|Peggy, Kurt, and Jackie|
Peggy is sick with a cough that she gets every year and that is unrelated to having a cold. We spent the summer of 1986 in Fresno, California, where, it is thought, Valley Fever caused a calcification in her lung, and that is where her cough always settles. Her internist says that nothing can be done, but I want her to see a pulmonologist when she goes on Medicare in four months because coughing several times a minute for weeks on end is a hard way to live. It’s also hard on me to listen to constant explosions and rattlings and feel helpless to do anything. In fact, I sometimes want to run from the house, and this makes me feel weak and guilty. I’m trying to get her to go in for antibiotics, but she worries about how much it will cost. Besides, Nurse Peggy is scared of doctors, and is therefore the last person go to one even when she needs to.
Today, March 1 (I’m finishing this on March 2), is my birthday. I’m 67. It’s strange to think that back in 1949, on a rare snowy morning in south Mississippi, my father was sitting in a waiting room while Dr. Bob helped my mother give me birth; and then to remember that my father has been dead 22-years, Dr. Bob for at least forty years, and my mother for 28-years. I try to picture her lying in her coffin in the cement vault that she requested, and wonder how well she’s escaping the physical deterioration that she feared. To me, nothing could be worse than to NOT deteriorate. I found her request about the vault offensive because it meant denying the earth its due, and for what?—to preserve a corpse that’s going to eventually rot anyway.
My father said he didn’t care what happened to his remains, so I had him cremated. I figured I would spread him somewhere, but didn’t know where, so he spent years in the hall linen closet all snug in the cardboard container that the crematory mailed him in. I happened to mention this to Peggy’s parents when they were here for a visit, and her mother became very upset that I cared so little for my father that I didn’t keep his remains in an honored place in an expensive container. She didn’t know or care that, had he been able, my father would have jumped down my throat if I spent money on an urn, or that he would have considered the hall linen closet homey. Peggy and Walt and I finally took him to the coast, thinking to leave him on Cape Perpetua, which is a mountain overlooking the Pacific. We got him up there, but the place just didn’t feel right somehow. We had no backup plan, so we took him walking along the beach (the beach being mostly sharp, uneven, and jagged basalt), hoping to find a place that felt right. The day was windy and overcast, but just as we got to a volcanic chute called “The Devil’s Churn” (a place where the breakers explode back upon one another with enormous noise, spray, and violence after being funneled between walls of basalt), the wind stopped, the sun came out, and the place and moment seemed perfect, so that’s where I left my father, scooping him from the box with my bare hands, bone fragments and all. My mother-in-law would have been way upset by where we left him, so I never told her. Other people haven’t thought much of it either. You don’t expect criticism about where you scatter your father’s ashes, but people looked at me like I must have held him in such contempt that I had become unhinged, so I stopped telling them.
(Father) Brent came to see me last week. I had no agenda, and he had no agenda, so we simply talked for an hour. It took months to arrange this visit—which he suggested—because he stays so busy, and because he had to cancel at the last minute on one occasion, which isn’t unusual for him, and which I don’t mind. I asked him if it’s possible for an introvert to be a priest, and he said probably not. I then offered that I had once imagined that extroverts were more open with their feelings, but it finally dawned on me that they simply talk more, and that introverts are often better able to be emotionally present. I made it clear that I included him in this assessment, and he readily agreed. We all have our limitations, and keeping people at a distance is his, but he’s still a good man. I don’t know him well enough to say I love him, but I do respect him. I also worry about him, because being unable to know what’s really going on for him makes me fear the worst. I very much wish that he and I could be friends, but he lacks the time, and I have no idea if he has the desire. Not only does he have his priestly job, he raises chickens for sale, and kills them himself. This bothers me not a little, but there’s no point in bringing it up. No doubt, his chickens have better lives than factory chickens, but they still end up with their throats cut in ISIS fashion.
Peggy’s father, Earl, is another man who is emotionally distant. Even his daughters don’t feel that they really know him because he turns aside any questions of a personal nature. After Peggy’s mother died, I asked a neighbor of his to look in on him from to time, and the neighbor refused, saying, “Well, you know how he is.” I never worry about Earl, though, like I do about Brent because Earl is a tower of emotional strength and is nearly always in a good mood. He just turned 86 and is very much in possession of his “faculties,” as the saying goes.
Jackie and Kurt are coming for dinner tonight. They’re the only local friends I have left, the others having grown gradually more distant without me doing much to prevent it. My former best friend, Walt, very much wanted me to get a cellphone so we could text, texting being his primary means of communication. I could look out the window right now and probably see two or three people walking, biking, or skateboarding, past the house while texting. Yesterday, while leaving Costco, I saw three people texting between the cash register and the door. Peggy and two friends have gone away together for a three-day weekend every year for decades, only now Peggy complains that they’re texting every minute they’re not talking to one another, and this discourages her from trying to make conversation because she feels like she would be interrupting. There’s an addictive quality about these goddamn cellphones, and when Walt said that I needed to either get one or our friendship would suffer, it was like hearing a recent convert say that our friendship depended upon me going to church with him. I not only don’t want to text, I despise the very thought of being one of these people who walk—or worse yet, drive—the street with their thumbs on their little “devices.” There’s something unmanly about these things.
It’s easier being friends with cats if only because they don’t have cellphones. I very much miss having local friends in my life, but I take my Internet friendships seriously, and when one of those friends is hurting, I can but wish that geographical distance didn’t make it impossible for me to give them something more than emotional support… My expectations of what other people can and will offer is so low that I look upon finding a friend as like finding a needle in a haystack. Still, I’m friendly to everyone, often strike-up conversations with strangers, and even look for ways to be helpful to others, if only by opening a door or drawing them out if they seem unhappy. I’m not the kind of a recluse that is unapproachable, but simply the kind that has low expectations.
Besides, I love my cats. I have concluded that Ollie is the most beautiful and wonderful cat in the world, and that the Egyptians would have had a cult—complete with priests and temples—just for him. I love his personality, his playfulness, his sweetness, and his extraordinary beauty. I mean, what’s not to love! I’ve mentioned that I no longer feel much attracted to women, and, oddly enough, I guess, this makes me more physically attracted to all manner of other things. It’s not that I want to have sex with cats and daffodils (my favorite flower), but that while I used to appreciate such things in my head, I have come to feel admiration within my body. It’s an extraordinary experience after having lived for all those decades fixated on the beauty of women. Now, in all honesty, women aren’t even near the top of things that I find beautiful, and there’s a feeling of emptiness when I try to recapture the passion that I once felt for them. You might wonder if this doesn’t make me feel less of a man. No, it makes me feel more of a man because I’m no longer a slave to how women regard me. Whether a woman is old or young, beautiful or homely, I don’t care, so I make no greater effort to win the favor of the one than of the other. They’ve lost their goddess stature to me, and this has enabled me to know viscerally—as opposed to intellectually—that they’re on the road to rot as surely as anything else. For those many years, I thought that their beauty gave them power and protection if not immorality, and now all such feelings are gone.
Oh, but I miss having dogs. Still, cats are good too. Peggy won’t even go with me anymore to a pet store or a rescue shelter because she knows I’ll fall in love with some cat, and get all bummed when she won’t let me bring it home. She’s afraid I’ll turn out like her sister who has nine cats, bitches about them all the time, says she’s just waiting for them to die so she can have a better life, and then calls to announce that she has taken in yet another cat. Pam’s cats are different from mine though in that they hate themselves, one another, human beings, and the world at large. I think this is because Pam doesn’t spend time with them, and because her idea of disciplining—whether cats or children—is to yell at them continually in her naturally loud voice.
I just bought my third letter by Margaret Deland. They’re all handwritten, but here is the text of the latest (Newbury St is in Boston):
My dear Mrs Raymond—
Thank you for your letter. To feel that in your own personal sadness, you were willing to to come here to help lessen somebody elses sadness, is a real comfort to me; indeed any such expression of unselfish courage makes for the bettering and brightening of the world. I write this because I want you to know that I appreciate your coming to the Jonquil Sale. In spite of the weather, it went off pretty well, thanks to the kind people who like jonquils; — but the needs of the poor sick lady for whom I had the sale are so especially pressing this year, that I was sorry I did not have the help of sunshine.
Thank you for coming, and for your letter—
35 Newbury St—
I did better than expected on my birthday, my best gift coming from Kurt and Jackie who gave me a card on which Kurt had written: “Happy birthday to our dearest friend.”
Sometimes, I feel like no one cares—except for my Internet friends—and then I get something like that, along with a visit and a bouquet from Shirley, a check from Earl, and several cards and letters from other friends. I can’t understand people, so all I know to do is to be, as much as possible, kind to them because nothing else brings either them or me anything of good. The negativity that I share with you is not the face that I show to the world—except on my worst days. I have discovered that’s there’s no greater blessing in life than to treat people well without any expectation that they reciprocate. Of course, they usually do, but when they don’t, I can but hope that my attempt at friendliness nevertheless made their lives better. Thus, I try in my humble way to be a vessel of blessings, and you, my readers, help me with this. I fully trust that a great many of you care deeply about me, very much want to know my thoughts and feelings, and will continue to be my friends even when you disapprove of something I said. I’ve known some of you for at least eight years and maybe ten. Others have left me during that time, some due to anger, some to a loss of interest in me in particular or in blogging in general, and others to death, but we who remain continue to bring sunshine into one another’s lives to the best of our often limited ability. I would grieve the loss of many of you no less for having never laid eyes on you, because no one whose face I have seen could be nearer to my heart. That physical yet non-sexual passion that I hold within my body for the things that I love is yours. It’s as if you’re a magnet, and I’m being drawn into you. I tingle and feel warm just knowing that you’re alive, and to reflect upon what a treat it is to have friends in Nigeria, England, Canada, India, Australia, and, of course, America! It is through you that I see the world, and through you that my sympathy for people who live in faraway places exists in a very real way, a way that it wouldn’t otherwise exist at all.