When I try to name what it is that keeps me from being the kind of person I admire, I arrive, always, at two fears: the fear of boredom and the fear of bad smells.
There are other things I fear: plane crashes, typhoons, dementia, but I overcome these fears, somehow, and get on with my life. Other, larger fears: of unstoppable plagues, of the disappearance of drinkable water, can seize my imagination for long stretches of time, but they don’t cause me to behave differently than I would wish. Oddly, although I was in New York City on 9/11, I don’t spend much time thinking about terrorism.
But boredom and bad smells: I regularly act to keep myself from them, not just from disinclination. It is something stronger. It is fear. No, not fear. Panic. All the dark dreams converge: a filthy rag soaked in chloroform is held to my nose; strong, dirty hands push my shoulders down into black water; my breath is about to be stolen; soon, quite soon, my light lungs will fail in their work. Afraid, or panicked, I do things I don’t want to be doing. Or I don’t do what I think I should.
For example, what has happened to me just moments ago. I walk down the subway steps and am assaulted by a bad smell. I spot the person who must be its source. A large figure who I assume is male, though the figure is so swaddled that the gender must stay indeterminate, sits at the bottom of the subway stairs. I should speak to this person. I should give him money. Instead, I run. The person is desperate and desperately needs money. I have money; I have more money than I need to keep myself alive. I should give him some.
Instead, I run. I run, as if I were being chased by someone at gunpoint, at knifepoint. The panic that I feel would be appropriate to a threat against my life or safety. The man is desperate, but I am desperate, too. I know that he has no plans to harm me. I understand that, and yet I run, hoping the people who see me assume that I am running for a train, not for my life.
Later that same day, boredom, or the fear of boredom, prevents me from a kindness, what would have been called, in the world in which I was raised, an act of charity. One of my neighbors is a woman in her late eighties, a widow, a retired librarian. Her only son lives in New Zealand; she sees him only every other year. She volunteers in the library of a fancy private school across town; she repairs their books. What she likes to talk to me about, for which she seems to have an endless appetite, is the details and varieties of the ways children who are ostensibly well brought up abuse books. She talks about the importance of opening a book correctly, not putting pressure on its spine. She goes on about dog-eared pages, food stains, underlinings. Her other topic is the different ways she can travel by bus to her sister’s apartment in the East Village. She traces each route—and there are several bus routes open to her. She talks about various traffic problems that can ensue at different times of the day, on different days of the week. She has a habit of referring to her family members only by their first names, as if I knew them, and providing no context that would enable me to place them. She is lonely; she is old; she would be pleased by company. But once again, I feel that I am drowning; I begin to imagine I’m having difficulty catching my breath. Panic, once again, the panic that I felt in the subway. “Must run,” I say, and I do run from her, trying not to see the sadness on her face because she knows, she must know, that she has bored me, and that it is she I’m running from, and not towards anything, not anything at all.
I feel remorse, and I would like to run after her and say, “What did you say was the worst day of the week for traffic? How do you mend the books that the students have destroyed? What kind of glue do you use, or is it tape? Do you ever use tape, or is it always glue?” But of course, there is no going after her, no making up for what I’ve done.
In my remorse for hurting a perfectly nice, rather sad, old woman, I remember Jane Austen’s Emma, the excruciating scene when Emma can’t resist a smart-alecky response to the lethally boring Miss Bates who has agreed to a game that requires that she mention three dull things. “Oh, ma’am,” Emma says, “but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.” Miss Bates is crushed and apologizes for being tedious. Emma’s moral awakening occurs when Mr. Knightly chastises her for unkindness. And yet, she marries him. I often wonder: spending her days as she did, was Jane Austen often bored?
Always, I blame myself for being bored. I tell myself it is a failure of regard, a failure of imagination resulting from my not caring about more things. Why, I accuse myself, why can’t you be like your nicer friends, who seem interested in such a range? You should be interested in people’s illnesses, major, minor, or commonplace. You should be interested in alternate routes to places you may or may not have heard of. You should enjoy hearing about the details of sporting events, the working parts of engines, the rudeness of waiters, the rise in the price of soap.
I often think that I am, in fact, interested in very little. Or very few things. These few things interest me very greatly. But their number is not great.
In a somewhat desperate effort at salvaging my self-regard, I tell myself that I find some things interesting that other people are bored by. For example, I am never bored by children. I find my grandchildren endlessly fascinating. I can repeat the same stories a million times, play the same games over and over with a high and full heart. And I have never had the slightest problem changing diapers.
But my customary sensitivity to bad smells suggests to me that I am no better than the merest animal. My friends who are not troubled as I am suggest that a sensitivity to smell is also a gift. They don’t believe me when I say it is not a gift, that there are many many more bad smells than good ones. They think I am an ingrate: roses, coffee, the salt sea, they offer. Rarities, I tell them, outliers. The stink is the norm.
Fearing bad smells, I understand that I cut myself off from many people for ignoble reasons. Many people smell bad because they cannot muster the resources for regular bathing, or because their minds don’t allow for the organization cleanliness demands. Does that mean that I am no better than women who spend their days searching for the perfect cleaning product so that their bathrooms will be a shrine to everything that they are not? Do I believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness? I say I don’t. But what am I running from if not the devil?
They have always been with me, these two fears: of boredom and bad smells. I have no memory of a life free of them.
We like to think that children are not bored. That what we call boredom is not open to them. That what is being called boredom must be something else: petulance, a too demanding nature, plain fatigue. We assume that children can be easily distracted and that if the distraction doesn’t work, another one can easily be found to take its place. This is simply not true. So much of the life of a child is a flat, unbroken plain, a nullity, a waiting for something, a waiting more painful than an adult’s because often what is desired cannot yet be named. I know that I was often bored as a child, and I can trace the reasons. I was not good at being a child. I did not find interesting the things that children were supposed to find interesting. And almost all the adults in charge of my time didn’t understand that. An accident of my history: would I be so susceptible to boredom if more of the adults around me saw that I was bored and thought of things that would engage me? I was not fortunate in this way; I was born where I was born.
And the accident of my birth explains my sensitivity to bad smells. I wasn’t the only one in the family so afflicted; as a matter of fact, sensitivity to bad smells was a badge of honor in the family, a sign of discrimination: the princess and the pea. It occurs to me now that, in my family, good smells were never talked about: flowers were not a topic for conversation; food was to be eaten not discussed. But bad smells: these were endlessly fascinating. Discerning them, rooting them out, triumphing in their vanquishment. I wonder why I didn’t find these conversations boring. Perhaps because there was a place for me there.
I remember with an excruciating vividness a smell so bad it made me cry. It was the bad breath of a woman who lived across the street, not actually a friend, but someone we felt it necessary to be kind to. Her name was Bertha Vogler.
Everything about her was wrong. But it was more than that: she embodied, she enacted, she personified wrongness.
To begin with, it was the way she dressed. Her hat. It was the fifties: Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, the New Look. No one had any good reason to be wearing a hat like the one Bertha Vogler wore. It wasn’t, properly speaking, a hat, but a bonnet, with a stiff sateen back pressed close to her skull and, near the forehead, browny sateen ruching. What was incredible to me: it tied under the chin. As soon as I could, I refused hats that tied under the chin. Only children who could not be trusted to keep their hats on their heads wore hats that tied below the chin. I prided myself on being better than that. But clearly, Bertha Vogler was not.
Around her neck she wore a fur piece, a version of the one my grandmother wore, a fashion I can’t understand to this day. These fur pieces were terrifying to children; they had animal heads that bit at their own tails and beady, accusing eyes that threatened formless malice. At any moment, they might come alive for the sole purpose of doing harm. My grandmother’s was frightening, but Bertha’s was frightening in a different way. My grandmother’s was sleek, ready to pounce, and suggested a swift, bloody attack; Bertha’s was mangy, and you thought you might be gnawed at forever by half broken, half rotting teeth. It proclaimed its deadness, but that didn’t mean you were safe from it. The tail on Bertha’s fur piece drooped, its eyes were cloudy. She had to keep fiddling with it, whereas my grandmother seemed not to need to give hers a second thought. It smelt of moth balls and something that I knew the moth ball smell was covering up, some animal secret that made me feel ashamed. She seemed to wear it in all weathers and on all occasions; my grandmother knew hers had to be put away with the first flowering of spring, taken out when the air was cold and the occasion grand.
What was most wrong, though, was that Bertha was married to Happy. Couldn’t she have told by the differences in their names that he was the wrong man for her?
He was excessively broad shouldered, excessively smooth muscled. His skin was an even brick red, and his hair blue black shot through with silver stars. He wore a knife attached to his belt; he was a merchant marine. One day, he saw me on the sidewalk and insisted I come to his backyard. He took the knife from his belt and cut a beautiful bunch of purple grapes, laying them in a basket on a wonderful large green leaf. He said they were for my grandmother. I wanted to eat them all myself before I got home…but I was afraid of what he’d do to me if he found out I hadn’t done as he had told me.
Bertha taught piano. But the music she taught, the way she taught it, the people she taught—all these were wrong.
The neighborhood children who took lessons—we just said “took”—from her were forced by their kindly mothers, and they grew to hate music, and later they would blame their mothers for wasting their time and denying them a variety of rightful pleasures. Did the neighborhood mothers decide during their morning kaffeklatch that this would be their communal charity, their children the victims? Because my mother was the only working mother on the block, a contemptuous non-participant in kaffeklatch, I did not “take” from Bertha Vogler.
The history of my music lessons has to do with a mysterious appetite my mother had, traceable to nowhere, and the cause of her marrying my father: an appetite for higher culture that nothing in her own history suggested. She married my father, a failed writer, prodigious liar, and autodidact who claimed to have studied at Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne but in fact completed only tenth grade: a fact she never knew and I discovered only after he was dead forty years and she disappeared into a fog of dementia. Nevertheless, my father worshipped high culture; he would listen to symphonies on WQXR and conduct a phantom orchestra; he hung a picture of Beethoven’s imposing, demanding head on the wall beside my toy box. When he died, my mother was committed to carrying on his legacy, and, I don’t know how, but she found for me a conservatory trained teacher, who later told me he had studied with Schnabel. With what pride I carried the yellow music books with green lettering and the words: G. Schirmer, First Lessons in Bach, Hanon Exercises.
With what contempt I observed the children, my neighbors, who should have been my friends, but who bored me, leaving Bertha Vogler’s house with books, not green and yellow and elegantly printed, but covered with pictures of birds and skipping children. The pieces they played were called “The Cheerful Robin” and “The Toy Soldier’s Drum.”
To make up for her unease at not choosing to have her children taught by Bertha, my mother determined to be extra kind to her. When Happy was away, Bertha had no access to a car, and my mother was more than willing to offer Bertha rides.
Usually, she would sit in the front with my mother, but this day my grandmother was with us and had pride of place in the front seat. So Bertha and I sat together in the back. Apologetic, overly grateful, she sidled in beside me. She moved close to me, as if she were making room for a third person. But there was no third person. What could she have been thinking of?
It didn’t happen all at once, but once it had happened, it was everything: it was the world.
The world of the bad smell.
It was the smell of un-aliveness, or something that had been alive so long ago that aliveness counted only against it, of everything that was not and never had been and never could be fresh, young, and vivid. It was not death but deadness. Something whose beginning could not be traced and whose end, equally untraceable, might be prolonged into infinity. It wasn’t human, it wasn’t animal, not an animal with an intact hide or coat or pelt. It was the animal turned meat. And meat turned rotten.
I was always prone to being disgusted by meat. Any sign of blood or fat made me cry. No one at my family table, except my father, had the slightest sympathy for my tears. I would be banished, told that if I didn’t want to eat what was in front of me, I didn’t need to eat at all. Starvation: pure, cool, airy, seemed an infinitely more desirable prospect, and I would disappear to a corner, weeping, and yet justified. I would not endure what was unendurable: I knew I had the strength for that.
But now I was sitting next to Bertha Vogler whose breath smelt not just like meat but like bad meat. I felt the tears coming from my eyes, coin-sized, silent, involuntary as sweat. I was trapped in the closed car. My sense of panic generated the thought that I might jump out of the moving car, but the prospect of my mother’s anger was even more dire than my present entrapment.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Bertha Vogler said, bending closer to me, deepening my doom.
My mother risked an accident by turning around to glare at me. She saw my tears. She didn’t know their cause, but even causeless tears were grounds for public embarrassment.
“She’s very high-strung,” my mother said.
“I was like that when I was that age,” Bertha said. “Maybe she’s musical.”
My desperation took on a new color. No, no, no, I wanted to shout. It is not possible that I would ever be anything like you, anything like what you have ever been.
I turned my face to the window. It couldn’t have been long before the drive was over. My mother said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
When I said, “Bertha Vogler has bad breath,” my mother said through clenched teeth, “That’s nothing to cry about. Cut it out or I’ll give you something to cry for.”
I understand now that her rage was partly anxiety at having a child so different from her, so ill-suited for the world.
When I think of childhood boredom, there is no one event that embodies the state as the moment in the car with Bertha Vogler embodies my fear of bad smells. Rather, boredom was the basso continuo of much of my childhood, the sallow turbid stream in which I treaded water, waiting hopelessly for adulthood to arrive.
I knew what was boring because I had experienced what was genuinely interesting. These things came from my father, whose particular genius with children, or at least a child like me, was that he understood that we were fascinated by the world that was to come, the real world, the adult world; he knew we disliked what was clearly ersatz, things whose importance was clearly temporary and would soon be outgrown, like a cheap pair of shoes, or moth eaten baby clothes.
Every night, my father offered me a choice of one of four story patterns: I could choose a story about a mean old man and a nice old lady, a nice old man and a mean old lady, a mean young man and a nice young lady, or a nice young man and a mean young lady. I found these possibilities endlessly fecund, and I knew they were about real life. When my mother was away at her meetings of the Catholic Daughters of America (the CDA, she called it) he would make me real tea, which I would drink out of my doll’s cup, and I would get to choose which of the Catholic daughters to pretend to be that night. I remember I often chose to be Margaret Kiley, whom I would barely recognize on the street, though her name had a kind of light elegance that I treasured. And we would go into Manhattan; we would walk the streets, look in the windows, visit the Metropolitan Museum, walking hand in hand up the large, serious staircase, or to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the dark metaphysical hush made a thrilling contrast to the bright commerce of Fifth Avenue. I knew Manhattan was my true home, not the boring Long Island suburb we were condemned to.
Left on my own, which I often was, I wasn’t bored if I had the things I loved around me. What they had in common was a particular flavor of color and design. I didn’t like monochrome, poster colors, anything suggesting the billboard, the neon. I liked things to be mixed, muddled even, and I loved line drawings in black and white. There was a box of colored chalks with room on the top for a sheet of plain glass on which I could draw. I rarely drew anything realistic; mostly I made bands of color, like Rothko, or swirls like confectionary clouds.
I responded to color intensely. I loved swatches of fabric from my grandmother’s sewing basket, particularly velvet or anything with sequins or beads. One of my favorite outings was to the hardware store, where the owner would allow me to select small cards that were representative of paints for sale. I could find them under a display marked by the cursive words “Dutch Boy” and a cheerful, red-cheeked blonde fellow in a navy blue cap. I knew that there were some colors that were used wrongly, and this upset me almost in the way that bad smells did. We used to pass a house on my way to dance class; it was a false, confectionary pink, exactly the color of Hostess Snowballs, a mound of chocolate cake covered with marshmallow and then coconut. I knew that this color was wrong for a house in some profound way, and every time we passed it, I would shout, “That house is wrong.”
The deepest and most brackish pools of boredom I endured happened at my babysitter’s, Mrs. Kirk, a woman my mother met at church. I don’t know how she understood her job; I guess it was to be sure that I was fed and taken to the toilet and that I didn’t hurt myself in any way that could be put down to her carelessness. But other than that, I think she did exactly nothing for or with me. You might say this was very good training for a writer, to be left alone all day, to be given the task of making up a world. It had the effect of hollowing out in me a place that could only be known as longing: I longed for my father to come and get me. As the afternoon began to ripen, I would sit by the front door, waiting for the sound of his walking up the path. His pockets were always full of coins, and I could hear them jingling before I could see him: the signal that my deliverance was at hand.
These were the early days of television, and probably Mrs. Kirk thought it was a mercy that she could plonk me down in front of the new miracle and be free of concern about me. But the only shows she allowed me were cartoons, and these I found ridiculous, sometimes even disturbing. I was insulted by the idea that I might be interested in talking animals who seemed only interested in chasing one another, or a farmer in his overalls and long underwear, a few stray hairs sticking up vertically from his bald head. He chased mice with a rifle and later sucked them up in his vacuum cleaner. So much emphasis on mice, which I found repellant and, in real life, terrifying. And all the animals were male: what could I learn from them, what in their lives was of the slightest relevance to my future? There was only one female cartoon character of any importance: Betty Boop, and in her I was mildly interested, though her overlarge head made me uneasy. But I admired her devotion to her grandfather.
I thought cartoons were ridiculous because I had seen the real things. Real movies, meant for grownups. My parents would take me to the movies with them; there, in the dark, not talking to each other, we were, as we rarely were (it happened, too, in church), a happy family.
I don’t know why they thought it was right to take a five-year-old child with them to the movies. It was probably a matter of money—they didn’t want to spend money on a babysitter when they didn’t have to.
I sat between my parents in a state not only of happiness but of rightness, the only child in the audience for the films my parents chose. It seemed clear to me—and this was a crucial difference between these movies and cartoons—that the images I was seeing on the screen would be important to my future, an importance signaled to me by the clothes worn by the women in Three Coins in the Fountain and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Clothes that they wore to work, to dine, to make love in, to travel to Europe in. They taught me the range of desirable femaleness: Dorothy McGuire (understated elegance), Jean Peters (happy, blatant sex), Maggie McNamara (girlish, with a hint of the boy or child dressing up). Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, their striking hair, vivid lips, swinging skirts, and short jackets, a costume for anything and everything: always just right. These were real women, as I hoped to be one day. They wore clothes that I would one day be allowed to buy. What could I learn from Snow White and Cinderella, who would always be nothing more than girls? At best child brides in puffed sleeves and some version of the pinafore.
When I was lonely at Mrs. Kirk’s, I sang the songs from the movies to myself. “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” “Bye Bye Baby.” But I loved “Three Coins in the Fountain” best. I would sneak through the hedge at Mrs. Kirk’s to the parking lot of the Howard Johnson’s next door and run down the ramp where food was delivered, garbage removed. I would spread my arms and sing at the top of my lungs, “Which one will the fountain bless, which one will the fountain bless,” and run down the small decline…to what? Something, someone who would be there to meet me.
I can’t imagine what any adult who might have seen me would have thought. But I never expected most adults to understand me. If they had, they would have seen what an insult it was to me to assume I would prefer the inferior world of cartoons when I had inhabited the rich climes of love, death, fortune, sex. And why didn’t they understand that one thing could always be counted on to make me happy, and that thing was accessible to them if only they had the sense to provide it. Books.
I understood it as an unquestionable truth that books were good, an unalterable, unmediated good that could not be touched or changed. I loved everything about them, their smell, their texture. Some I loved especially. One was in French, really a coloring book, but I didn’t color in the pictures. I just read the French words and the translations my father printed underneath them. I loved my book of fairy tales, with illustrations in colors that seemed infinitely superior to the primary colors Disney favored; in place of plain red, yellow, blue, I was given a world of teal and rose and umber. These were not the scary Grimm fairy tales, they were, to be sure, made safe and cozy for a girl child of the fifties. I was drawn to the story of the sisters Snow White and Rose Red, but my favorite was the one about the girl whose brothers were turned to swans. She had to knit a shirt of nettles to return them to their human state, but she didn’t have time to finish the one for her younger brother, who was cursed with one wing for the rest of his life.
My parents had been joined together and kept together by a passionate religious faith, and so some of my favorite books were the products of a rather high-minded, fifties Catholicism. My father had a particular fondness for English Catholic converts, and one book I loved was called Six O’Clock Saints. This was a collection of rather hair-raising tales, including the one about St. Nicholas who knew that the restauranteur whose food he was enjoying was serving pickled little boys and passing them off as pork. He ran to the cellar, blessed the cask where the little boys were imprisoned, and the little boys sprang to life, as good as new. Another book I loved was called The Nuns Who Hurried (by one of them). It offered details of the different vocational choices offered to nuns, with witty pen and ink drawings and exciting words like “contemplative” and “catechetical.” I had two prayer books which had the double blessing of being repositories of words and grace. I remember my First Communion prayer book with especial fondness; it was pocket size with a shellacked cover, picturing the Virgin. But inside the cover was a declivity in which was lodged a tiny white plastic cross. What these books offered was what the movies and my father’s stories offered: the prospect of a larger world, a world entirely outside the range of my experience, which I knew to be limited, but hoped was just a corridor to a more exciting, far more highly colored world that I would enter when I was free of this serfdom others called a happy childhood.
I remember the deep shock I experienced when for the first time I found a book boring. I was sent to an all boys’ camp owned by my family the summer after my father died. The only available books were meant for boys. I took to my bed The Last of The Mohicans, ready to lose myself in the dependable pleasure provided by words on a page. But they were not provided. I didn’t finish the book. I didn’t want to. I had nothing to read except old magazines: Good Housekeeping, McCall’s. I consoled myself by making up stories about the Breck Girls on the back cover: their impossibly smooth hair, their impossibly perfect complexions signaling to me a happy life whose details I could create and shape. Until my mother would arrive with what I understood to be real books. Which is to say, books that had something to do with female life, by which I meant beauty, magic, love, and everlasting happiness.
It was a long time before I was bored again by a book, but a few years later, I was betrayed by Ivanhoe, which I deliberately left on a bus, enacting a false contrition that convinced everyone, because no one who knew me would believe I would be careless with a book, known as I was as a Bookworm. “She loves to read,” people would say about me, feeling that that was enough information, as if it was the act of reading and not the content of what was read that was the source, incomprehensible to most of them in a child, of my odd pleasure.
In my journal, I make lists of bad smells and episodes of boredom. It is a pleasant exercise; it can convince me that whatever else has happened, my day hasn’t been entirely wasted. It does what non-writers think writing is supposed to do and almost never does: it turns a painful experience into something interesting.
I have got rid of three bad smells.
A bad smell in the refrigerator, organic not rotten, but unfresh. I find its source: a quarter of a lemon, wrapped in foil, covered in mold.
I treated myself to a container of crab meat, but I didn’t finish it in time. I put it in the garbage to take to the dump the next day. It stank up the cupboard where the garbage was kept. I took the plastic bag out of its container, left it outside, hosed the container out, washed it in bleach, then scrubbed the whole cabinet in bleach. It made me sick, but when I finished, I was proud.
In the wall behind the chair in which I sit for meditation, a mouse is dead, or dying. The smell doesn’t directly suggest decay; it is somewhat inorganic, something like gasoline. But I have had the experience before, and so I recognize it. This puts me into a kind of domestic despair. There is nothing to be done. I cannot knock the wall down to remove the decaying carcass. I will have to wait till the last moments of aliveness are over, till the last morsel of flesh has been absorbed. How long will it take? I can’t meditate today, and I can’t sit in the chair purposely designated for meditation (part of the practice is to meditate in the same place at the same time), until the smell is gone because, trying to meditate, I can think only of the smell.
Some mornings when I wake up, the smell of my own femaleness—which I can only call rank—is a cause for anxiety, even though I sleep and wake alone. On these mornings, I take a bath even before brushing my teeth. This goes against everything which I, a feminist, have pledged to believe.
I smell a shirt to see if I can get another day’s wear out of it. Does everyone do this? Do people with servants?
Among the greats, Samuel Johnson, Beethoven, and Simone Weil were known to have stunk.
I admire Simone Weil to the point of obsession. If we had met, would her stink have prevented me from listening to her, from taking in what she said?
In their stink, the greats take their place beside the millions of unknown who stank.
Have I passed this on to my descendants?
My son, who is thinking of becoming a therapist, tells me about a lecture he went to where one of the audience went on and on about her panic attacks. He says, “I was so bored I thought: maybe I can never be a therapist.”
My grandson who is four has taken to calling things boring. My daughter accuses me of teaching him the word. I say that I have not, but I worry: has he heard me saying it so much that I might as well have taught him? Or is it DNA?
When my daughter was five, my husband had an accident and broke his shoulder and wrist. He had to have physical therapy for several months. The physical therapist was a neighbor who came to our house after dinner; it was left to me to do the dishes and put the children to bed, which usually were Arthur’s tasks. I said to him once, “I loaded the dishwasher and brought the children upstairs for their baths. You were talking to Jane about connective tissue. I bathed the children, put them to bed, came downstairs, and you were still talking about connective tissue. I swear you and Jane have the most boring conversations in the world.”
The next night, my daughter passed by her father and Jane talking. She sat to listen. When I walked into the room, she said, “Mommy, you said daddy and Jane have the most boring conversations in the world, but I don’t think they’re boring.”
I was mortified. Twenty-five years later, my daughter is mortified hearing the story. She is a doctor now. She suggests that my categorizing of conversations about connective tissue as boring is simply a sign of the lack of curiosity of a profoundly unscientific mind.
It is a year since I wrote this when everything was an abstract question, with the pleasures of a puzzle, or a mountain glimpsed from far away so you don’t see the fungus eating at the trees, the garbage left by careless hikers. But now boredom and bad smells are truly and crucially blocking my path to virtue. They push themselves into my face, breathe their stale breath, throw up hurdles—but they aren’t hurdles only, they are brambles, that I must hack and hack to get to where it is I need to be if I am to consider myself even decent.
My husband fell. People say, “he had a fall,” but the verb/object construction “had…fall,” doesn’t have the proper impact. He fell. I heard it from upstairs. I was in the bathtub.
He banged his head against the edge of a stair step. He was groaning. He was lying in a pool of his own blood. I was naked; I put on a robe and called 911. The paramedics arrived before I was fully dressed. I followed them in the car to the hospital. I was told he had suffered brain damage and that the damage was irreparable. He had been clear; he had put it in writing, that if his mind was gone, he wanted his life to be ended. I make the decision to place him in hospice care. He is taken off his medications. It is expected that, as he suffers from congestive heart failure, he will die soon. But he does not die soon; now he has been in this condition, his mind nearly gone, and his body immobile for nearly six months.
My children and I decided that it was better for everyone (but they mainly mean for me), that he stay in a nursing home instead of being brought home. I do not say this, but one of the compelling reasons I make this decision is that I find the possibility of living every day surrounded by the smell of death and dying unbearable.
I don’t tell this to anybody. I tell them other things, and they support me, they say of course I’m right when I say, “It would be a nightmare trying to find people to care for him. I would need to employ six people, two each for three shifts of eight hours. It would be ruinously expensive. I would have no privacy.”
“Yes, yes, of course, you’re right,” my friends say. “It’s better for both of you. You are wonderful, you are heroic.”
But the truth is, I can’t take him home because of piss and shit. Piss and shit. Shit and piss. They have been with us since our birth. They should be the most ordinary things in the world. But they are the most unbearable.
He can’t walk to the bathroom. He needs to use a bedpan. When he shits, I need to be far away.
Today when I walked up the hall, I smelt shit before I got to his doorway. I walked into his room; he was covered in shit. He had had an episode of diarrhea and had tried to take off his adult diaper. He didn’t remember that he had to press the button attached to his shirt in order to call a nurse for help. His hands were covered in shit; there was shit under his nails. My beautiful, elegant husband, whom I had vowed “with my body I thee worship.”
I run from the room in a panic, run up to the nurse’s desk and, as if I were being chased by a murderer, shout, “You have to do something, you have to do something. He’s covered in shit.” I say “shit” because I can’t think of a synonym. I have no access to niceties of language.
The nurse walks up the hall with me, walking, not running as I would prefer. “It’s nothing, it’s just an accident.”
I want to scream at her, “It’s not nothing, you liar. It’s something terrible. And now you must take it away.”
I leave her in the room with my husband. I run outside. I sit on a bench, trembling. Half an hour later, the nurse comes to find me. “It’s all right now. He’s all fixed.” I ask her if the room still smells. She says she doesn’t know. She comes back outside and says they’ve opened the window, it will be better soon. I get in my car and drive away. I don’t come back for another hour.
I am terribly ashamed.
My husband’s speech is garbled; he is hard to understand. Often, he is unwilling to talk.
The boredom of bedside chatter. I repeat the same stories over and over; I have run out of stories. My voice is not only unnatural but denatured. I ask him if he wants me to read aloud to him, and he says no. Often I turn the television on, so I don’t have to engage in these false conversations. Today I realized I was packing my things up while the final credits of the show were still flashing on the screen.
Is it right to call this discomfort with this liminal state boredom?
Is it that I want my husband to hurry up and die?
Or that I want him to fix me with his familiar clear eye and say, “I’m fine now. I am just as I was. Take me home.” Rising up, like Lazarus. Who, in the King James Version, stinketh?
Or is it that I want both?
Fortunately for me, the nursing home is quite near my favorite beach, and on nice days, I spend an hour at the shore before I see him. Not only do I adore swimming there, I also love sitting on the shore to read and write. Today, I can’t find the notebook I usually take to the beach, and not wanting to waste more precious daylight, I look around the house for a notebook that seems sturdy enough to survive the possibility of getting wet. On a shelf of a writing table my husband sometimes used, covered by manila folders, I see a notebook. Written on the front in my husband’s handwriting, “Journal of House Management.”
I remember teasing him about it. He often said he was put on earth to be teased; it always assured him, he said, that he was of value in the world. One of the most common categories of my teasing was his Midwestern ways, which often fell under the heading of “boring,” and “Journal of House Management” was ready made for me to dissolve into hysterical laughter, for him to respond with his good-natured joining in. But today, I don’t laugh; today the words on the cover bring tears to my eyes. As do the entries, “Called Cable People. Fifteen minutes. Much testing of their operation.” “Visited basement. Mice. Opened new poison trap.” “Called Sarah and asked about place to dump tree.” “Mop up dog pee.” “Large white buckets (storm preparation) to basement.” “Spent an hour with scratch remover and refinishing stain. Removing scratches and blood spots in living room.” “Took front door off. Took ½ hr to figure out how to repair and do it.” “1/2 hr changing switch in bedroom lamp.” “Discover water on floor opposite bathroom. Bubble on roof? Toilet? Wait and watch.”
Wait and watch. If you asked me, I would say these are activities of the utmost human importance. But is that what bores me? Of all the words in this book, the only ones that really interest me are, “removing blood spots in living room.” What blood spots, I want to say. Whose blood?
I realize that he is never coming back; there will be no more “house management” for him. These things, these boring things will fall to me. The prospect plunges me into despair.
I was not sufficiently grateful to him.
My husband now is ash.
One’s own grief is never boring to oneself, although it may be boring to others.
A sign of civilization is that we do not allow our dead to stink.