|Newspaper article from the July 2001 edition of |
The Westchester County Times
by Benjamin H. Cheever
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Life is a great surprise
I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.
Copied from the memorial service program for a young man who died suddenly and too soon.
Jacob had a reputation for an acid tongue, but I never heard a cruel word come from his mouth. I saw the kindness. His mother had my family to dinner, and he cooked the steaks. I went out with him to the grill, and we each smoked one of his cigarettes. He had Marlboros. I think they were Marlboros. The box was red and white.
I explained that I didn't want my boys to see me smoking, and so when they came up unexpectedly from the fields around the house, the young man stood between me and my children, gave me time to drop the cigarette, stamp it out on the stone of the terrace. Then he picked the butt up, worked the remaining tobacco out between his thumb and forefingers and put the filter into the pocket of his pants.
How could a man who wouldn't leave a cigarette butt on a stone terrace be so reckless with his own body?
I'd written a letter of recommendation when he applied to the M.F.A. writing program at Columbia, but he was far ahead of me academically. He'd graduated cum laude from Yale. I don't think Yale would let me go there on a field trip.
He was finishing up his M.F.A. and looking for a job. I was supposed to give him advice, but this was awkward, because he was so smart. I told him to associate with writers and editors. 'It's much more like other businesses than anyone wants to admit. People are apt to publish people they know. Don't count on merit. I've seen gifted writers fail and mediocre ones flourish.'
Jacob was easy to confide in. He talked openly. He was even witty about the heroin that would later take his life. We spoke of addictions. I told how once when Janet and I were meeting another couple for dinner--and we always drank too much with these people--I walked to the restaurant, so that I could arrive early, order a tall glass of straight tonic. 'I figured I'd nurse it, and by the time we had a second round, nobody would be sharp enough to notice. That way I wouldn't drink at all. The bartender appeared. I said 'Gin and tonic please.' It was precisely as if somebody else were operating my vocal chords.'
Then Jacob said that he'd be writing and decide he needed a Colombian character. He'd want to know exactly how a such a man might speak and act. Then 'I'll think, if I'm going to do this properly, I'd better find a Colombian and talk with him. And wouldn't that exchange be a lot more natural if we had a little bit of business to transact.'
He was much younger than I am, twenty nine, but his face had a good deal of authority, and so it was terrific fun when you heard him muttering something unexpected and irreverent.
Right after dinner his mother and my mother-in-law got locked in an elevator. I'm a writer, he was a writer, so was his girl friend, so is my wife. 'Four people here,' he muttered, 'all wanting to see who gets to use the material.' This was when the two women were still caught in the elevator. He was savoring the moment.
How could a man who so relished the moment, be so careless with a lifetime?
I build walls between myself and death. When I read an obituary, I look for the paragraph that isn't written. She was an alcoholic. Or he worked in a nuclear power plant.
I like to stand a long way from the grave. The hole is deep, the air around it chilly. When a child dies, I place the parents between myself and the grave.
But Jacob's mother is my beloved friend. She's no protection at all. Lucy's the most popular woman in this part of Pleasantville. Everybody likes her. People I don't like, like Lucy. She's kind, sweet, generous, energetic. She loves a great many people, but she loves her family best. She spoke to me often about her daughter and her son. She knew as much about their lives as they would let her know. She did as much as they would let her do.
Lucy adored her boy. When Jacob was in treatment, she flew out to the facility. She participated enthusiastically in the process. Afterwards, she went to Al Anon meetings. I never heard a word of recrimination. Not one.
She was proud of Jacob's intellect. When he wrote a story, and it hurt her feelings, she showed it to me. 'I need to know if it's really as good as it seems,' she said. 'I can't tell.'
'It's good,' I told her. 'I can tell.'
I always think that humor will protect me. Or else my friends. But Jacob was funny, and Jacob had many friends. Speaking at the memorial service at Riverside Church one of his friends said that they'd all gone out the night before and that 21 different people thought that Jacob was his or her best friend.
Does he sound like a phony?
I don't think so.
Remember the acid tongue.
So what happened? I don't know.
It's as if the boy had been bitten by a snake.
Heroin is cheap now, of high quality and easy to get. If you're afraid of needles, you can sniff it. Fifty dollars buys enough to set the hook.
I don't think it has much to do with character. Jacob had a lot of character. My father had a lot of character. He was snakebitten too. My father's poison was gin. I remember once when he came home from Phelps Memorial Hospital, and Dr. Mutter had told him that couldn't drink anymore, not if he meant to live. When he came into the house, my father asked us to pour him a drink. We all refused. 'Well, then' he said, 'I'll just have to pour it myself.' He made it sound as if we didn't have any manners at all.
When you get to be 100 years old, then Willard Scott might put you on the 'Today Show,' work you right into a commercial for Smucker's Concord Grape Jelly. It's as if you've done a great thing.
There's something wrong here. Death isn't a judgement. Death is inevitable. Nobody gets out of here alive. Maybe we should plan ahead.
Death didn't frighten William Maxwell. I saw The New Yorker editor and writer shortly after his wife, Emmy, had died. He told me it was as if she were going on a transatlantic voyage. The apartment had been full of friends. They played jazz. They opened a bottle of champagne.
The story about Bill, is that when he was a young man he was lonely and wanted to be loved. So he thought that he would love other people, and see what happened.
It seemed to have worked. He was a magnificent writer, and also a beloved editor. When J.D. Salinger finished writing The Catcher in the Rye, he drove up to Bill's house in Yorktown, and over the course of an afternoon and evening, he read the manuscript aloud to Bill and Emmy.
There were a great many people at the Memorial Service for Bill and Emmy Maxwell. But at Jacob's memorial service there were even more.
Life is a miracle. So is death. In the meantime, we can love each other. Or try. We'd better do it now. Right now and forever.