, she and I, are our memories and this single belief: I knew him best. Which actually means: I loved him best. Perhaps even: He loved me best. We will each go to our grave knowing that’s true.
Is it human nature to turn everything into a competition, even love? Especially love?
Remember, she was there, actually there, watching the hockey games and the goals scored, driving the station wagon to the dude ranch in Colorado, sweeping out the rental on Cape Cod after a family vacation, pouring out the cereal (what kind?) every morning before school, baking the Tater Tots he complained about. That is something, because no matter what he told me — all the secrets and childhood memories I treasure — she was there, actually there, watching his life unfold. Just as I was there to listen to him make an offer on our first house, to help him pick out a suit for his first professional job, to eat the first rack of ribs off the new smoker, to buy the cornflakes at the grocery store.
It is painful to admit these thoughts about my in-laws. As far as I know, there were no hard feelings between us or unspoken grudges over Robb’s paltry possessions. But I suspect that sometimes people fight over material objects to avoid the real battle: for control over the truth of who someone was. For a long time Thomas Jefferson was a heroic Founding Father; then he turned into a slaveholder who fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Now we’re left to wonder who he really was.
“You hate coconut.” Heart of Darkness was his favorite book.
What would Robb have wanted? I have hated that phrase from the first time I uttered it while picking out a casket. It makes me cringe to hear anyone speculate about the desires of someone who has died, because too often we’re just looking for an excuse to justify doing exactly what we want: Robb would have wanted me to go on this expensive trip to Grenada. Robb would have wanted me to start dating. Robb wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad. Dead Robb always wants exactly what we want. Dead Robb never wants us to do anything painful, difficult, or unpleasant.
Frankly, I think Robb would have liked for us to be sad, and he probably would not have been happy to think of me dating another man. (The trip he would have applauded.) Wouldn’t you be slightly disappointed if, at your funeral, everyone was cracking jokes as if it were a big party? Doesn’t one tiny, primitive corner of your mind hope your spouse will be so heartbroken that no other man or woman could ever be good enough? Do you honestly, truly want life to go on after you’re gone exactly as it did before?
Robb’s mother promptly e-mailed me back, noting that she remembered exactly when he had told her that Heart of Darkness was his favorite book: years ago, while she and Robb’s father were visiting us here in Washington. Immediately following that conversation, she had read the novel, but hadn’t liked it because it was too gory, with all those heads on spikes. Furthermore, according to her, Robb’s younger brother agreed that it was Robb’s favorite book; on that recommendation, he’d read it three times — because that was how to “fully understand it.” His father remembered Robb saying he had read it before the college trip to Kenya; so there’s the answer to the original question about when he first encountered the book.
Her response was an onslaught of facts, of proof. She told me she has decided to reread Heart of Darkness. She was very conclusive. This time I was smart enough to respond only to her questions about the weather.
After I replied, however, I immediately started this essay, because here I can tell the world I’m right. My favorite book: not his, mine. It means nothing; it means everything. Here I’m right about it all, even if maybe I’m not. Now I want to reread Heart of Darkness myself and once again journey deep into Conrad’s Africa, stumbling upon that inescapable center of evil; I want to gaze upon those secrets we know reside within us even as we deny their existence.
Why am I writing this? Does anyone care what Robb’s favorite book may have been?
It’s human nature to suppose we’ll always remember the ones who are gone. We won’t. Likewise, we assume we will never be forgotten. We will. We assure ourselves that we know truly, down to the core, those we love. We don’t. We need to believe that we ourselves are known. We aren’t.
There. I’ve said it.
Would Robb have wanted me to write this essay? Yes. No. Truthfully, I don’t know.