Collected Poems 1909-1962 Excerpt from “Sweeney Agonists” in
by T.S. Eliot, copyright 1936 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., copyright ? 1963, 1964 byT.S. Eliot, reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Excerpt from “Burnt Notion” in Four Quartets
, copyright 1943 by T.S. Eliot, renewed 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot, reprinted by permission ofHarcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Copyright ? 1988 by David Morrell
Afterword copyright ? 1999 by Morrell Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
This book is dedicated to the staff, nurses, and physicians at the University of Iowa’sHospitals and Clinics. One of the largest teaching and research hospitals in the United States,it exemplifies the best, in terms of both skill and humane values, that the medical professionideally represents.
The nurses who administered to my son are too many to mention by name. Each did her or his partwith utmost sensitivity and talent. My wife, my daughter, and I remember you with gratitude andlove.
Of the physicians who cared for Matt, special thanks are due to Drs. Raymond Tannous, JanetGraeve, Kevin Pringle, Roger Giller, Brian Wicklund, Michael Trigg, Robert Soper, C. ThomasKisker, and Pedro De Alarcon.
Thanks are also due to Cecilia Coulas, Diane and Michael Batty, Barbara and Richard Montross,Helen and Nicholas Rossi, and Gloria and Rudolph Galask, without whose compassionate support myfamily and I would have felt even more lost. Fathers Henry Greiner and Greg Miller, trueservants of God, provided the spiritual consolation we so desperately craved.
But finally, crucially, this book is dedicated to Matthew.
God love you, son. Watch over us. We did our best to watch over you.
THE RETURN OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
TO FEAR TO GO INTO THE DARK
A POWER RAGE BEYOND COMPREHENSION
THE REFRAIN OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speakWhispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it
THE RETURN OF
THE ANCIENT MARINER
A well-known novelist friend (I see him seldom but think of him fondly) once began a famousbook with one of the most arresting passages I’ve ever encountered. The novel was Ghost Story
, its author Peter Straub.
And this is how he started.
What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me
…… the most dreadful thing.
I’ve borrowed Peter’s words because they so perfectly express what I’m feeling. The worstthing I’ve ever done? I’ll leave that troubling question for a different book.
But the worst thing that ever happened to me? The most dreadful thing? I can tell you that withabsolute certainty. Indeed, with terrible compulsion, I find myself driven to describe thatordeal. My effort isn’t voluntary. It comes in torturous rushes. Distraught, I remind myselfof Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in a frenzy stopping friends and strangers to tell of my woe,as if by describing it often enough, I can numb myself and blunt the words—and in so doingheal myself of the cause behind the words.
The effort’s impossible, I suspect. Certainly, it didn’t work for the Ancient Mariner. Afterkilling a bird of good omen and enduring a consequent nightmarish sea voyage, he managed toreturn to shore.
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale; And then it left me free.
Left him free? Well, apparently not, for Coleridge adds a marginal note that “ever and anonthroughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land.”
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns.
I’m no more free than the Ancient Mariner. To be sure, I haven’t killed a bird of good omen,though I recently saw a metaphoric version of such a bird die—and three days later I saw aliteral bird, very much alive, that seemed to be a reincarnation of the departed soul of thefirst. A cryptic reference? You bet. Necessarily so, and soon to be explained. A mysticalexperience; and along with terror, sorrow, agony, guilt, compassion, God, and redemption, it’svery much a part of my tale. For like the Ancient Mariner, my heart surely burns to tellyou—once and for all, to be done with my tale, to exorcise my demons, to gain and preserve myfaith.
Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in
children is increased with tales, so is the other.
—FRANCIS BACON ????“Of Death”
Fear. For almost twenty years as a fiction writer, I’ve focused on terror as my main subject.I’ve always believed, as Sartre in Nausea, that real life is so fundamentally boring that we
need adventure fiction to help soothe our ennui, to take us out of the doldrums of actuality.The paradox, of course, is that if we ever truly experienced a “thriller,” we would find itso terrifying we would wish with all the power of our being to be returned to the safe butdepressing boredom of reality.
T. S. Eliot puts it this way in “Sweeney Agonistes”:
“I’ll carry you off
To a cannibal isle …
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows …
Nothing at all but three things.”
“Birth, and copulation, and death.” ?????“I’d be bored.”
Bored? I don’t think so. Not me any longer. For I have seen real life at its starkest. I’velearned that copulation and birth have an unavoidable consequence: death. Despite what I usedto think (and what Sartre thought), I know this much—that real life, whatever else it mightbe, isn’t boring.
Because recently I was overwhelmed by a massive dose of my subject matter. I came face-to-facewith terror, and now I have trouble writing thrillers. Having encountered death, I find that towrite about it using the conventions of a thriller makes me feel I’m holding back, leaving outdeath’s grisly secret. And yet to include that secret would be to negate the distractingpurpose of a thriller.
So to tell my tale I’ve compromised. Most of what you’re about to read is fact. I stillcan’t believe it happened, but God have mercy, it did, and I feel an obligation to tell it.Since others have suffered as I and my family have, perhaps from our experience and the lessonswe strained to learn, others will learn and find solace. In the aftermath of the loss weendured, we took great comfort in Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
But the book you’re now reading is different from Kushner’s in many respects. For one thing,his excellent volume (though prompted, as was mine, by a personal tragedy) is a wide-rangingdiscussion of crises of faith that he encountered among troubled members of his synagogue.
For another, his book is totally factual.
However, Fireflies devotes itself exclusively to one family’s tragedy, and though almostcompletely factual, it does have elements of fiction. Not the fireflies, the dove, and theother mystical experiences I will describe. I assure you they did happen. Still, because Iwanted to make a statement about grief, about faith and the afterlife, I imposed a frame offiction onto fact. In an epilogue, I’ll explain where fact and fiction diverge. I’ll alsoexplain my reasons for blending the two, and my conclusion will, I hope, be spirituallyrewarding.
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief, And not seek for kind relief?
Songs of Innocence —WILLIAM BLAKE ???
, ???“On Another’s Sorrow”
TO FEAR TO GO INTO
Now he was old. One month shy of his eighty-fourth birthday. His daughter, Sarie, not so youngherself, sixty-one, stood beside his deathbed in the shadowy, raspy confines of an isolationroom in Intensive Care. Shadowy, because the blinds had been closed to ease the strain on hisaching eyes. Raspy, because no matter how faint his hearing had become he couldn’t fail toregister the constant hiss, wheeze, and thump of the respirator thrusting oxygen down theconstricting tube in his throat. No doubt there were odors—of medication, of his own diseasedbody—but he’d become so accustomed to the pungent, sick-sweet, acrid smells of the hospitalthat he no longer detected them.
Basically, David thought, I’m all messed up.
Well, what do you expect? he told himself. You learned forty years ago—cancer’s nobody’sfriend. And an old fart like you had to run out of resilience some time. Like five years ago.When your wife died.
But the true erosion of his spirit had begun much earlier, with the death of his son of fifteenyears, on that night forty years ago when the cancer that now soon would kill the father hadkilled the son.
The circle was being completed. An agony of soul, a torture of spirit, produced by death wouldconclude with death. Matthew, the son for whom David had mourned all his life, would no longerbe an absence beyond toleration, no longer a loss so profound that the passage of timeintensified instead of mollified the pain. Grief, which smothered and swallowed, like agathering black hole, would soon with damnable mercy end.
Death stops all hurt. Certainly David had tried to console himself with that thought in thefirst weeks after Matthew’s death. At least my dear unlucky son’s at rest, he’d repeatedlytried to assure himself. Matthew’s six months of suffering, of chemotherapy, nausea, andBlack-and-Decker chainsaw surgery had mercifully stopped.
But if Matt hadn’t gotten the tumor, or if the chemotherapy had managed to work, if thesurgery had been effective, he’d have survived. In that respect, Matt’s death wasn’tmerciful at all. It was a vicious trick inflicted on a boy whose strength of character againstpanic and pain had made him truly already a man.
Death stops all hurt? You bet. It stops everything, including my son, David thought. And nowwhen it’s my turn, I don’t care. Because I’ve lived my life, such as it was, and I’d havegiven anything to take Matt’s place, because his love for life was greater than mine.Existence made him laugh, and my wonderful doomed son should have had the chance to continuelaughing.
So David thought during his dwindling moments in Intensive Care. In his morphine stupor, hecouldn’t communicate his despair to the nurses who with stoic skill kept watch on his IVpumps, urine catheter, heartbeat and blood pressure monitors. He probably wouldn’t have toldthe nurses anyhow, wouldn’t have demeaned the purpose that they had managed to find in life,
their solace in alleviating pain.
Nor could he have told Sarie, his sweet wonderful child of sixty-one, that she shouldn’tgrieve for his pain and impending death because he didn’t grieve for himself. The pain didn’t
matter. It was no more than he expected. And as far as his death was concerned, well, thatwould be a release that over the years he’d many times considered granting to himself, though
for the sake of his loving wife and daughter, he’d rejected that assault to their sanity.
Sarie stood over him, her face contorted with exhaustion, sorrow, and fear, using cloths soakedin ice to wipe his fevered brow just as he and Donna had with equal primal stress and devotionwiped Matthew’s brow. Full circle. The daughter become the parent. The son become the father.And what did it matter? Love, in the end, was the greatest hurt. To love was to sufferloss—the more profound the devotion, the worse the grief. The noblest human emotion was fatedto end in the greatest hell.
So David did his best to smile around the irritating oxygen tube crammed down his throat and tosqueeze his daughter’s hand in thanks. After all, he and Donna had raised her to value loyaltyand compassion, and there was no need, at this late date, to disillusion her, to signal thathe’d been wrong, to warn Sarie that love in the end brought loss and pain.
In his morphine delirium, David thought of his dead wife, Donna, and how much he missed her,not because she was beautiful as the fashion world knows beauty (though for all that, she’dbeen beautiful to him), and not because she’d been perfectly understanding and kind andforgiving (God knows she’d had a temper and could be maddeningly impatient and obstinate), butshe’d been his companion for sixty-two years, and a couple—if they had the stamina tonegotiate a long marriage—learned to make adjustments, to compromise and compensate, to allow,to tolerate. What it came down to was that both of them had reached a truce based on mutualprotection, sympathy, and respect. Human imperfection and dissatisfaction produced a bond ofpity and support. Neither husband nor wife could persist without the other’s loving help.
her case from a stroke, the fated consequence ofBut Donna had died, as all organisms must, in
lifelong hypertension. And how David had grieved, and how he had missed her. In his lonely bed,for the missed pleasure of merely holding her. At his solitary dinner table, for the absence ofa conversation based on three-quarters of a lifetime of common memories over a mutuallyorganized meal. But for Donna, death had been a matter of life creeping out its pace andfinally reaching its unavoidable close. A monumental sorrow, but not a universe-tiltingtragedy, not the wickedly untimely death of a tortured fifteen-year-old son whose talents andgood nature had promised to improve the world. Death when it came to the elderly wasunderstandable, a bitter natural order. But when a talented good-natured young man died, thecosmos showed its true malevolent identity.
So David thought as his daughter squeezed his listless hand, and his numbed body sank deepertoward oblivion.
“I love you,” Sarie whispered. The remaining pride of his life, she’d had an existence to beenvied, devoted husband, fulfilling career, no anguish, no serious illness in her or herhusband or her children. The way it should have been for me, David thought. For my wife. For myson.
There once had been a year, the last before his son had died, when everything, every element ofevery day, had been perfectly aligned and rewarding. In every sense. Creatively. Spiritually.Physically. Emotionally. Monetarily.
Perfection. And then an accident of the universe had struck, a cell gone berserk in the rightsixth rib of Matthew’s chest, and time had been measured accordingly—before Matthew’s deathand, God have mercy, after Matthew’s death. Sarie, blessed daughter, had managed to adjust andmend. But not David and Donna. Effort had become the norm, pointlessness the rule.
Even now, after so many years, David vividly remembered, as if he were reading it this veryminute as he was dying, the eulogy he’d written for the son he missed so fiercely, the sonwhose life had ceased with cruelty at fifteen and who’d left a vacuum never to be replenished.David had written the eulogy the day after Matthew’s death. The priest hadn’t known Matt andconfessed he didn’t feel qualified to make a consoling statement at the funeral.
So David, whose occupation was words, telling stories, had mustered the strength to decide thatif words were the means with which he identified his place in the world, the least he could dowould be to use what he did, to perform what he was, and try to make sense out of nature’slack of reason, to let outsiders understand Matthew’s ordeal, and to strain for a morallesson.
Alluding to a famous character he’d created (without ever mentioning the name of thecharacter), he’d struggled to neither waver nor faint at the funeral, while he glanced dizzilytoward the urn containing the ashes of his son—and the picture of his robust son in his prime.
“I’m a storyteller,” he’d read at ten in the morning on Tuesday, June 30, 1987. “It’s allI basically know how to do. For the first time in my life, I hate to do it, though. NonethelessI’m going to tell you a story.
“Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth with an irony that a self-respecting fiction writerwould be ashamed to invent.
“So it was that last November I began a new novel with a scene in which the main characterseeks peace in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Bangkok where he meditates upon the four truths ofBuddha.
“Life is suffering.
“That is the first of the Buddha’s truths. It was also my first sentence.
“Life is suffering.
“As I finished typing those words at three-forty-five on a beautiful Thursday afternoon inautumn, I turned to glance out my study window and frowned at the sight of my fifteen-year-oldson, Matthew, staggering across our front lawn. He was doubled over, his left hand pressedagainst his right chest. I rushed to meet him as he stumbled into the house.
“ ‘I can’t breathe,’ he said. ‘The pain. There’s something wrong with my chest.’
“No doubt I broke several traffic laws, speeding to our family doctor. Really, I don’tremember. A lengthy exam made it seem that Matt had pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining ofthe lung. Antibiotics were prescribed. The pain went away.
“But as the Buddha says, life is suffering. During Christmas vacation, the pain came back, not
in his chest this time but in his back. An X ray revealed that Matt had a tumor the size of twofists.
“And so the horror began.
“Matt had bone cancer, specifically a type known as Ewing’s sarcoma. We hadn’t detected itsooner because Ewing’s is sneaky. The pain comes and goes. Often it isn’t at the site of thetumor but rather at various other sites responding to presssure from the tumor. For a brieftime, the explanation for the pain seemed to be that Matt had hunched over too long in marathonguitar-practice sessions.
“Ewing’s is an uncommon form of cancer, but when it develops, it’s usually in an arm or aleg. In this case, the uncommon cancer had chosen an uncommon spot, the underside of Matt’sright sixth rib. Even so, Ewing’s had been known to respond to chemotherapy. His chances ofsurviving were judged to be eighty percent.
“In January, he rapidly learned to familiarize himself with the names of arcane-soundingdrugs. Vincristine. Methotrexate. Adriamycin.
“Cytoxan. The last part of that chemical’s name—not its spelling but the way it’spronounced—says everything. Toxin. These substances were poisons intended to kill the tumor,but unavoidably they hurt healthy tissue as well.
“By early February, Matt’s long curly hair, grown in imitation of his rock music heroes, hadbegun to fall out in huge disturbing clumps that littered his bed and clogged the drain when he
took his morning shower. It’s a measure of Matt’s spirit that he decided to cut this uglyprocess short by having a party in which his friends ceremonially shaved him bald. Some of themstill have his locks. His eyebrows and eyelashes were less easy to deal with. He let them fallout on their own. He never tried to disguise his hairless condition. No wig for him. Hedisplayed his baldness boldly for all the world to see and sometimes stare at and on occasionridicule.
“It’s a further measure of Matt’s spirit that the weakness, disorientation, and vomitingproduced by his medications never slackened his determination to persist at school. A straightA student soon was making grades that a few months before would have embarrassed him.
“But he hung in there.
“Chemotherapy was infused through an intravenous line, a tube surgically implanted beneath theskin of his left chest. You couldn’t see it. But you could feel it. And for sure, every day,Matt was terribly aware the tube was present. The chemicals didn’t take long to beadministered, an hour for each, but their damaging side effects to the bladder required aprolonged irrigation of saline solution to flush the chemicals from his system. Thus thebeginning stages of Matt’s treatment forced him to stay in the hospital for three days everythree weeks and to recuperate at home for another three days. A small price to pay.
“Except that after several applications, it became frighteningly manifest that the treatmentwasn’t working. The tumor had continued to grow. More aggressive chemotherapy was called for.His survival chances were now fifty percent. But as the weakness, disorientation, and vomitingworsened, he still didn’t lose his spirit. He began to think of the tumor as an alien withinhim, a monster whose strength, intelligence, and will were pitted against his own.
“‘But I’ll beat it,’ he would say. ‘I’ll win. I want to be a rock star when I getolder.’
“Life is suffering.
“The more aggressive chemotherapy didn’t work either. His physicians moved from chemicalsthat under ideal circumstances gave cause for hope to agents that are called‘investigational,’ that is they’d been used so seldom that permission from the hospital’sethics committee was required before Matt could receive them. Nonetheless, of the twenty-twocancer patients who’d received them, eighteen had experienced dramatic results. Sounds good.But you don’t receive investigational therapy unless you’re in the twenty percent of patientspredicted to die.
“Again Matt familiarized himself with arcane names. Ifosfamide. Mesna. VP-16. Now, in April,the length of his stay in the hospital while receiving chemotherapy was five days every three
weeks. And the hangover from these drugs took another five days. Between treatments, he hadonly eleven good days, if ‘good’ is a word that applies here.
“For once, the treatment worked. The tumor shrank fifty percent. Imagine his elation.
“Imagine his equal and opposite distress when the next time he received these chemicals, thetumor—the alien—adjusted to them and began to grow again.
“Surgery was the only option. In late May, four right ribs and a third of that lung wereremoved, along with the tumor.
“Or rather most of it. Because the alien had spread seeds, and to kill them, the doctors hadto use even more aggressive treatment. A pint of Matt’s bone marrow was extracted from hiships. A tidal wave of chemicals was infused, enough to kill all his white blood cells. Hishealthy bone marrow was returned to him. Eventually it would produce healthy blood. All thingsbeing equal, he would regain well-being. The cancer, viciously assaulted, would be killed.
“But all things weren’t equal. Normally harmless bacteria in and on his body bred out ofcontrol. No longer held in check by his usually vigilant white blood cells, they stunned himwith a rampant infection known as septic shock. The top number of his blood pressure plummetedto forty. His heartbeat soared to a hundred and seventy. His temperature surged to one hundredand five.