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Do-Overs

I replay my past with anguish over my failures – my biggest – my hot temper which bubbles over when I suffer a narcissistic wound. Every time it happened I was ashamed in the aftermath, vowed not to do it again. In time I learned some patience, some cooling off before reacting, but never enough.

When I think of Courtenay’s last days, I suffer a different self-torment – that I wasn’t physically with him – not at the moment of his death, but in the days before, where I came and went.

I’ve been hearing from other grieving people since Courtenay died. Some are close friends, some are strangers, but all experience the same torment I do, the “if only” torment.

I admire Kate Atkinson as a writer, but when I read her 2013 Life After Life, it irritated me exactly that reason – the effort to rewrite a personal as well as a meta life.  You could do it differently, you could affect the outcome – if only someone had killed Hitler (or, for that matter, Stalin) before 50 million people were murdered. If only you’d stayed home instead of going into town and contracting influenza. If this, if that. It seemed to me at the time to be unbearably juvenile, even while beautifully structured and written. Today it hits me even harder.

Ten years ago, if I’d been offered a chance for a do-over, it would have been for some  missteps I took that harmed my public career. Now – I’d redo those last two days. Or the time I screamed my head off in traffic. Or – or – or.

The point is, if you were given one do-over, you’d always pick the wrong one. And then you’d spend your time wanting a do-over to change your choice.

 

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The Quotidian

The quotidian does me in. I love to sing, although my musicianship can charitably be called “sketchy.” Courtenay loved listening to me. When I took lessons or sang in a community musical he always came to hear me perform. Similarly when I did readings or gave talks. Last night I went to the choir  practice for my local synagogue. I’d never been part of it; in fact, i didn’t know it existed. On the way home I had a total meltdown. I kept thinking, I have to get control of this or I’ll hit someone and then I’ll cause wider floods of grief for strangers, but I couldn’t stop weeping.

Grief surges are like power surges. They overwhelm the system, the trigger all the circuit breakers. They do us in.

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And now – bewilderment

I struggle to be in the now. I was with Courtenay for 47 years and we had the usual trajectory of excitement and its physical passions, moving to a sense of belonging together and then building a life together, but that life feels remote, almost non-existent. At this time,  the past is a series of self-lacerations – the things I didn’t do, the attention I didn’t pay, the carelessness of feelings/time/person.  I want to connect to the whole arc of our life together, the excitement, the quotidian, the annoyances, but instead those years seem  more remote, unreal, than if I’d read a novel about them.

It’s easy to turn from that uncertainty to the future – many of us live there most of the time – the next event, the plan for the next trip/project. But my stomach tells me it’s important to resist the pull of the future. My stomach says to stay in the now if I can.

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The Journey So Far

Courtenay died on November 22 at 9 in the morning. He was in a hospice facility, where he’d been for a scant 53 hours. I was not with him. That is a source of pain.

On October 2, I wrote in my journal that he’d been ill, another lung infection – pneumonia? a worsening of his CPOD? – but that prednisone and antibiotics had brought him back. I wrote that I had arm-wrestled the Angel of Death, who had let me win, as he had many times in the past 17 years. “I know you could win any time you wanted,” I wrote to the Angel. “I know it’s an illusion that I have won, but I am grateful.”

The seven weeks that followed were a steady decline, just one I refused to acknowledge. Or perhaps I thought the Angel would keep letting me walk away from the table with another victory. On November 18, my poor darling lost power in his legs, but he was agitated and couldn’t stay still. I finally, on the 20th, agreed to hospice care away from the home he’d lived in for 61 years. The hope was that medication would calm his agitation and he could return to the house he loved.

The hospice nurse called and said, “I’m sorry to tell you that Courtenay made his transition.” I knew as soon as I saw the number on the screen that he had died, but the phrasing was so strange I didn’t instantly understand it. Then I screamed, “No, no, no,” even while I started pulling on outdoor clothes. Leashed the dog, texted his sons, called Marzena, who loved him like a daughter . We met in his room at the hospice center. The next 4 hours are not a blur but they are painful and private. We had to move his body out by 1 p.m. because of the rules of the hospital where the hospice is housed. We were greatly aided and supported by the hospice staff, who let us stay with him, holding him, until the last possible moment. They escorted him out with gongs, with psalms, with the Mozart clarinet concerto. I wanted to fling myself on the body and scream and tear myself apart, but could not.

We had a funeral service on the 25th, Jewish, in our home. Beautiful and overwhelming. Courtenay’s favorite poem, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.” So true to him: “a bride, married to amazement, the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” My own favorite: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. “Our two soules, therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach but an expansion.” My beloved Eve read that, a heroic effort to make it through to the end without breaking down.

It turns out there is no pre-mourning. Over the last 5 years, he gradually lost many of his great capabilities, the problem-solving, the insights, the understanding of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and how they are at work and play in the natural world that surrounds us. He became bewildered by simple things and there was so much loss that I thought the ultimate loss would not be so devastating. There is no pre-mourning. The ultimate loss is still a grand piano that drops from the sky onto one’s head.

I have a shrine in the living room: his ashes with emblems of his loves – a photo of him with one of the dogs he adored, the Go stones for the game that was his passion, pool balls – another passion. (Two weeks before he died he did the equivalent of running the table in the arcane version of billiard-pool he and his friends played). I still need something to signify his love of ships and sailing. I figure the room is full of photons and electrons. I talk to him at the shrine.

I walk the lakefront with the dog, who was inseparable from him for four years and is as bewildered as I am. I watch the ducks in the cold water, the grey air, and take solace in knowing that I am connected to a web of nature, of plants and animals where we all keep going, putting one little webbed foot in front of the other, valiantly braving the cold.

It turns out mourning is physical. It is exhausting, but one feels it in the body. In my case, it’s a heaviness in the stomach. When I imagine going shopping, or traveling, or any of those things, the heaviness increases and tells me to stay put.

The least thing can make the chest constrict. Also I am bewildered: I want him here, but memories also stir the more recent griefs: he was the most competent man I ever knew, the most moral, the kindest, the most brilliant but in the last years he relied on me to mediate every aspect of the surrounding world. It was never a burden but it was always a grief.

I am on an express train moving at too fast a rate from the place I want to inhabit, the world where the Angel of Death let me keep winning our arm-wrestling matches. People in my house for the last 8 days  interrupted my grief and I am angry that I let those precious days close to the station be taken from me.

I have always hated my legs – they look fat and wobbly. Almost every day for 47 years, Courtenay said to me, “You have beautiful legs.” At the hospice, I lay in bed with him, holding him, singing the ballads he loved. The last words he said to me were, “Your voice is lovely and your legs are beautiful.”

He never in 47 years complained of pain, despite crippling RA, a leg broken in 7 places, cancer and radiation therapy. He never wanted novocaine when getting dental work, no nerve blocks when he needed hand surgery. The last 4 days the pain was too great for his stoic heroic heart. I should have stayed with him, holding him, but I did not. I was the bustling Martha, trying to set up in-home care, imagining he would come back. I was walking  the dog and writing emails and not knowing I should not have left his side. That is a pain I can hardly bear.

The journey so far.

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Courtenay Wright, 1923 – 2018

My husband Courtenay turned 95 on October 16. He died a month later on November 22, but Professor Young-Kee Kim, chair of the physics department at the University of Chicago, hosted a lunch in his honor shortly before his death.  Here are the remarks I made at that lunch. I am so glad I got to share a small portion of his remarkable life with friends and old colleagues.

 

Courtenay has been part of my life for 47 years. After all this time, I could talk about him for several days, the things I admire, the quirks I never really got my mind around, the past we’ve shared, the parts of his life I know only by hearsay, but I will try to be brief. I will focus on the things I’ve learned from Courtenay as well as some of the things he’s tried to teach me that I never mastered.

When I first started seeing Courtenay, I was attracted by his accent and his eyebrows – both reminiscent of the young Sean Connery, on whom I had a crush. But what made me fall in love was the way his face, indeed, his whole being, lit up when he was doing the work he loved. Physics was his passion. His zest for that world, those ways of thinking, was exhilarating.

I sometimes sat in on his lectures; his face was filled with joy as he talked about electron half-spin, as it was when he tried to teach me non-Euclidian geometry, or special relativity. The day they moved the cyclotron from the central shop to Fermi Lab he called me to come watch. He had a boyish eagerness about all the different aspects of the field that had chosen him.

There were three different occasions on which I actually understood relativity, and I briefly shared his exhilaration, but I couldn’t keep hold of it, and now probably never will.

The colleagues who do understand relativity

These are some of the things I learned from Courtenay:

How to get ketchup out of a bottle – not with brute strength, but applying a physical law that means you slap the bottle in an upward motion so that the ketchup flows in the opposite direction.

I learned that if your electronics aren’t working, check first to see if they’re plugged in.

I learned to change fuses, and test electrical outlets, to clean carburetors and cylinder heads and to gap spark plugs – skills now obsolete. One of Courtenay’s hobbies was hot wiring but that one never attracted me.

He taught me to love dogs, to use chopsticks, to understand vectors. He gave me the courage to find a public voice, in writing and in speaking.

 

Like many of the scientists I know or have read about – Fermi, Cronin, Roger Hildebrand and others – Courtenay loved strenuous physical activity. Until arthritis claimed his joints, he was a tennis player, a downhill skier, and a boater, although he only really enjoyed taking the boat out when lake Michigan waves were 6 feet high or higher – in the face of physical danger, his face lit with the same joy as when he was talking about electron spin. He embraced the entire physical world, from the sub-atomic to the grand peaks and waves.

Friends listening to my remarks

 

Courtenay served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At age 20, he was the radar officer on the HMS Apollo, which took Eisenhower and Montgomery to Normandy on D-Day Plus One. He also was the officer on duty when the coded signal came in from the Admiralty: He was the first person in the world to know the date and destination of the landing, as he translated the message and hand-carried it to the head of the fleet.

The BBC once interviewed him about this. The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like – the thrill, the awe, whatever emotion Courtenay could remember from that moment. Courtenay kept saying, “It was my job. I was doing my duty.” In his mind, that over-rode any sense of being special. The interviewer and he never found common ground and, sadly, the interview was never broadcast (although his war memories are part of the video archive at the Pritzker Military Museum downtown).

As I’m speaking, Courtenay, our niece Heather, and our neighbor Martha while I give my remarks

Courtenay has the highest sense of duty, and the highest level of integrity and morality, of anyone I have ever known. Certainly in his work he was ambitious and competitive, but only against his own standards, not against his colleagues or students. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether someone was gaining on him – he did the work because it brought him joy.

Outside the lab and classroom, he had other interests, like the board=game Go, which he played at a high level, but he also took his sense of duty and moral obligation to the public sphere. He was part of Jason, and wrote, with Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, a crucial paper that kept McNamara from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia.

In the 60’s, before Roe, he often spoke in public forums and on television to support abortion rights. When a student was stranded in Europe because he couldn’t get a visa for his French wife, Courtenay went to the State Department and got the matter untangled in short order. He wrote to Senators to protest the bills that eroded our rights under the Fourth Amendment.

His essential kindness also made him the person who visited sick friends in hospital, made sure they had the care they needed at home, looked after me, my friends and my family with unfailing generosity.

During his first wife’s serious illness, Courtenay cared for her and their three sons for a number of years. Juggling career and family took a toll, but he never complained and never regretted making that choice.

Prof. Frank Merritt describing some of Courtenay’s work on the Physics of Leptons

In fact, I have never heard Courtenay complain about any personal matter, great or small, either in his career, his personal health, or his private life. He never whined that he was dealt a bad hand, or had rotten luck, or was mistreated. You play the cards you’re dealt and you take what action lies within your power to heal yourself and the world around you –tikkun olam, the rabbis call it. Courtenay is not the least bit religious, but I look on him as someone who’s spent his life practicing tikkun olam.

I’m grateful that I’ve been granted all these years to try to learn from him. I tend to whine any time I stub my toe, but I look at my husband, and know I can do better. I probably will never master relativity or non-Euclidian geometry, but I can still get ketchup out of a bottle, and I can still become a more moral, decent person.

Thank you, my dearest one, for all you’ve given to me and to the world around you.

Courtenay acknowledging the crowd’s applaus

 

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Courtenay Wright at 95

In between touring for Shell Game, mourning Pittsburgh, trying to do some election work, I celebrated my husband Courtenay’s 95th birthday. Kee Young-Kim, chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago — where Courtenay taught and did research for 44 years — and her husband, physicist Sid Nagel — organized a wonderful celebration for Courtenay on OCtober 30. Here are the remarks I gave, an inadequate summary of a remarkable man’s life.

Courtenay has been part of my life for 47 years. After all this time, I could talk about him for several days, the things I admire, the quirks I never really got my mind around, the past we’ve shared, the parts of his life I know only by hearsay, but I will try to be brief. I will focus on the things I’ve learned from Courtenay as well as some of the things he’s tried to teach me that I never mastered.

Frank Merritt, Oct 30 2018 briefly describing Courtenay’s phyics contributions

 

When I first started seeing Courtenay, I was attracted by his accent and his eyebrows – both reminiscent of the young Sean Connery, on whom I had a crush. But what made me fall in love was the way his face, indeed, his whole being, lit up when he was doing the work he loved. Physics was his passion. His zest for that world, those ways of thinking, was exhilarating.

Friends listen to remarks about Courtenay

 

These are some of the things I learned from Courtenay:
How to get ketchup out of a bottle – not with brute strength, but applying a physical law that means you slap the bottle in an upward motion so that the ketchup flows in the opposite direction.
I learned that if your electronics aren’t working, check first to see if they’re plugged in.
I learned to change fuses, and test electrical outlets, to clean carburetors and cylinder heads and to gap spark plugs – skills now obsolete. One of Courtenay’s hobbies was hot wiring but that one never attracted me.

Linguistics prof Jerry Sadock delivered witty talk on pool as “Large Particle Interaction”

 

He taught me to love dogs, to use chopsticks, to understand vectors. He gave me the courage to find a public voice, in writing and in speaking.

Like many of the scientists I know or have read about – Fermi, Cronin, Roger Hildebrand and others – Courtenay loved strenuous physical activity. Until arthritis claimed his joints, he was a tennis player, a downhill skier, and a boater, although he only really enjoyed taking the boat out when lake Michigan waves were 6 feet high or higher – in the face of physical danger, his face lit with the same joy as when he was talking about electron spin. He embraced the entire physical world, from the sub-atomic to the grand peaks and waves.

Courtenay with long-time colleague Dieter Müller; behind are physicist Jon Rosner, Mel Shochet, Wyatt Merritt, Frank Ferritt

 

I sometimes sat in on his lectures; his face was filled with joy as he talked about electron half-spin, as it was when he tried to teach me non-Euclidian geometry, or special relativity. The day they moved the cyclotron from the central shop to Fermi Lab he called me to come watch. He had a boyish eagerness about all the different aspects of the field that had chosen him.
There were three different occasions on which I actually understood relativity, and I briefly shared his exhilaration, but I couldn’t keep hold of it, and now probably never will.

Courtenay with Sara and Physics Dept Chair Young-Kee Kim

 

Courtenay served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At age 20, he was the radar officer on the HMS Apollo, which took Eisenhower and Montgomery to Normandy on D-Day Plus One. He also was the officer on duty when the coded signal came in from the Admiralty: He was the first person in the world to know the date and destination of the landing, as he translated the message and hand-carried it to the head of the fleet.
The BBC once interviewed him about this. The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like – the thrill, the awe, whatever emotion Courtenay could remember from that moment. Courtenay kept saying, “It was my job. I was doing my duty.” In his mind, that over-rode any sense of being special. The interviewer and he never found common ground and, sadly, the interview was never broadcast (although his war memories are part of the video archive at the Pritzker Military Museum downtown).

Courtenay with niece Heather Watkins

 

Courtenay has the highest sense of duty, and the highest level of integrity and morality, of anyone I have ever known. Certainly in his work he was ambitious and competitive, but only against his own standards, not against his colleagues or students. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether someone was gaining on him – he did the work because it brought him joy.
Outside the lab and classroom, he had other interests, like the board=game Go, which he played at a high level, but he also took his sense of duty and moral obligation to the public sphere. He was part of Jason, and wrote, with Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, a crucial paper that kept McNamara from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia.

Sara giving speech

In the 60’s, before Roe, he often spoke in public forums and on television to support abortion rights. When a student was stranded in Europe because he couldn’t get a visa for his French wife, Courtenay went to the State Department and got the matter untangled in short order. He wrote to Senators to protest the bills that eroded our rights under the Fourth Amendment.

 

His essential kindness also made him the person who visited sick friends in hospital, made sure they had the care they needed at home, looked after me, my friends and my family with unfailing generosity.
During his first wife’s serious illness, Courtenay cared for her and their three sons for a number of years. Juggling career and family took a toll, but he never complained and never regretted making that choice.
In fact, I have never heard Courtenay complain about any personal matter, great or small, either in his career, his personal health, or his private life. He never whined that he was dealt a bad hand, or had rotten luck, or was mistreated. You play the cards you’re dealt and you take what action lies within your power to heal yourself and the world around you –tikkun olam, the rabbis call it. Courtenay is not the least bit religious, but I look on him as someone who’s spent his life practicing tikkun olam.
I’m grateful that I’ve been granted all these years to try to learn from him. I tend to whine any time I stub my toe, but I look at my husband, and know I can do better. I probably will never master relativity or non-Euclidian geometry, but I can still get ketchup out of a bottle, and I can still become a more moral, decent person.
Thank you, my dearest one, for all you’ve given to me and to the world around you.

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An Open Letter to Senators Hatch and Grassley: It’s Not too late to leave your gang

Senators: It’s not too late to leave the gang
By Trish McReynolds and Sara Paretsky

When Trish McReynolds’s beautiful husky was shot by a macho, gun-toting neighbor, she sobbed “Why”? to her mother, who replied helplessly, “Because he could. He had the power.”
That hard answer came back to us as we listened to Sen. Grassley and the Con-Avenue Gang try to bully Dr. Ford into silence, just as Judge Kavanaugh tried to silence her 36 years ago, (allegedly) lying on top of her with his hands over her mouth.
Senators Grassley and Hatch have baldly stated to the world, that even if Kavanaugh committed rape, that wouldn’t be as important as the fact that he’s a sitting judge today.
Why didn’t Dr. Ford speak up when she was fifteen? These men – and a handful of women — ask? Because she knew Brett Kavanaugh had the power. Because women’s voices are perennially, perpetually silenced. Because the power to shame, scare, threaten us into silence is real.
We’ve seen this movie before. We know the script. A woman speaks out, at tremendous personal cost, and the most powerful gangs in the world, the Constitution Avenue gang – or the Wall Street or K Street or Main Street gangs – send their members a message: “‘Ho’ is getting out of line. Punish the ‘ho’.” Yes, Sen. Hatch, Sen. Grassley, you behave like members of MS-13 or the Vice Lords. You may not use the language in public, but to you, women are “‘bitches and ‘ho’s” who have to be kept in line.
If you’re a woman in any walk of life, you know that you have to scream to be heard – and even then, chances are good no one will listen. How many women had to scream before Harvey Weinstein was brought up short? How many women screamed about Trump during the run-up to the election? Rich and powerful men laughed them off: it’s okay to grab pussy because who’s going to stop you? No one: you have the power.
We watched this movie during Anita Hill’s testimony. We watch this movie in every fast-food restaurant in this country. We watch this movie at work, at home and we know the ending. They have the power.
But we will continue to speak, even as man-boys with power put their hands over our mouths, even as man-boys with power defame and threaten us. You belong to a powerful gang, Sen. Grassley, but we will not be silent. We will do our utmost to support Dr. Ford, support her as you seek to do to her what you and Sen. Hatch both did to Professor Hill.
You know the story, too, which is why you fear an FBI investigation: they may dig into the so-called “Clit and Slit” society Judge Kavanaugh belonged to at Yale and turn up other possible allegations of assault, other pussy grabs.
You have another chance, the two of you who led the charge against Anita Hill, to get it right, to turn your back on your gang, to let justice roll down like waters. You have the power. Use it this time for good.

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And once again, the backroom deals reign supreme

As most people know, Barack Obama is planning his presidential legacy center for the part of Chicago’s south side where he lived and taught law before become a U.S. Senator and then President. This isn’t a presidential library, which will be built in some other, as yet undisclosed location, but a private facility. The City of Chicago has given him 19 acres of land in Jackson Park, for a lease whose terms are secret. The city has decided to close roads that are heavily traveled to accommodate both the Obama Center and a proposed PGA golf course. All of those decisions are also cloaked in secrecy.

As is tiresomely all too often the case in my city, all the deals have been done behind the scenes. I testified before the Chicago Plan [sic]  Commission, but mine was a drowned out voice in a room full of people desperate to believe the city’s promises.

I’m attaching my remarks here. FYI, Rahm Emanuel is Chicago’s mayor, Mike Kelly the superindentent of the Chicago Park District.

 

Questions Regarding the Plans for the Obama Presidential Center

Sara Paretsky, Hyde Park resident since 1968

It’s fitting that President Obama’s center return to the South Side where he, and especially the former First Lady, lived and worked. I’m delighted the center will be here, but disturbed by the process by which the park district and the city made decisions to dismember Jackson Park, close roads, upend commutes and install a PGA golf course in an area that can’t support one economically.

I’ve lived a few blocks from Jackson Park for fifty years and I’m in the park at three or more days a week. One of my least favorite places is the underpass at 59th Street, which I’ve dubbed, “Lake Rahm Kelly.” This underpass has been flooded and impassable for 46 of the past 52 weeks.

Looking west under Lake Shore Drive at 59th Street

Every time I get there and see I have to retrace my steps, I think, Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent Kelly are two of the people asking us to take their proposed massive disruption of Jackson Park on faith: trust us, they say, as Lucy does to Charlie Brown when she holds the football for him. We can close roads, take away big chunks of Jackson Park to give to a private foundation, eliminate parking, turn Stony Island into a six-lane road, we can do all this without hurting the 2200 children who go to school near Stony Island. We can do all this without causing traffic bottlenecks for the commuters who are already bumper-to-bumper on the roads the city wants to close or narrow. We can bring new commerce to the South Side, we can bring jobs, we can do all this.

You taxpayers don’t need to see data on how we decided on this massive upheaval. You just need to trust us. We can’t keep one lonely underpass free of water, but we can do all this other bigger stuff.

We can build a PGA golf course, which requires intensive use of herbicides and pesticides, without allowing one single molecule of these chemicals into Lake Michigan. We can give almost twenty acres of Jackson Park to the Obama Presidential Center for a lease whose terms we will not reveal to you – how many years, how much rent, how big a burden for maintenance and security will fall on taxpayers. Just trust us.

We’re giving public land to a private center, but this won’t create a precedent for giving public land to other private users such as George Lucas or even Donald Trump. Why won’t it? Because you can trust us.

The Obama Presidential Center similarly demands our trust: for access to the nineteen acres of Jackson Park where they will sit, for economic revitalization of the South Side without a community benefits agreement, for replacement of football, baseball and soccer fields that the OPC and the proposed road changes will displace.

Mayor Emanuel recently said that skeptics like me aren’t ready for the 21st Century.That could be because the Jackson Park plan process looks very much like Chicago politics as they’ve been practiced for one hundred-fifty years.

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Out-take from Shell Game

When I started writing Shell Game 20 months ago, I imagined at first that it would center on a Syrian poet. My poet was called Tarik Kataba and he was in the U.S. illegally. He had been imprisoned and tortured by Bashar. When he was released, he fled and made his way here through what John le Carré called “the soft routes.” I imagined VI having an affair with him. It turned out not to be possible to use him to tell the story I was trying to write. He still exists, but not in the same role. I thought it might entertain some readers to see where I started.

chapter 4: Scars

 

When I closed my eyes, I saw not the battered head in the woods nor the smooth skin of the dead young man, but Tarik Kataba’s back, criss-crossed with welts.

That hot August day, the Hope Against Fear picnic. Tarik had gone for a swim at the far end of the private beach across from Max’s home. I’d noticed him walking up the beach to a rocky outcropping at the far end, but at that time, I didn’t know his name – we were a motley gathering of immigrants, refugees, high-end donors, friends of Lotty and Max like me.

Felix Herschel was there, hanging out with the younger people; presumably that’s where he met Rasima. Mid-afternoon, Felix joined me in playing beach volleyball with some of Lotty’s surgical residents and other energetic people. Rasima had left for work.

Partway through our game, Tarik’s shirt blew from the rocks into the water. Wind and waves were carrying it toward our end of the beach; I darted into the water to collect it before it sank. I took the shirt up the beach to the rocks just as Tarik was climbing out. The sun had burned the newer flesh around the scars, highlighting the puckered stripes against his olive skin.

He was mortified that I’d seen his wounded back. He grabbed the shirt without speaking and disappeared behind the rocks. During supper, Max told me his name, and that he’d been tortured in Assad’s prisons because of his poetry.

Later, as the sun was setting, I had taken a break from the yammer of the crowd to sit on the beach and watch the light on the water change color. After some minutes, Tarik appeared noiselessly at my side.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I also am sorry. Sorry for the rude action when you make the kind action.”

We sat quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked about his poetry.

“Poetry is my life and also almost end of life.”

As dark gathered around us, in fractured English, he softly told me his story. Tarik spoke Russian: during the Cold War, when Syria was closely allied to the Soviet Union, he’d spent a year in Moscow as a student. He’d made friends among people who circulated samizdat; through them he learned the work of the great dissident poets of the Thirties.

“Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. For me best is always Mandlestam. I try translate. Language hard, also hard is –“ he beat a rhythm on his thigh.

“Rhythm? Meter?”

“Yes. Hard and therefore happiness to put in Arabic. My bad mistake: I choose wrong poem, poem Mandlestam write to Stalin.”

Tarik recited “Stalin’s Epigram” for me in Russian and then in Arabic. It sounded beautiful in both languages, although I understood neither. Tarik tried to explain what it said, but his English wasn’t up to the job.

When I pulled out my phone and looked it up, it was instantly obvious that it would rile a dictator. Mandlestam wrote that Stalin had a mustache like “cockroach whiskers;” his followers were “a rabble of fawning half-men” who “whinny or purr or whine” at his command, his laws were “horseshoes” which hit people in the head or the eye or the groin.

In 1933, after the “Epigram” reached his ears, Stalin had Mandlestam arrested, and ultimately killed. In today’s global war against ordinary citizens, a poet should not be surprised when the police arrive in the middle of the night.

“Problem is moustache. Stalin has big, like – like brush. Bashar moustache tiny, like pencil –“ he rubbed his fingers in the sand, imitating an eraser.”

“Smudges,” I guessed.

“Smudge, hmm. I ask daughter, Rasima know English perfect. Bashar moustache smudge. Not big like Stalin. Bashar not same like Stalin, I trying say.”

“I’m sure that didn’t help.” I couldn’t hold back a laugh, and instantly apologized, but Tarik laughed softly as well. “Yes. Not help. Bashar want big cockroach moustache.”

Tariq had spent nineteen months in Assad’s prisons, nineteen months where he was whipped with electric wires, among other tortures. His son, seventeen at Tarik’s arrest, slipped across the border to safety in Jordan. When Tarik was released, he left Syria immediately with Rasima, flying to Panama and moving overland to the United States. In 2013 we still seemed like a haven.

“My son, Adam, stay at Jordan. Better there.”

It was full night when Tarik finished talking. He and I left the party together. He spent the night with me, and I felt the scars in the darkness. We never repeated the encounter, not out of shame nor fear of Rasima’s discovering us. Whatever we both had needed was satisfied by that one night.

 

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Agency

When Dorothy Salisbury Davis turned eighty, I flew to New York for her birthday. She wasn’t feeling well, and during the three days I spent with her she finally admitted to some bleeding and a low-grade fever. I urged her to let me take her to her doctor but she was adamantly opposed. In retrospect, I suppose she was afraid of hospitalization instead of the festive dinner she’d been planning. At any rate, I respected her wishes, we had dinner. The next day I urged her again, but she remained resolute — or perhaps obdurate, and I returned to Chicago.

Two days later a good friend found her passed out on her living room floor. She was rushed to an ER where they diagnosed a kidney infection, eminently treatable. She was resilient as well as obdurate and was soon back in top form.

Dorothy lived to 98 in pretty good health except for her last few years, but the question of when she needed care and what kind continued to be a struggle. The friend who got her to the ER was also resolute and pushed Dorothy far harder than I ever could have or would have.

I’ve been thinking about that recently, thinking about agency. My husband has COPD and it is worsening. He doesn’t want to go to a pulmonologist; he doesn’t want oxygen. I think I have a right to insist he uses his inhalers, but I think he has a right to decide how much additional treatment he wants.

I’m torn on this question of agency. If he were younger, if he were as mentally sharp as he was at 75 (he’s 94 now), maybe he’d make the decision to go to oxygen or other treatments, but he might not. He needs me to administer any therapies he receives and he has never liked being dependent. He’s always been the caregiver, not the care receiver, and I imagine myself in his head, thinking, “I won’t be that helpless person.”

I was in my twenties when a beloved friend succombed to a particularly lethal form of lupus; I was with her when she died. The night before, she pulled all the treatment lines out of her body. She’d had enough in her twenty-five short years. When I was 25, I couldn’t bear the decision she made but I understand it better now — I was clinging to her in my own neediness, not letting her go where she needed to be.  As Stewart Alsop put it so poignantly, A dying person needs to die just as a sleepy person needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong to resist.

 

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