from Marathon: A Story of Endurance and Friendship
How often between now and race day will I have to rededicate myself to this project? Happily, I have kept mostly on target for running, but the holidays have been murder on the diet, and the extra weight still has me working twice as hard as I need to do to get up those hills. I'm also beginning to appreciate hazards other than the boredom, illness, pain, drinking too much, and bad weather that could keep me from training successfully.Instead of decreasing the stress in your life, training often increases stress as your distances get longer and you have to find more and more time in the day for running. This means less time for writing, paying the bills, preparing the meals, working with William on speech and physical therapy, and all the little chores that eat up the day. And the extra demands you're making on your body in training require more sleep, so getting up earlier doesn't work.
The only thing William can really do on his own that he likes is gardening, but already this summer we've had a number of trips to the emergency room after I've tried letting him work on his own. After he's had his shower and breakfast I've got to be at least within earshot for the rest of the day. Yesterday he didn't answer my call, and I found him standing precariously on the hill in front of the house, saw in hand, trying to take down a small tree that was crowding out the rock garden. I cut it down in two seconds and then realized that instead of helping, all I'd done was point out his limitations to him once again. His great pride is that he is not allergic to poison ivy, and he goes around fearlessly pulling it out with his bare hands. He used to shock and amaze guests in the old days by walking the grounds and pulling out piles of it as it crept out of the woods. Friends would call him up to see if he had a free afternoon to work at their house just rooting it out. Once after such an expedition he came home and inadvertently patted me on the back. The next day I was marked with the perfect shape of his palm etched in poison ivy.
Friends and colleagues from the old days at the college come by for an hour or so during the week, and that helps a little. After his stroke I tried to enlist all of William's friends to read with him and study as Roald Dahl did for Patricia Neal after her stroke. There wasn't much in the way of therapy in those days, and Dahl simply invented a program of his own using volunteers. Right after her stroke neighbors began to tutor her in the fundamentals of reading, writing, arithmetic, as though she were just beginning grade school. Anything that might stimulate speech and keep her spirit engaged was worth a try. Though professional therapists now worry a little about possible harm from such untrained volunteers, it seems to me that any human contact made in good faith has to be beneficial, unless the volunteer acts like a drill sergeant and starts pushing the patient around. Dahl's system remains the basis of certain therapy programs in England to this day, though he and Neal have long since divorced.
A few friends have stuck with William's program over the years, and the progress he's made is due to that sort of consistency. When he first had his stroke he couldn't say a single word and was completely paralyzed on the right side of his body. After years of very hard physical therapy he now walks just fine. We have lifetime memberships at the local spa, and he swims like a porpoise. But William can't write or read more than newspaper headlines, though he does understand everything he hears. He has minimal language to make himself sufficiently understood most of the time for basic needs. But that this great poet whose whole life was language should suffer from expressive aphasia, that his soul should be held hostage by his own damaged body, is an irony I can hardly imagine sometimes. In the early years after his stroke we were taking a little vacation in San Juan when his situation first became really clear to me.
Your face brightens
watching the delivery truck
navigate the tiny
labyrinth of Old San Juan.
It tries another approach,
backs down the street
out of my view. But
the dilemma continues,
reflected in the
glass doors of the cafe.
From where you sit
I suppose you see the driver
throw up his hands and
curse the horns blowing
behind him. Are they
blowing so angrily at him?
You watch the bemused
pedestrians perhaps, or a
cop who stops flirting
with the sweet brown girl
and wanders over to do his duty.
I can only see
flashes of truck headlights,
a girl's blue blouse, a
policeman waving his arm—
the event only shattered
pieces dropped into the end
of a kaleidoscope.
The tables have turned:
I'm the one who must
piece the shards together,
imagine reality from
I see the enormity of your
courage and close my eyes.
If there is one thing I've learned about taking care of William after his stroke, it's that things take time. I saw a poster once with the ocean crashing against the cliffs and the simple message below: Things take time. It may not sound like an astounding insight, but if families could only appreciate this fact in the soul-crushing first few months after a loved one has had a stroke, the situation wouldn't seem so hopeless. A corollary platitude I could offer is that the grueling work of rehabilitation is worth it. The day after you've smashed up your new Porsche and your nose and maybe an arm or two and your head is throbbing and there's the law to deal with and your eyes look like purple plums or the mask on a raccoon, you might think it better if the ambulance had never found you wrapped around that telephone pole. But in weeks or maybe months things begin to heal, maybe never perfectly, maybe with nasty scar tissue, but at least you're still in the ball game and there's hope of moving on to better days. At my birthday party three weeks ago William stood up and gave me a simple, beautiful toast. The pretty girl sitting beside him was moved to tears. The rum cake was enough to make you faint.
When you begin to look after someone who has had a stroke, it seems impossible that anything will ever change. Everything the patient does takes forever to accomplish. Tying his or her shoes becomes a triumph of independence, but may require an hour to achieve. Every detail of his or her waking life is negotiated at turtle speed. And when you live in close to a person with a handicap, it is as easy to appreciate progress as to watch your hair grow out. But if you can develop patience and appreciate the long haul, one day, a number of years later, you and your friend sit on a deck sipping Campari as the big ship pulls into some aquamarine bay in the Caribbean. You're tan, well dressed, and looking forward to lobster. Maybe it isn't living happily ever after, but the pleasure of life at least doesn't have to disappear from the horizon forever just because of a stroke.
Even under normal circumstances, though, once a person retires from academic life he might as well have died or gone to live in Wyoming. Academic politics are too intense to accommodate those without power. Life in the slow lane isn't where it's at when you're breaking the speed limit to get tenure, or the Pulitzer, the department chairmanship, or the chairman's wife. Cynicism can eat you up when the support you get from people you'd expect to help is polite and mostly token. The person responsible for the care has to be realistic too about what to expect from friends. People live very busy lives, what can you say? You can't really blame anyone.
Some individuals raise children, write novels, take care of an aging parent, keep a house, and maintain a husband. My lot seems pretty insignificant by comparison, I suppose, but I feel burdened at times. The key is to keep from feeling resentment or self-pity. You've got to treat yourself every now and then, take a vacation, eat a Dove Bar, run a marathon.
But were the old days any less hectic with each of us trying to maintain a career, and keep our love alive long distance? When we were far from each other for too long, the mail invariably brought a note like this one:
A Half-year Come and Gone
In the hours it takes to turn the world
half over, you pried the heart out of a warm grey chest.
I missed it alJ September.
the world has tilted north again,
while we kept warm together in
cycles of our own turning.
I tell you, keep the heart.
Halfway, halfway in a happy year
I tell you I can't remember
a prettier half-reversal of this sphere.
Our life has always been very social, a busy life filled with travel and many friends. Each of us came to his sexuality before Stonewall, and neither of us is particularly political or feels it necessary to declare his "sexual orientation." Unenlightened, perhaps, but more a question of aesthetics, I think, for each of us. I've never felt comfortable with the easy flirtation and highpitched familiarity of gay bars, for example, though I keep returning to them like someone afraid of heights who forces himself to take the elevator every day. Neither of us is afraid to fight for civil rights when that's needed, but our own friendship has always been a very private affair, and William's illness has reinforced that "life-style," as people say today.
Last winter a stupid commercial on television combined a line from a popular song, "I haven't got time for the pain," with shots of people returning to hard physical jobs sufficiently relieved of arthritis pain or a headache by taking Tylenol or Bayer Aspirin. William and I happened to get a wicked flu about that time and felt just awful. We simply went to bed and didn't get up, except to eat, for four days. "William, baby," I said, when the commercial came on the TV at the foot of the bed, "we've got time for the pain."
When I go to a new town and decide to jog around on my own I'm always amazed how much more I see than if I had zoomed around on the tour bus. People in a hurry don't live very long. Repeat one hundred times slowly, Richard. People in a hurry don't live very long.
from October 19th
Aaron Copeland's Billy the Kid Suite came on the radio, sad in parts but of perfect complexity for keeping me interested during my run. I realized after a few more miles that I had begun chanting to myself, a stupid mnemonic that lulled me into a half dream state and kept from calculating how far I had to go and debating on whether or not to stop.
"GUTS and TOES, GUTS and TOES, GUTS and TOES," I sang to myself as I ran. The phrase had nothing to do with running, actually, had no relation ot fomr or fortitude. GUTS and TOES were a couple of those goony anagrams my physicist freind Dave occasionally drops on me when he's revising his textbook and needs a layman to explain things to. Last year he tried the differences between two mathematical models for the universe that go beyond Einstein and attempt to explain the whole enchilada. The Grand Unifying Theory (the GUT) is a little flawed because it doesn't account for gravity. Proponents of the Theory of Everything (TOE), however, go way beyond the four dimensions we know about and speculate that there are seven dimensions that "fold up" somehow and precede those dimensions we can account for.
"It all sounds a little too mystical to be science," I said.
"Listen to this," he said, pulling out a book called God and the New Physics. "Physicists are now talking about the 'self-creating universe,' a cosmos that erupts into existence spontaneously, much as a subnuclear particle sometimes pops out of nowhere in certain high-energy processes."
It seemed to me that they were just eliminating the problem with double talk. "You know what dirty Harry always says, Dave. 'Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.' "
The tone of our dialogue breaks down a little when I feel I've slipped out of my depth with Dave. It's a sign for him to tighten up his presentation. Still, I liked the idea of all those different dimensions folding in or out on themselves like a chambered nautilus. What would the various chambers defining reality contain? Coincedental other universes paralleling our own, perhaps, in dimension six, all of history fleshed out in its entirety coming around to meet the future liek a snake biting its tail in dimension seven? That's a dimension I would gladly seek out in some time machine of the future. Who wouldn't like to go back into the past to revise or just relive his life? I think sometimes of all the years William and I shared before his stroke, the wonderful times that have accumulated and shaped the vessel of our lives' friendship, out there somewhere, intact in the seventh dimension.
How can I say that the William I know and love now, disabled, dependent, sometimes childilke in his perceptions, is any less real than the William who took me to visit Auden for a week in Austria the summer before he died, or the William who met my challenge flat out and admitted in the middle of a party at Bread Loaf taht he wanted to go to bed with me? We still get the thumbs up from awestruck teeenagers when we drive around in the little '62 Mercedes sportscar he had when we first met. The wit, the self-assurance, the Byzantine intelligence still inform his decisions, "the shape of his mind," as he would say. None of that is lost to me somehow. I enter the chambered nautilus and can hear him talking to Lowell, moderating a panel at the Library of Congress, defending his decision to boycott the White House. I can trace that spirit in a letter he sent when my terrier died and I was far away from home.
Sunday, 3 April, 1977
Astra was hit by a motorcycle this morning and killed. She apparently died on impact, and was lying on the road in front of the barn by the time Bob got there, with Lady standing over her. The boy who hit her tried very hard not to: he braked the bike and went over the handlebars and skidded fifty feet till the bike hit one of the guard posts below the drieveway. He did a lot of damage to his new motorcycle, and hurt his leg and his hand—I tell you all this because if you'd been here you would have felt, I think, that he did what he could to avoid the accident. I couldn't believe she was dead, because there was hardly a scratch on her, and she didn't make a sound—we were all working near the road, I in the rock garden. Bob and several of the boys digging trees on the slope below the driveway.
It was nobody's fault. The two bikes—there were two friends—weren't speeding, and the boy endangered his life trying to stop and turn. Astra has run on this property for years and years and knewe about the road. I suppose she was just running across it.
What can I say. The Dawleys are all stricken. Even K, who is not a great dog lover, cired. She went down to the Point with me, where we buried Astra under the red pine, on the other side from my wonderful poodle Sandy. I am as sad as I can be. She was such a darling friend of a dog—we had had loving words within an hour of her death. She had a good life, and will not have the trouble of old age, and she knew that she was loved. I was trying to tell the Dawleys how, long ago, she was in the pound in Omaha, and I decided that must have been 1970 when you were in graduate school, so she was probably eight, if you got her as a pup. That makes her my age, I guess. Like me. She seemed to find it a happy age. She looked happy, lying there. I talked to her for a while before Bob told me she was dead.
I will call you at York on Saturday night or Sunday morning after your plane arrives. I feel as wretched about this as any of Astra's friends, maybe even including you.Yours, William
Time collapses into itself creating something like an eternal present when you consider that a man's life must mean the totality of that life. William, it seems, must undergo the "trouble of old age," and I can no longer count on beautiful acts of friendship like his letter when bad luck coems barreling around the corner on a country road to stun my heart. But these are only points along a line that continues forward and backward, the continuous present of our friendship. We've helped each other create the world for each other. The course of tha friendship might be rocky at times, sometimes like jogging in the rain on an island made of garabage, but we decided long ago always to try to run through such bad weather for the sake of the race.
Invariably, the landmark you thought you would never reach fades into
the distance behind you and you are finally home. You can take a swim
and wash away all the breakdown products polluting your blood, or you
can try for a few more miles and push your training to the limit. Maybe
drink a Bloody Mary or two and fall back into bed with your friend to
sleep the sleep of the dead until it's time for supper the way I did
yesterday when I ran around the bay in San Diego.