Just Have to Say

Yesterday, I finished reading an article in the Washington Post that has really stuck with me, and not in a good way.

The article, written by Cynthia McCabe, is about man who e-mailed a dozen or so writers–all strangers to him–of his intention to commit suicide. The reasons he gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.” He goes on: “I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.”

It was a suicide note from a writer who had failed to find an audience.

Sadly, I found that McCabe’s reaction, and that of some of the other writers, showed an appalling lack of compassion.

Writers, in my experience and from anecdotal evidence, are all too happy to sacrifice their own as they claw their  way to the top. McCabe has the privilege of being allowed to write and publish about this failed writer. Instead of saying how she may have felt similar feelings at one time or another, she voiced her disdain and that of the other writers for this failed writer and his tactics to bring his work to the world.

The suicidal writer, a man named Dennis Williams (or his pen name, Katry Rain), is described by his ex-wife, who perhaps knew him best, as a philosopher, a thinker, a writer of both prose and music, and a popular teacher.

But in McCabe’s article, he is called narcissistic and selfish. One writer who received Williams’ e-mail said she felt emotionally mugged. A Washington Post reporter basically said that Williams should have called someone who cared, implying that he didn’t.

McCabe herself calls Williams’ writing clunky and not particularly noteworthy. If whether your prose is impressive or not is the benchmark against which we should measure success as a writer, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” and countless other commercially successful but otherwise unremarkable works would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Williams is in no position to defend himself. McCabe’s article, written from the point of view of an author who has tasted some success, feels like bullying.

This is exactly why he took his life.

Twenty-five Years of Nothing

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On the eve of my 25-year college reunion, something struck me in a recent article in the Washington Post, something that made me take notice:

The first decade of the 21st century produced two recessions and two “jobless recoveries,” and when it was over, the vast majority of Americans found themselves no better off than they were a quarter-century ago.

This is the career landscape into which I and my classmates graduated. Hopes of finding meaningful work have all but evaporated over time. We are now just trying to get by.

I’m not struggling, by any means. I and my wife have healthy incomes. But we have two children nearing college age. We live in a modest house with a modest mortgage. We have two modest cars. We go into debt to take a modest vacation once in a while. I’ve been laid off once, so far.

In contrast, by the time he was my age, my father was the president and part owner of a company in San Francisco that employed hundreds of workers. There is no way I will ever reach that mark now.grads

Nor will anyone of my generation. As I have said elsewhere, people who graduated from college between 1989 and 1992 have, for the most part, vanished from the public sphere. It does not mean that we are not smart enough, or talented enough, or ambitious enough. Rather, it has everything to do with the economy.

And, for those of us who are doing reasonably well monetarily, we are paying in other ways: lack of career advancement. We will shuffle through our mid-level jobs, never rising to our potential. There are consequences to that.

We are part of America too, so our story is America’s story. The Post article wraps up with this:

[America] has waited decades for middle-class jobs to come back, through a loop cycle of political bickering, to no avail.

I can vouch for that.

The Ghosts of Loneliness

The month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, my wife and I decided to visit the harvest festival at Cox Farms in Virginia. She’d heard about it from our neighbors so we took a Saturday to see what it was all about.

It was a windy fall day with clear skies, and the festival area was already busy when we arrived. From the parking lot, we walked through the entry gates into an open, gently sloping area bordered by corn fields. Pumpkins, straw bales and gathered cornstalks decorated everything.

Our two-year-old daughter, bundled in layers, ran to the first activity area. It was a small stage with percussion instruments for the kids to play. Some music was coming through a sound system and my daughter picked two drum sticks and banged along on a log. My wife and I sat on some hay bales and watched the somewhat chaotic “music.”

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

I carried our younger child, not quite one year, in the carrier backpack. He was bundled too and hunkered down against the wind. He peered out at the activity around him but seemed content to stay in his nest.

Our daughter next wanted to try the long slide. Built into the side of a slope, I thought it would be daunting to a small child but she was game. At the bottom we waited and as she slid to a stop in the soft straw, she looked as if it were a bit much.

“Would you like to go again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. So we moved on to the next thing.

My wife and I had come to Cox Farms that day looking for something. It had been a rough year for us. Our son had been born through an emergency caesarian section when my wife had suffered a ruptured aneurysm while pregnant. The subsequent brain surgery, while saving her life, caused trauma that required months of rehab and supervised care. And all while we tried to raise two small children.

The aneurysm was an event that divided our lives into “before” and “after,” a clear marker that separated what we wished for our future from what was now actually achievable. The brain trauma also created a separation between “us” and “them”—those who understood what brain injury was all about and those who could not.

These twin difficulties worked in tandem to create a feeling of isolation for us. And the September 11th attacks only added to our desire to find connection with others and with a normal flow of life.

But we didn’t find it that day, nor for several years to come. The loss and the resulting loneliness were with us constantly, a formless presence that acted out when least appropriate, seeping into our daily routines and interactions. It seemed to live in our bones.

Ahead is All in Darkness

I’ve lost my vision.

Not my actual vision, but rather my view of the future, the one that guides me forward. I can’t see it anymore.

All the light is behind me, shining on where I’ve been. I can see it much more clearly. And I spend my day looking over my shoulder, thinking of what’s past.

Ahead is all in darkness.

I Awoke to See the Surgeon Leaning Over Me

I awoke to see the surgeon leaning over me.

“It didn’t happen,” he said. “We had to cancel.” Then he disappeared.

I was in a fog of anesthesia so I had no choice but to accept what he was telling me. My memory of where I was slowly filtered in. A nurse handed me a bottle of sore throat spray and wheeled me into another room.

My wife was there, also struggling to wake up from the drugs. We’d scheduled to have my kidney transplanted into her, and now we were learning that it wasn’t happening. At least not as we had expected.

Doctors came into the room, while the nurses finished fussing with our IVs and blankets. My parents were summoned from the waiting room.

“I’m really sorry about this,” the lead surgeon said. “We didn’t have a sufficient supply of blood from the blood bank and I didn’t feel we could go forward with the operation.”

I tried to understand the situation, and I got more than my wife did, who dozed through most of it. Thankfully, my parents were there and lucid. I could compare notes with them later.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

“We can reschedule for tomorrow, but I won’t be able to do it,” the surgeon went on saying. My parents grumbled about this, preferring–as we all did–to have things go as planned. We weighed the merits of coming back next week with the original team, or going with a new team the next day. Finally, we settled on a plan, thinking that we were already in Baltimore, all ready to do this, we might as well get it done now.

We were discharged for 24 hours. Thankfully, we had rooms only a block away. My wife and I roused ourselves sufficiently to walk back to the hotel, although I don’t really remember the walk. My parents told us to call if we needed anything, said they’d pick up the tab for the extra night. My wife and I went back to our room to sleep off the meds.

I texted a few key people–my sister-in-law who was watching our kids, friends who could spread the word–to let them know of the delay and then climbed into bed. The day moved about us as we rested. On the sidewalks below, people walked to and from work. Guests checked in and out of their rooms. The day moved to afternoon as we slumbered, with our hospital bracelets still on our wrists and gauze patching the IV holes.

We drank water, but food was of little interest. Our last full meal had been the night before, with my parents and mother-in-law in the hotel restaurant. It was good but I didn’t enjoy it much, feeling as it did like a last supper. Now, the only thing that sounded good was a granola bar; my wife had a bag of chips. Our systems must have been in low gear from the sedatives. It saved us the trouble of ordering a meal.

The day seemed in low gear too, and I decided to step outside and get some air. My wife continued to snooze as I left the room and walked out of the hotel.

It was on the warm side of normal for an August day in Baltimore. The city was preparing for the Grand Prix car race that was scheduled for Labor Day weekend. A racecar sat on display in the hotel drop-off area.

View from the hospital.

View from the hospital.

“This is your car, right?” I joked with the bellman on duty.

“Yeah, I wish!” he said.

I walked slowly on the sunny sidewalk. People passed me going both directions. There were a mix of tourists and folks going about their weekday routines. I wondered if anyone noticed my hospital bracelet. They certainly didn’t know that a few hours before I’d been deep in anesthetic sleep waiting for my kidney to be removed, only to learn that it wasn’t.

I had a strange feeling like I’d come to meet destiny but destiny was a no-show. What was I supposed to do now?

Of course, I knew that the whole thing would begin again tomorrow, but until then, there was open space.

I walked a few blocks toward Camden Yards, passing the Grand Prix barriers that were being placed along the race route. More hotels, and then the stadium was in front of me. The Orioles were not playing that day, but during summer, Baltimore is never more than a few hours away from the front end or back end of another baseball game.

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

I decided I’d gone far enough. It was time to head back to the hotel, to prepare for what still lay ahead.


This happened about a year ago, when we were in Baltimore, Maryland, to have the transplant operation, some details about which appear here.