My mother died this year, a day before Mother’s Day, after almost four years in a nursing home and finally hospice care; she was actually close to “graduating” from hospice, as they call it when the six months of extra attention Medicare pays for run out. But then she took a sudden turn for the worse and was gone overnight. Unable to get to Boston to say good-by, my sister and I stayed home and didn’t see her body for ourselves before the cremation I’d arranged by phone took place. They sent me her cremated remains, priority mail express. She wanted to be spread in Central Park; I haven’t even written the obituary yet, however.
Could it be, this personal neglect of our mother’s body rebounded against our own? For at the end of June in Boston, where I’d come to collect what things she’d left, I fell and broke my right wrist on a pickleball court about three minutes into my first lesson. Surprised out of a lucky and relatively doctor-free lifestyle, my body had to breast a flash flood of x-rays and forms and consultations and administrations of surgical drugs; a piece of metal was installed. Getting its bone density checked just lately by a radiologist, my body was lying flat on an exam table while a curious remote-operated contraption devoured the secrets of its insides from above. Meanwhile, my sister broke a tooth and had to get a crown: a summer, this, to be remembered as the one when our bodies reenacted our mother’s body’s final helpless consignment to the hands of competent strangers.
Mortality hits you, we agree. Getting on in age, eventually a year arrives when boom, the entire outlook on everything changes. Like a second puberty of sorts (or else the back door out of whatever it was that entering puberty kept us shut and sheltered in so long) with a second revelation to match. The first kept us thinking most of our lives about how everyone has sex; after this one, we see light hitting differently, new angles made clear. Primarily, everyone dies. As if through encroaching long-sightedness, this will be where the focus starts to fall from here on out–away from the sex life and onto the probable end. The same high percentage of pure speculation may be involved; many aspects of existence may appear unchanged. But in the head, behind the eyes, there’s been a complete alteration of tone. Now-ness has lost its savor, good reviews don’t tempt us. Except for looking almost uniformly sad and unappealing, youth has ceased to register. By contrast, Balzac dazzles.
I’m struck by the coincidence of having reached this new stage in my life at the same time that I’d been “paused” from work on The Last Man, my literary project of editing Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel for modern readers. My stopping point had been the scene after the first of the narrator’s children dies, and he himself has been exposed to plague; he’ll recover, the only person who ever does, but only after an insane, plague-fueled, nightlong love scene between husband and wife, something extraordinary. Mary Shelley lets herself go here, and then gets back to the melancholy but essential task (given her title) of killing off every human being on Earth except the one man writing down the story. When I resumed my work on the text this past week, I felt a readiness to go on and even a zeal that was missing all summer while my body made its unaccustomed rounds. Am I back to where I was? Or really more ready, permanently altered in a way that fits the narrative ahead?