Our Perpetual Mortality.

  1. In fall 2012, I leave my 8-month-old baby for the first time to attend a conference in Edmonton. I have been invited to participate on a roundtable on a recent book by Srinivas, whose work looms larger in my own development as a thinker and reader than any other living scholar, with the possible exception of my dissertation supervisor. I met him once, maybe twelve years earlier, when he gave a talk at Brown while I was in graduate school, but he wouldn’t remember that. Around that same time my dad underwent a successful surgery for prostate cancer. I was beginning work on my dissertation. In Edmonton, I’m giddy about meeting Srinivas (again), and am (mistakenly) certain that he was one of the anonymous readers of my book manuscript that was recently accepted for publication, so I respond really awkwardly and weirdly when he (quite earnestly) tries to get me to tell him what my book is about. We will both be at another major conference, in Cleveland, in a few months; we make plans to have a meal and talk more.

 

  1. I have been thinking about Srinivas, because I was hoping to see him at this conference I just attended in Pittsburgh last week. He is the president of the society and, though I’ve known since last summer that he was facing what he described to me as “some health set-backs,” when I saw his name on the program I was flooded with hope that he had recovered. As it turns out, this is not the case; he wasn’t able to join us.

 

  1. At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Katherine reminds me that Roland Barthes was working on a book about his mother, who had died a few years earlier, when he himself was killed by the laundry van. I find this story devastating—particularly that the book was interrupted, and that I’ll never read it, not as it would have been—even though I still haven’t read half the books by Barthes in my possession.

 

  1. Just last night, I started reading a book that my dad recommended to me years ago, when it came out in 2008. He loved it, and knew, rightly I think, that I would love it too. But I never got around to reading it, because there’s always so much else to read. I think about how happy my dad would be if he could call me and hear that I finally opened it up.

 

  1. I come home from Pittsburgh on Sunday and have this dream: Douglas telling me to go read his latest articles, and me asking him if he will sign his book for me, and him telling me we can do it virtually online with something called Lookbook, which is like Facebook for actual books, and me asking if we can just go to my office and do it right now while we’re together, because he’s dead.

 

  1. By all accounts, that Cleveland conference in March 2013 was a great one. I bought some new boots for that meeting that continue to receive compliments every time I wear them. The month before Cleveland, we celebrated my daughter’s first birthday. My dad was at the party but not well—his prostate cancer had come back the year before, and the chemotherapy wasn’t stopping it. That first year of motherhood, I lost a ton of weight, dropping the 70 pounds I’d gained in pregnancy and then another 20 or so to boot. I had no idea why; my husband believed, probably correctly, that it was a symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety. I was still working on the final revisions of my book when my daughter was born; I wrote the afterword in the sleepless window between early-morning feedings. I breastfed diligently for a full thirteen months even though I found it extremely painful, and I was sick all the time, with everything from noroviruses to scarlet fever. I told myself that I was hosting illnesses so the baby wouldn’t and, whether or not there’s any truth to that, I found it somewhat comforting. I never made a connection, not then, between my dad’s struggling body and my own. On the way to Cleveland, I learned that my dad was starting radiation treatment, as a kind of last-ditch effort against the cancer. I was supposed to meet Srinivas at the members’ reception on the first day of the conference. I went to the reception, in the beautiful lobby of the art museum, and caught a glimpse of him, and talked to a few people, before realizing that I was ill and might pass out. I persuaded one of the shuttle buses to take me back to the hotel, where I went to my room and spent most of the remainder of the conference on the floor of the bathroom.

 

  1. In January 2014, I see Srinivas at another conference in Chicago. He teases me about avoiding him in Cleveland (“I saw you briefly drift through the reception!” he says), and I’m not sure how fervently to protest, to tell him how completely opposite were my intentions. I tell him that I wasn’t feeling well and missed out on a lot of things I’d wanted to do; I don’t tell him that I spent those three days being turned inside out. We decide to co-host a dinner at an upcoming conference, just a couple months away, in Williamsburg. It turns out he is in line to become president of that society in a couple of years. It’s a big deal, and he’s in his element at the dinner, at which I meet several people I’d only known from reading their publications. I feel better than I have for two years, and like things, which had been unraveling in and around me all that time, are now coming together.

 

  1. My mother-in-law died suddenly in early 2011. We had been in Canada, where I moved for my current job, for about a year and a half. Her sudden, severe illness may or may not have been the result of the medication she took for rheumatoid arthritis. One of the ways I responded to our loss of her was to stop taking birth control; I felt immensely guilty that we didn’t have the baby we’d always planned to have in time for them to know each other. When my daughter was about a year old she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. For the past two years it has caused persistent uveitis in both of her eyes, which now requires more advanced treatment. In a few weeks she will start taking the same medication my mother-in-law was taking. Our doctors assure us it is no fun but not known to be life-threatening for child patients.

 

  1. When I was at my first tenure-track job, my friend Douglas’s marriage broke down. I’d known him since my freshman year at Columbia: he was an older PhD student who taught my section of Logic and Rhetoric, the mandatory composition class for first-year undergrads. He told me that semester that I would go on to do a PhD in English and he was right. On one of my papers he wrote that I was poised to become an “enfant terrible of literary criticism” and I had to look up both “enfant terrible” and “literary criticism” to understand the compliment. I was seventeen. He sent me CDs in the mail all through grad school, and when I started this blog, he read it diligently from the very first post. But then he never responded when I invited him to my wedding in 2008, a couple years into that first job, and I knew it was because his marriage had collapsed and he had a beautiful new girlfriend, and it was fine, I was only a little annoyed. Some time before that, I had kind of unintentionally blown him off at a conference—he and I were in different fields, and so generally went to different conferences, but his girlfriend happened to be presenting at this one. He’d asked me to hang out with them and I said I would, but then I didn’t. That’s how this conference always is: too busy to see everyone enough. This was the conference at which I finally met Laura, a scholar whose work I admired, who has since remained a friend and mentor and even reviewed my book for a journal in our field, and I chose to keep talking with her instead of joining Douglas and his girlfriend when they came into the hotel bar. I took a bus to the airport at the end of that conference, and I called Douglas to apologize for not hanging out, and as we were talking the bus actually passed him standing on a street corner, and we waved at each other. I didn’t see him again. A few weeks after my wedding I received an email from his girlfriend telling me that he had died of a very quick cancer, right around the time I was getting married.

 

  1. My dad never recovered from the radiation treatment. After returning home from Cleveland I went to New York to visit him in the hospital, and was seized by the same norovirus after just an hour or two in Sloan Kettering, which kept me in bed, and inside out, for several days. He passed away in May 2013, just a couple hours after the end of his 62nd birthday. My book, which I dedicated to my parents as I’d always planned to do, came out that same month, in time for my dad to see it, but not to read it.

 

  1. My youngest sister is due to give birth to her first child this month. The last stage of her pregnancy has been difficult in ways I’m fully aware of but don’t completely understand because she lives in New Zealand and we communicate mostly by texting. She says they may induce labor this weekend. I believe things are fine but mostly because I haven’t allowed myself to think that they’re not. I haven’t planned to go to New Zealand anytime soon, so I don’t know when I will next see her.

 

  1. I have cousins in Pittsburgh, my dad’s cousins, but I didn’t make time to see any of them while I was there for the conference last week, because that’s how this conference is. Not enough time. I was presenting two papers from my current book project and trying to see as many friends and colleagues as possible. One of my dad’s cousins has recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and another one’s slower-moving cancer has recently spread. My dad’s mother, my Grandma Nonna, died of cancer at 53. I was five and I still remember her. I frequently have to talk myself out of imaginatively quantifying how much time I have left before a cancer takes me, and how much could be read and written in that amount of time.

 

  1. I have breakfast with my dear friend Dana in Pittsburgh. I first met Dana at another conference in 2010. We both have dogs who preceded our children and her dog has recently died, very suddenly. Mine is on medication for hyperthyroidism, which made her age very suddenly and dramatically this past year. I have joked with people about how, weirdly, both of my babies are being treated for arthritis. We talk about overseeing, and being overtaken by, the death of beloved pets.

 

  1. Since my dad got sick, and especially since he died, I have been pathological about losing things—tormented by things I’ve discarded that I would now like back, or about not being able to remember things I’m certain I knew at some point, or about recording things that are happening, whether they seem worth saving or not, because how else will I know that they have happened? So this is uncanny: I draft this essay in the Notes app on my iPhone this morning because it starts to come to me at the gym. I write a lot down, standing in the midst of the nautilus machines, and close the note, and then the app does something and a random selection of notes just disappear from the folder, including the one I’ve just written. I spend the next 2 hours on the phone with the highest levels of Apple support, and they dredge up lots of old, deleted data from my iCloud, but not this essay. Writing this paragraph makes me cry because this is not the essay I wrote about all this.

 

  1. About nine months after my dad died, I dreamed that he called me on the phone, and said, “I haven’t seen you for a while. Do you know why?”

 

  1. The piece of the iPhone draft I regret losing the most was something about how disruptive death is—about how there’s never a good time to do it, which is something I’ve said in the past about both having a baby and writing a book—about how, even though I’m writing a book about the way that culture reminds us in persistent and unexpected ways of our perpetual mortality, I still find these manifestations of it deeply intrusive, and disorienting, like our shared life is always happening over here while I’m always paying attention to something over there. I feel like I grasped something, in a sentence along these lines, but now it escapes me.

2 thoughts on “Our Perpetual Mortality.

  1. I love your posts about Rooby, always. And I’ve been a ‘fan’ since LJ days. But this great big thoughtful albeit incomplete (by your words) post is just wonderful. I’ve experienced the death of a good friend and the death of a friend’s dad in the last week and …yes. Death is disruptive, but I know that’s not all you are saying here. Thank you for a thoughtful start to my day, and some insight into the person I first *met* when she was a grad student.

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