An SS noncommissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order:
“Men to the left! Women to the right!”
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance: my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand.
—from Night by Elie Wiesel, on his family’s arrival at Auschwitz in 1944
“During the tour I became separated from the group, and, searching blindly through the corridors of the Galleria dell’Accademia, I came upon the statue from the wrong direction. Suddenly there it was. My first glimpse of it was from the reverse. It is normally viewed from the front, and from that direction one sees a powerful body firmly planted on the earth, poised, balanced, muscular, set in its essential form, like the triumph of the will.
“But I saw it first from an entirely different vantage point: viewed from behind, the figure appeared to be glancing back over his shoulder. The image of the noble torso was dominated by David’s facial expression. The eyes, the mouth, the brows, and the sinews of the face were taut with an emotion that is so quintessentially human: a split second of uncertainty and a groping for faith, the moment when courage overcomes terror—not as animal instinct but as a spiritual decision. From the front it appears as an embodiment of confident resolve; from the rear it is about doubt. That was the artist’s intention, and that is its word. It is concerned above all with the struggle of the human spirit.”
—from Strangers and Sojourners, Michael D. O’Brien
Well, it has been a funny old Christmas in these parts. About half of us, including me, were sick with a rather vicious bug on Christmas Eve & Christmas Day—fever, chills, aches, cough—and others succumbed over the weekend. Today, Tuesday, the fifth day of Christmas, most of us have climbed back to normal. I’m sitting in the playroom watching three girls ride scooters in rings around the patio, while half a dozen sparrows scold them from the bushes. The feeder sat empty since Wednesday (you can tell I was really sick) and the birds are very happy to have their feast before them at last.
On Christmas Eve, around light-twinkling time, I was starting to feel a little sorry for myself, knowing I’d miss Mass the next morning. Then I thought about Billy and started writing the post I’ve been carrying in my heart for a very long time, and that snapped everything back into perspective. We had a lovely Christmas, fever and chills nothwithstanding. Happy children, the Babe in the manger, candy canes, beeswax candles tied with red ribbon, sparkly lights on the neighbor’s palm trees, a snuggly blanket and a little girl at just the right age for that stack of Jan Brett books she found in the basket. Scott took the healthy kids to church on Christmas morning and I stayed home with the little ones. Later he made a ham dinner. A good day. They are all good days, even the hard ones.
Today I feel almost back to normal, except for the lingering cough. I wandered into the backyard this morning and started pulling weeds, and suddenly there were pruners in my hand and I was whacking away at three months’ worth of neglect. I chopped the overgrown salvia bushes back to reasonable clumps, and beneath their straggly branches we found legions of seedlings: columbine and nasturtium, mostly.
And in the veggie patch the delightful surprise of a tomato plant and some tender cilantro seedlings. It’s all looking very springy back there and I know that must sound so strange to all my friends in the wintry parts of the world. Three years here, and this climate is still a wonder to me.
Against the back wall, a geranium is blooming: here’s where I find my Christmas red and green.
Now it’s later, and Scott is chopping potatoes for soup. It got cold here fast when night fell, chilling my toes, but the girls are still out there riding. Rose’s Christmas present was a new bike, inspiring a new passion for all wheeled conveyances, it seems.
Whack, whack, the knife on the cutting board. Shrrr, shrrr, the wheels on the cement. “You know what just occurred to me?” asks Scott. “Meryl Streep really did have to learn to chop onions at a dizzying speed.” He’s thinking of Julie & Julia, and he’s right, that was one of the scenes where I forgot I was watching an actress play Julia Child. Tonight, after the kids are down, I think we’ll watch part three of Lark Rise to Candleford, which we started last night. I’m so enjoying seeing Lydia Bennet of the BBC Pride & Prejudice all grown up and doing well. (Though I wish she’d spend less time riding horses with the Squire. Worrisome.)
That’s the fifth day of Christmas in these parts.
Tonight I am thinking of Billy, as I do this time every year.
Billy was 15 when we met him, a tall, sturdy boy, athletic, strong. He was a sophomore in high school and an adventure rollerblader, the kind of fearless kid who rides down stair rails on his skates. We met him on the cancer ward at the children’s hospital. Jane was two, pretty deep into her high-dose chemo regimen for leukemia at that point. Billy had leukemia too.
Jane and Billy were roommates several times during the nine months of Jane’s in-patient chemo protocol. I will never forget the sight of big, strapping Billy sitting patiently beside my tiny little toddler on a hospital chair, entertaining her with fantastic playdough creations. To this day the smell of playdough brings to my mind the picture of Billy and Jane, her giggles, his affectionate grin, their two bald heads.
Billy had a different form of leukemia than Jane’s, one that could be harder to fight. His chemo regimen was pretty intense and he had months of terrible sickness. Throughout the ordeal he was goodnatured and upbeat, sweet to his mother, charming to the nurses. He looked forward to turning sixteen and learning to drive; he had been saving for a Corvette since he was 12 years old and had managed to squirrel away over a thousand dollars so far.
One day there was a ripple of excitement in the cancer ward. A radio station was having a contest: whoever could get the most famous celebrity to call in on his or her behalf would win…a Corvette. We were wild for Billy to win, all of us, the patients, parents, doctors, nurses. Everyone wracked their brains for any kind of celebrity contacts who might be persuaded to call in on Billy’s behalf. Scott had met Mark Hamill a couple of times in the Batman offices—these were the days when Scott was a Batman editor and Mark was doing the voice of the Joker for the animated show. If you called Scott at work and got his voice mail, it was Mark Hamill’s Joker voice you heard on the message.
So Scott put a call in, but Mark was away and couldn’t be reached. No matter: a nurse came running in with the exciting news that somebody in the lab knew somebody who worked on the set of Frasier. Kelsey Grammar had agreed to call in for Billy.
We huddled around the radio, waiting anxiously for the call. Billy was calm, grinning, enjoying the fun, while his mother and most of the other adults were jittery with hopeful anticipation. The big moment arrived: the radio host said he had a very special caller on the line. “Can you hear me, sir?” he asked.
And that rich and mellifluous voice rolled out the words we all knew so well from his show: “I’m listening.”
We screamed with laughter—then hushed, suddenly, because there was a second voice chiming in, dapper and sprightly: “Hello hello!”
“NILES!” shouted Billy’s mother, Jen. It was true: Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce were on the line. Billy was a shoo-in for that Corvette, for sure.
Alas, it was not to be. Kelsey and David were out-celebritied by one Mr. Paul Newman, who called in on behalf of the guy who worked as the cook at Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp, a summer camp for kids with cancer. Jen shrugged and said, “Well, yeah. I mean, Paul Newman.”
“Really?” asked Billy. “Who the heck is Paul Newman?”
He took his loss in good stride, remarking that if he had to lose, he was glad it was to a guy who worked at that camp. Besides, he had his Corvette savings fund. Some of us mothers may have grumbled a bit, ahem, feeling that if only Luke Skywalker had been in town he might have given Butch Cassidy a run for his money. (But probably not. I mean, Paul Newman.) But Billy was a great sport, and the whole thing was a bright spot in a string of difficult, chemo-filled days.
The only time I ever heard Billy break down was the day the doctors told him one of his chemo drugs had seriously and irreparably damaged his heart. Jane’s protocol, too, involved high doses of this very dangerous drug, but she was one of the fortunate ones; her heart suffered no ill effects from it. But Billy…Billy’s heart had taken a blow. Jane and I were on the other side of a hospital curtain, watching Blue’s Clues on her video monitor, when the doctors broke the news. You try not to listen, but those rooms are tiny and even with the curtain pulled, you are sitting practically side by side. Billy was told his days of adventure skating were behind him, and he would have to avoid contact sports. On our TV, Steve asked the audience if they had any ideas where he might find the next clue, and in the silence before invisible children told him to check the refrigerator, I overheard the low sobs of a teenaged boy with a broken heart.
But the good news, the great news, was that the poison had worked: Billy’s cancer was gone. Around Christmas time he was jubilantly discharged in remission. He used his Make-a-Wish Foundation wish to take his family on a celebratory cruise, as I recall. I thought it was typically sweet of him to use the wish for something his whole family—mother, father, little brother—could enjoy together.
A day or two before Christmas, Jane and I walked into the hospital playroom and were surprised to discover that the playroom’s ancient, pokey, maddening excuse for a computer had been replaced by a state-of-the-art system, complete with printer and a stack of kids’ games on CD-ROM.
“It’s a present from Billy,” the playroom attendant told me. “He spent his Corvette money. He said the kids here should have a computer that really worked.”
Billy’s cancer was gone, and he hoped never to set foot in that playroom again. He spent his car fund. Even now, a dozen years later, I can’t think about it without tearing up.
And then, months later, his cancer returned. He endured a transplant, and then graft-versus-host disease, and finally, after years of fighting the valiant fight, Billy’s body had had enough. He was 19 when he died.
Every year at Christmas I think about him, about that gift he gave the kids in the playroom, the endless stream of children whose lives have been turned upside down and whose days and nights are filled with pain and sickness and needle-sticks and tedium. I think about the 12-year-old kid deciding to start saving up for a red Corvette, and the 16-year-old who was looking forward to learning to drive.
Mostly I remember the big kid shaping playdough monsters for my little girl, going rrrahr as the dinosaur stalked the blue bunny rabbit, and Jane convulsing with giggles. “More, more!”
His cardiac muscle may have given out in the end, but there was nothing, nothing in the world stronger than Billy’s heart.
The other day, Scott pointed out that we, all of us, haven’t yet settled upon a name for this decade. You know, like the Eighties, the Nineties, and so forth. I remember speculating about this in 1999, wondering if the decade-about-to-dawn would be called the Aughts like the first decade of the 20th century. It seemed too quaint to be possible—and too quaint it must have been indeed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use “the Aughts” this time around.
In 1999 my HarperCollins editor was going over publishing schedules with me, and she referred to the year 2002 as “2K2.” Evidently that’s how they were referring to the dates of the new century there, at that time, for a while. I don’t think it stuck. (I should ask.) I remember telling Scott about it after I got off phone and saying, “Do you think that’s what we’ll all say, instead of Two Thousand and Two?”
We didn’t. Whew.
But what are we going to say ten years from now, when the Teens are winding down? “Twitter? It came along in the Aughts.” The Os? The Zeros?
Ha, I just looked up “Aughts” to make sure I was spelling it right and it seems there’s a Wikipedia entry on this very topic. Wikipedia suggests we’ll be calling this decade “the 2000s.” That just seems silly to me. Speaking of silly, this line made me laugh:
“Unlike previous decades such as ‘The Fifties,’ ‘The Seventies,’ and ‘The Nineties,’ the 2000s never attained a universally accepted name in the English-speaking world.”
Seem a bit presumptuous to you? The decade’s not over yet and we’re already declaring it “never attained a universally accepted name”? Surely once a little time has passed we’ll settle upon a way to talk about this crazy, tumultuous span of years. Wikipedia says, and Scott mentioned this too, that some wags have suggested we call it the Noughts or the Noughties to reflect both the zeroes in the digits and the tanking economy. I can see that taking off in the UK but my guess is we Americans will wind up saying the Os. Or do I mean the Ohs?
December 21, 2009 @ 7:42 pm | Filed under: Books
I am pining for Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’m Reading” column, the one he wrote for The Believer. The one he stopped writing in September of 2008. The column that was published in three collected editions, which I wrote about here.
I love the way Hornby writes (wrote) about reading. He didn’t review books so much as he meditated upon his reading life. These ruminations were smart, funny, thought-provoking, and appetite-whetting.
I miss them.
Noel Perrin is another writer-about-reading whose work—A Child’s Delight and A Reader’s Delight—I greatly enjoy. He foreshadowed book blogs, really, with his self-appointed mission to talk about backlist titles most people have missed, but (in his view) shouldn’t have.
Who else? Who writes about the reading life in a way that makes you hungry to read the same books?
Ms. Mental Multivitamin comes to mind. (She’s the person from whom I learned about Hornby’s Believer column in the first place.) Oh, and Lizzie Skurnick, she of Jezebel’s Fine Lines column. In Fine Lines, Lizzie has revisited a vast number of the books she read as a child and teenager—everything from A Wrinkle in Time to Summer of Fear. Her columns, which are sometimes salty and often snarky, are insightful and always respectful of the text. Many of them were collected in a book called Shelf Discovery, which I ought to have put on my 2009 books-I-read list somewhere except I couldn’t figure out which month it should go under. Not that it matters, of course. Shelf Discovery was my take-along tome to gymnastics and other wait-y places last fall, so the reading of it stretched out over about three months, in fits and starts. I’d read and enjoyed many of the columns republished in the book, and they were just as engaging the second time around.
I subscribe to a staggering number of book blogs—so many that I feel quite paralyzed at the thought of singling any out by name. How could I choose? I can’t keep up with them all, anyway. I do tend to stay more current with the blogs that, like Hornby, discuss books rather than review them. It’s hard to explain. Before I’ve read a book, I don’t want to know too much about it. As I’m reading it, I burn burn burn to talk about it with anyone who will listen, and I have a habit of thrusting book after book upon longsuffering friends and husbands, begging them to read what I’m reading so we can tawk amongst ourselves.
Scott stayed up too late last night finishing a new Nick Hornby novel, Juliet Naked. Would you believe I haven’t read a single one of Hornby’s novels? I’ve seen the films based on his fiction: About a Boy (heart with many hearts) and High Fidelity (makes me extremely cranky). But I’ve not read the fiction itself. That’s very strange, considering the way I have devoured his literary nonfiction. This time Scott’s the one urging me to read the book. It’s funny, though. I thoroughly enjoy Hornby’s insights about other fiction, but I’m not sure I trust his wry, exasperated, subversive self to give me a story that’ll work the way I want a story to work. I guess we’ll see.
How far do you think I’ll get before I have to come write about it?
One of the many treasures of Balboa Park is the Spreckels Pipe Organ—the world’s largest outdoor musical instrument. San Diego employs a civic organist and offers free organ concerts on many Sunday afternoons throughout the year. I’ve been wanting to attend one ever since we moved here, and yesterday we happened to think of it just in time to catch the Christmas concert and community sing-along. The timing was perfect; my mother was visiting for the weekend. (She comes out for my birthday every year, which is the best possible present.)
We wore our new Christmas hats that my sister Merry made for us.
It was really too warm for them, but we were full of Christmas spirit.
As were the many doggies who attended the concert along with enthusiastic carol-singers.
It was all very merry and bright.
Possibly a little too bright.
Our all potential Christmas card photos turned out to be outtakes. That’s okay because I’ve already abandoned hope on sending out Christmas cards this year anyway.
The best part was when the organist invited audience members to join her onstage for the carol-singing. We didn’t know we’d get to be part of the concert! Beanie, Jane, and I were eager to sing. The rest of the gang watched from the back of the amphitheater.
We thought of our snowed-under East Coast friends when we sang White Christmas.
(Out here it’s a white T-shirt Christmas.)
The best part was the final song—an enthusiastic and somewhat ad-libbed rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. It is still ringing in my ears.
Methinks we have ourselves a new holiday tradition.
Thanks for the hats, sis!