Unquarantined Grief

If a novelist were to have his protagonist reading Camus’ The Plague mere hours before learning that his wife has cancer, the irony would be cheap, a postmodernist Henny Youngman joke. Yet I was indeed reading The Plague on the day I learned that Margaret, my wife, had two brain tumors.

It was not entirely by coincidence that I was rereading a novel I’d first read at eighteen, when my father was dying from cancer, and read again when I was thirty and my donation of a kidney failed to save my sister’s life. It sounds morbid to sum up events this way, but it hadn’t felt like that. After the deadly contagion in fictional Oran fades, and the quarantine is lifted, the doctor-narrator of The Plague marvels at how quickly survivors resume their old outlook; in my case, my sister had been dead only a few weeks when I slipped back into the comfortable shoes of my old life, and Death once again became a character in stories about other families. I didn’t reopen The Plague until Margaret became ill.

Assessing symptoms that included fatigue, headaches, and failing memory, her doctor gradually ruled out this or that possible cause and tentatively concluded that she had chronic fatigue syndrome. Margaret no longer possessed the energy—or the eyesight—for reading, and it was an optometrist who finally convinced the doctor to order the scan that revealed the tumors. Most likely, an earlier scan would have made little difference—and regardless, I don’t blame anyone for her bad luck. I have no inclination to pick a fight with God, either.

Whenever I do desire to blame, I recall the priest in The Plague who blames the victims for their fate, pronouncing the plague a divine punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve. And whenever I am seeking escape, such as when drinking too much alcohol, I remember the journalist in The Plague who tries to cajole and bribe his way out of the quarantine. I haven’t finished my third reading of The Plague, leaving it shut since that morning when Margaret and I sat in the doctor’s office and heard the word tumors, and I felt like Adam learning that never again would we eat from the tree of life.

Mortality is less intellectually newsworthy and more emotionally troublesome to me now than when I was eighteen or thirty years old. I don’t mean mine; I mean the mortality of my loved ones, for without them the temporal limits of my life seem to matter not at all. One afternoon while Margaret dozed on the couch, her head resting on my shoulder, it struck me, as I thought about my closed copy of The Plague, that just as Hannah Arendt has made it banal to say that evil is banal, the existentialists have made it absurd to dwell on absurdity. The third chapter in Genesis fails to convince me that we must die because of sin, but at least it attempts an answer. What is this enemy against which Camus urges our struggle?

The Plague is as lovely as that butterfly in the graveyard near the end of James Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. Yet I lack the courage to finish it. Margaret is braver than her husband, which should be unsurprising to anyone even abstractly aware that women have endured everything that men have ever endured, while also enduring men. I got a tiny hint of her determination when, on our first date, I learned that she had read those long, long Russian novels that intimidated me. They still do. Margaret has shed very few tears about her health and so far has expressed but one fear. “If I live,” she said to me one night in the darkness in bed, “I hope I have my eyesight when my grandchildren are born. Those beautiful, beautiful babies.”

I teach and tutor in a scholarship program for underprivileged students at a small Catholic university where most of the faculty and staff do their jobs in a manner befitting the Franciscan tradition. At the start of the fall semester, a week after Margaret’s scan, I was walking up the hallway to my office when a student fell in step with me and asked how my summer had been. Her summer, I’d heard, had involved finding a place for her homeless father and siblings to live.

Caught off guard, I said, “Not good. Not good.”

“I know,” she said quietly. “I heard.” And then she reached over and touched my right wrist with her left hand. “It’ll be okay, Mr. Phillips.”

I suppressed an urge to slip my hand into hers for a moment, because of course others in the hallway might have supposed something repugnant, failing to recognize Lady Beatrice in modern American garb, helping a lost soul up a bedeviling path.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 

Mark Phillips lives in Ischua, New York. His essay here is excerpted from his collection Love and Hate in the Heartland: Dispatches from Forgotten America forthcoming from Skyhorse Publishing in April.

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