Peggy’s mother died last night.
During the years that I dealt with people in crisis—as a funeral director, ambulance driver, phlebotomist, respiratory therapy technician, and peer counselor—I developed the belief that I had a greater than average ability to help people whose lives were in turmoil. I have since discovered my error. After 37 years of marriage, I can no more tell what Peggy is feeling than if we had recently met. It’s not that I’m oblivious, but rather that my perceptions run in reverse to her reality. If I think she is angry, she is as likely as not to be in a pacific mood; or if I ask her if she is sad, she will often tell me that she is happy. Such mistakes are the norm rather than the oddity, and I can but reflect that if I am incapable of discerning Peggy’s moods, then I can certainly entertain no hope of understanding anyone else’s.
Some years ago, Walt and I had many of the same friends, at least until Walt told me that, without exception, they could find nothing good to say about me in my absence, that they were, in reality, pretending to be my friends so as to not hurt my feelings. When I approached people about what Walt had said, they denied it flatly, and accused Walt of being the one who not only could find nothing good to say about me, but was trying to turn everyone else against me too. This left me considerably confused, yet they have, to a person, left my life while Walt remains. Maybe that’s what he intended.
Walt and Peggy are the people I am close to, so if they tell me—in effect—that I cannot trust my perceptions of others, then I have to take that seriously. The paradox is that, if it is true, then neither can I trust my perceptions about them. I am therefore left to feel that I don’t—even that I can’t—know anyone deeply. I view other people as if they were standing on the wrong end of a telescope. This has caused me to feel so estranged from my species that, if half of them were to die tomorrow, my only concern would be the effect on the financial markets.
Peggy very much needed my emotional support last night when she learned of her mother’s death, but I was at a loss. I could make her airline reservations, pack her lunch, and drive her to Portland, but these were concrete things that I knew how to do, and the effectiveness of which I could judge. By contrast, I had no faith that I could understand what Peggy was experiencing, and I felt that my every word to her was wrong.
I looked forward to the sunrise on my drive home, but instead the air grew chilly and a steady drizzle fell. I hadn’t slept, and—at 5:00 a.m.—had already consumed more than my daily ration of coffee. Johnny Cash sang the same sad songs over and over on a CD, and I brooded over my inability to understand other people in any significant way, and, furthermore, on their inability to understand me.
I thought about how quickly I could end my alienation by running the car into the end of a guardrail. Every guardrail I came to appeared to have been designed to minimize such an impact, but I figured that a speed of 120 ought to do the trick. I even told myself that, since I was in a rental car, Peggy wouldn’t be inconvenienced by having to buy a new vehicle. But, I also thought about what a blow my death would be to her, especially now. Still, the thought was tempting by virtue of its quickness. Then I remembered that the dogs were with me, and my unlikely fantasy came to an end.
I live among feelings as a blind man lives among colors.
When Robert Howard’s mother died, he killed himself. Actually, he didn’t even wait for her to die. When she fell into her final coma, he shot himself in the head. He was thirty; the year was 1936; and the place was Cross Plains, Texas.
Reading Robert Howard’s horror stories at bedtime makes for some interesting dreams. Two nights ago (the last night that I slept), I dreamed that I came upon an automobile accident. An old man was laid out on the sidewalk. He said he was afraid to die and pleaded for reassurance. As I drew closer in the dim light, I saw that his entire face above the mouth was gone, and his brain with it. As I stared into his empty skull, I was stricken with grief and horror, yet I wanted with all my might to comfort this corpse that had yet to learn that it was dead. To want so much to give, yet to have nothing to offer beyond, at most, what might be called logistical support brings me great sadness.
I spend my life confused. I can’t even say how much of what I just wrote about who I am is true. My dilemma is that, if Peggy and Walt are right about my inability to understand other people, then how can I trust that I understand myself? I can but offer that my feelings do not appear to me as either truths or lies, but as winds that blow through my head, and who can stop the wind?
Years ago, I met a man in Minneapolis who said he envied me because, “You know who you are, and I have no idea who I am.” I had never imagined such a scenario, and couldn’t comprehend what he meant. That was twenty years ago, and I know much more now than I did then, but who I am is no longer something that I know. Like a haunted Mayan village in a Robert Howard story, I have entered a realm that was easy enough to get into, but doesn’t appear to have an exit. I don’t mean that it is an altogether bad realm, because my sense is that it has more depth and, I think, more truth than the solid me I once knew—or imagined. If my expectations of how I can relate to other people are excessively dour today, they were excessively optimistic when I believed that every river could be bridged, every wound could be healed, and no one needed to be alone.
I believe that people survive either by denying the fatal futility of their brief existences or by compartmentalizing their minds so they don’t dwell on it. If I could do the same, I would. After all, what would I lose, truth having outlived its lustre?