This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
This week we had planned originally on doing a show that would be kind of light and funny. But with the news on Tuesday, we all lost heart for that, and set about looking for material that would, in some way, reflect and illuminate what I think most of us are feeling in the wake of the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We're going to have a show of news stories on these things for you next week, hopefully. Until then, we put together this hour of stories in which people reflect on loss, and try to make sense of things that don't exactly make sense.
For instance, this story. When Mark was 15, his father was shot and killed, and Mark reacted like a 15-year-old. He went up to each of his relatives-- to anybody who would listen, actually-- and he declared that someday when he grew up he would become a pro football player, and he would find the man who shot his father.
It's really-- when I look back at that kid, that 15-year-old kid making that promise, it's pathetic in a way.
Well, it's such a particular vision of what a pro football player is. Which is to say, as a kid you're trying to conjure the notion of somebody who's very powerful, but also pure somehow.
Yes. And I remember even then some friends saying, now Mark, pro football is kind of a lofty goal. Maybe high school football. Years later, when I reflected back on that, I thought, jeez, the kid's dad just was killed. Why disabuse him of some vision he's got?
Mark's dad was a bar owner in Fresno, California. Two men came into the bar, played a game of pool, ordered two beers, then came into the back room and shot him. They didn't take any money. It was a gangland-style hit. And there was talk that Mark's father must be caught up with organized crime. So at 15 Mark started calling around until his mother made him stop.
17 years later, he moved back to Fresno. By this time he was a reporter for the LA Times. And he wanted to write a book investigating his dad's murder. He was so skittish that he and his wife got their home under assumed names, did not tell people where they lived.
It's hard to make sense of all that. But there was a great deal of paranoia. I didn't want family to really know what I was doing. And I thought that if there was some way to-- if someone got nervous about the questions I was asking, I wanted to make it difficult for them to try to find me. And I remember changing my sleep patterns, so that I was awake all through the night, and I was guarding the house. I had, actually, a gun that I had under the couch. I was sleeping on the couch.
In a way, I became very childlike again. I really had to become a 15-year-old again in some ways to get at this thing.
Like how do you mean?
Well, I think it wasn't terribly adult to try to think that you could come back to your hometown and try to hide your identity. I don't think that was really adult.
When somebody close to us dies, part of us can remain suspended there at the moment it happened. And we stay there. Part of us stays there, turning the whole thing over and over in our heads. Mark spent three years talking to informants about his father's murder. He went through police files, analyzed phone records, and in the end found credible evidence that his father was murdered just as he was about to blow the whistle on a drug ring, one with local police on its side, Mark believes.
He wrote his book about it. It's called In My Father's Name. And still that was not enough. He's still not at peace.
And have I been liberated by some of those answers? I don't know if liberation's the right word.
But why? What would it take?
I think there is a part of me that wants to sit across from the men who set this whole thing up and talk to them about it.
You want them to admit it to your face.
Yeah, that's right. That's what I want them to do. I have played over that encounter with the killers so many times. And one of the things that I would tell them going in is it goes no further than you and me. This is it. I just want to ask you one question. Were you responsible for the murder of my father?
And so, actually, you've actually imagined this over and over to yourself?
Oh, I imagine it all the time.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, people trying to make sense out of things for which they'll never get answers or real peace. All three stories on our program today are about people facing the idea of death, and telling themselves one thing about it or another. And is there anything that can be said? Is there anything that can comfort us in that situation?
Act One of our program, The Disappearance, trying to comprehend what it means when people are there, alive in your life one day, and the next gone. Act Two, Look for the Union Label. A father and daughter sit down together for no real reason, just a whim really, to write his obituary, not really thinking about what it means. And then at some point someone starts to think about what it means. Act Three, Ashes. David Sedaris talks about the death of his mother. Stay with us.
Act One: The Disappearance
Act One, The Disappearance. One of the most remarkable books that I've read in a while is by a woman named Genevieve Jurgensen, about her husband Laurent and she lost their two daughters, Elise and Mathilde, at the ages of four and seven. The book is a series of letters that she wrote to her friend 12 years after their deaths.
And one of the things that's so remarkable about it is how she still struggles. She doesn't want to keep suffering over their deaths. But suffering over them is the last way that she has to love them. She's also keenly aware that she wants them to seem, in these letters, to be more than just names. You know, when you tell a story about somebody, it's sometimes hard for them to seem more like just a character in a story. And she keeps trying over and over to find ways to make it real, that in fact they were alive. They are more than can be expressed on the page.
You never knew our daughters. Neither did you know me as I was when they were alive. I will have to tell you everything. Can one really tell someone about very young children? I will not even show you photographs of them. All they show are two little girls barely distinguishable from each other, just like all the little blond children which people primary school classes and the beaches along the Atlantic coast in the summer.
On the 29th of April, 1980, the official photographer for the school which my daughters attended came to take some class photographs. They were both dead the next day. Indeed, we did not receive these photographs until several weeks after the news of our solitude. Mathilde's class is in uniform. So it is a picture of a little girl in navy blue in a row, stifling her giggles in between her best friends. Elise, who was still in the nursery class, is wearing the dress with the sailor collar that my mother gave her. She's sitting in the first row, looking solemnly at the lens. I think that in this picture she's really very like me.
In Mathilde's satchel I still have her school overall with her name embroidered on it, with its ink stains and biscuit crumbs in the pockets. In her exercise book, in her childish but careful handwriting, she has written the date which will be the date of her death and the death of her little sister, Wednesday, the 30th of April, 1980.
What else can I tell you? I would like you to have heard me talking to them just once, even if only on the telephone. I feel powerless in trying to make you accept this evidence they were here, I was their mother.
I went to pick them up at school. We stopped at the supermarket to buy two cheap waxed coats, one in red, one in blue. And I dropped them off with my mother, not before playing a practical joke on her on the landing. I bundled my daughters up in the coats with the hoods up, pulled tightly over their noses and tied under their chins. They rang the bell and I hid. And my mother pretended not to recognize them.
Then I went home, because I was a speech therapist at the time, and I had patients waiting. My sister-in-law came, as intended, to pick Mathilde and Elise up to take them to their other grandmother. But they never arrived, because they died toward the end of the afternoon about 10 meters from each other on the side of the Northern Highway.
I'm hesitating about what to write next. There is no common ground between before and after, or at least what they have in common strikes me as just as painful to excavate as the most deeply-buried relics of before. Yes, I'm hesitating. I'm afraid of failing. I'm afraid that you will believe more readily in their death than in their lives.
A few years ago, I still used to drive out into the countryside and bellow at the top of my lungs, Mathilde. I was really calling her. Of course, she did not come. At least I had spoken her name once more. Sometimes I meet a little girl who has the same name as her, and I speak it. I say, hello, Mathilde, goodbye, Mathilde, with a smile. And I think, help.
On the eve of that May Day holiday, we were not expecting anyone to call, and the ringing of the telephone awakened no feelings in us. We lifted the receiver without curiosity. A slight rustling on the line indicated that the call was being made from outside Paris. My sister? No, I knew she was on her way to Paris. An unfamiliar man's voice checked that we were indeed the people he was looking for. Then he told us to hold the line.
The next voice was that of our brother-in-law, Christian, who had left with his wife, their baby, and our two girls. We asked him how he was. He said that he was not good at all, that they had had a very serious car accident. We said, yes, and? He told us our two little girls were dead. We thought he was playing a joke on us, and then thought no one would play a joke in such poor taste. Laurent said, but Christian, it's not true. He fell to his knees, calling his children.
I asked for news of the others. Everyone was fine. Where did we have to go? To the hospital at Peronne. I did not know where it was. Christian give us a few directions. Laurent knew. We hung up.
I immediately felt how impossible it was to raise myself to the scale of this event. The terror mounted in me out of all proportion to my own dimensions. I could not contain it all. I was still this little woman in her little apartment next to a little man in the same little apartment. The terror targeted us exclusively. We were its only prey, its only destination, the terminus. It was a giant, and we were dwarves.
Laurent took me by the wrists and asked me not to scream. He said, to think we're going to have to get over this. A big part of us has stayed there forever. I will tell you what happened next, everything you want to know about what happened next. But at the moment I can not. Just as then, I am looking for the link between my daughters and that news.
We arrived at the door of the hospital. Jean-Bernard asked where we had to go. And the porter replied, in surgery. Then I thought that my daughters had been operated on before they died. And everything expanded into infinity again. Corridors. It was difficult to walk. My sister-in-law at the end of the corridor, arms circling around her, a room. My brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, a stranger.
They ask us if we would like to see them, if we wanted to see our daughters. You would have had to drag me there with a tractor. They ask us if we would like to ring anyone to let them know. I then understand that this horror does not stop at us, that we have to tell my mother. No, it's the evening. She is not expecting any news this evening. Let her sleep one more time.
I was right. They need the family record book. When they ask for it, and I reply, yes, we've brought it with us, I feel proud for a moment. We are good parents. We thought of everything. Aline and Christian are going to spend the night in hospital near their baby, Aude. All three are kept under observation.
We are taken back. In fact, we came for nothing. Right from the first instant, death is this nothing.
Mrs. L suggests that we stay the night at her house. I agree readily. She lost a son long ago. At the Ls' house, we eat what we are given, food and sleeping pills.
It is not so much in words that I'm lacking to tell you all this, but in courage. When I realize that I have forgotten something, and I have to retrace my steps, I say to myself, is it really worth it?
Before taking the sleeping pill, we thought that over at La Haye their grandparents were waiting for our daughters. Laurent's parents. Have I told you that they were attending the coronation of Queen Beatrix of Holland? Have I told you that on the 30th of April, 1980, this young woman was rising to the throne, and that ever since, this date has been celebrated there as a joyful anniversary of an event whose secondary effect was the death of the girls? That my father-in-law, the French ambassador, and my mother-in-law were attending the festivities? That all the embassy staff were busy, so we had found no one to go and fetch the girls at the airport? That resigned only at the very last minute, I had canceled the places reserved for them on the Air France flight?
Have I told you that at my mother's house, before they were picked up by their aunt, they had watched the coronation ceremony on television, as I had done out of the corner of my eye at home? Have I told you that, seeing my father-in-law's very characteristic form and gait, I telephoned my mother to ask whether everyone had spotted him? And I can still hear in the background Mathilde's voice full of disappointment, no, I didn't see him. The very, very last time. My mother told me that at the time Elise was turned away from the television, absorbed in her drawing, but that that had not stopped her from affirming energetically, but I did. I saw him.
Since then, I have not called Mathilde nor Elise. Or if I have called my eldest daughter, it was without the hope that she would reply. It was to feel the vibration in my larynx of those syllables chosen when I was 25 years old. The arrangement of clear vowels and aquatic consonants which were to name the first of my children, to accompany her all her life, to act as her passport, announce her arrival, to be said with only a hint of shyness, and finally in the mouth of the one who would love her, to betray all the emotions that this girl would one day elicit, that she alone would arouse in one young man, a young man who will never know her, who lives and who does not live to love her.
After the funeral, I went over to my mother to see my aunt and uncle, who would soon be returning to Haute-Savoie. The concierge came out of her lodge to see me as I went into the building. Mathilde often used to go over to play with her daughter. She said, you will see. You can get used to anything. It is certainly the most simple, true, brutal, and perceptive thing that anyone said to me at the time. You could interpret it either as a message of hope or of crushing contempt for human nature.
It is very strange, this double rhythm that I have with you. I write to you, forcing myself to clarify a period of my life that I've done everything I can to understand, but which has always been out of my grasp. It is said that reality outstrips fiction, but this is something else. The reality remains inaccessible. Since the death of the girls-- 12 years in 16 days' time-- I have honestly and constantly tried to unveil this reality without success.
Perhaps I've already told you, sometimes I believe in them alive, my darling children, my darling little girls. These words which are so light and yet so burdensome cut through me then. And sometimes I believe in their death on the edge of the motorway, 10 or so meters from each other, their legs in dungarees, their arms and heads on the side of the motorway. There is never a link between the two.
The other rhythm constitutes things I do in my current life, as if nothing had happened. Conversations, laughter, mutual friends, a double rhythm like a double life. You do not know whether they struggle against each other or enrich each other.
Have I already mentioned Yasser Arafat to you? This is what made me think of him. When Elise was born, I found myself battling with a huge, hungry baby. The few odd ounces of milk that I was able to supply in the first 24 hours of her life in hospital were definitely not enough for her, and she screamed constantly. With Mathilde crying down the telephone because she felt lost without me, I quickly lost my patience. I found myself brutally grasping Elise's cradle, which was on casters, and furiously pushing it away from my bed, so that it was in danger of banging into the far wall. A second of silence, and then the crying started up again.
On the third day, my mother came to see me. She sat at the end of the bed and chatted. We were cheerful. We, the adults, were talking to each other, but I was looking at my daughter, who was looking back at me. Drawn by her gaze, I leaned over her and rubbed my nose on hers. She said, huh, huh. I stared at my mother to reassure myself that I had not dreamed it. It had quite knocked the breath out of her. I did the same thing again, and Elise replied again. Third attempt, third exchange. And that was it, she was my child, my treasure, my stupefaction.
For logistical reasons, it was my mother who came with Mathilde to pick me up from the hospital. I went down one of the big staircases. At the end of one of the ground-floor corridors, I saw Mathilde in her little green loden coat. She was watching silently, motionless, her nose pointing up another staircase. My mother pointed me out to her, and Mathilde started to walk towards me slowly. I handed Elise to my mother so that I could lift Mathilde into her rightful place in my arms. I can still feel to the nearest ounce the pressure of her legs around my waist. She did not say anything, but she slowly and silently felt my face with her hands like a blind girl.
During this rediscovery, this tender and cautious reunion, my mother was smiling and whispering sweet nothings to Elise. She had brown hair, olive skin, and huge eyes ringed with black kohl. And to confront the October weather, she was wearing a woolen hat which was a bit too big for her, which skewed sideways over her ear. She could be Yasser Arafat's daughter, my mother laughed.
The other day, the radio announced that Yasser Arafat's plane had disappeared in a sandstorm in the Libyan desert. A few hours later, although the members of his entourage were killed or injured, he himself was found alive and grinning. Every time that a tragic event affects him but spares him-- the murder of an adviser, all sorts of attempts on his life, or an airplane crash-- I feel that hug again. When I think of the life he leads and the life that Elise led, when I think of the life expectancy they each had on that October day when my mother teased me about my daughter, to think that she is dead, and he is here.
I've been careful. I've never watched the home movies in which my two daughters appear, nor have I listened to their voices on the answering machine tapes that my mother kept. The messages to Granny are at her house, accessible, but I do nothing about it.
How many catastrophes have there been since I began this correspondence with you? Football stadiums collapse, young motorbikers kill each other at the 24-hour race in Le Mans, and here I am with the children and you. And I tug at my net, which has plunged so deep in the water.
Last week, I spent a long time looking at a car exactly like the one in which my daughters fell asleep, from which they were thrown, in which, leaving their parents to go to their grandparents, they left Paris never to return. I was there looking at the back seat, the seat belts that we had not done up, the right-hand window out of which they would have both been thrown. The letters on the number plate confirmed that this Renault 5 was from the same year as my sister-in-law's. They're still on the road, those cars. When there are none left, I will no longer be able to ask questions of them. Someone will have to keep one somewhere for me.
After the impact, when my sister-in-law managed to bring her car to a halt, she and her husband turned with relief to smile at the children, but only their baby was there, sitting in her little seat, stupefied with some fragments of glass spread over her. Have I already told you that? I tell it to myself so many times. When I was near that Renault 5 the other day, I wanted to lie down on the rear seat and wait for the end of time. In short, back to square one.
I have some work to hand in, a lot, but nothing will get done until I've written to you. At first it was the other way around. Everything came before writing these letters. I used to tell myself, why suffer? What's the point of this artificial rendezvous with these long-lost children? I always had something happier to do. Now, even as I get up, I am carried by the things I want to write to you.
I should have gone to see in that room in the hospital where they put my daughters. I knew as soon as they suggested it to me. I knew that by refusing I was setting a precedent for a future of weakness because I was not worthy of-- I do not know what, just not worthy. So I did not go to see them dead. They were there, and Mummy did not come. They were only one or two rooms away. They remained alone. Mummy did not cross the doorway.
I know nothing of their faces as they were at the end. They had the strength to die, and I could not match their strength. I know nothing of their last great achievement. Wherever they went, they went alone, together or apart. And I'm inclined to believe it was apart. Ignorant of their own heroism, they went to the places dictated by their violent trajectory at more than 100 kilometers per hour over the safety barrier.
I stayed on my chair like a lump. And since then, people have not stopped congratulating me for my courage as a mother, to such an extent that many friends, including you, hesitated before talking to us about the difficulties and hardships they were facing. They did not seem worthy in comparison. Laurent and I sat enthroned on a pedestal, hoisted there by the annihilation of our two little girls. But we still knew what real life was, like a weather map of constantly changing skies, and we needed people to tell us about it, because the air was thin for our two statues.
The only stance that I battle against is to threaten suicide, to keep those around you on tenterhooks because you claim you're going to die. Watch out, I'm going to kill myself. My goodness, the living can make a fuss with their moods, and their other half running all over the place trying to stop them. I'm going to kill myself, watch out, watch out. Oh no, that is not how you do it.
I will explain to these maniacs how Mathilde and Elise managed to die. If I can, that is, because they did the whole thing by themselves. And when the adults came to their senses and began to realize that they were no longer in the car, not even under the front seats, where they looked once they realized the rear seat was empty, when they had to resign themselves to getting out of the car to look for them-- they had to be found wherever they might be. When it was done, and they had been found dozens of meters from the car and dozens of meters apart, they had actually already gone without a word to a place that no man can see.
All of this brings me back to that moment of weakness on my chair when-- even though two children, my two children, two very young children, had known how to die and were waiting to be presented to me one last time in their truthfulness-- I had not even gone those few meters along the corridor that separated them from me. They had known how to die. I no longer knew how to walk.
There has been nothing glorious about the way I live my life. I love the living in all their miasma. I love the dead for their temerity. There is nothing in between.
Our children now, Elvire and Gauthier, have asked us 100 times whether they would have been born if their sisters had not died. I really hope so, but I just can not say. The girls' death allowed me to be pregnant again, which I wanted anyway, to have other children, which I wanted anyway.
Even so, at the square with the children, I was not like other mothers, sitting on the bench or on the side of the sand pit. I would watch my Elvire making mud pies, and I would let Gauthier suck on his biscuit. If another woman wanted to talk to me, I had only two options: a bright facade, which devastated me. "Yes, mine's already three and 1/2, but she's still frightened of the slide. I can't believe your little scrap. He's so brave up at the top of the ladder." Or a truth that was socially unacceptable. "These are my younger two children. The elder ones died four years ago."
I would always be out of place. The working class, immigrants, the self-taught cranks, the handicapped, the unemployed, and grieving parents are more alike than people think. They have at least one thing in common. They have to make herculean efforts to hold a normal, banal, bouncy conversation. They can think of only one thing, the moment when they might introduce a sentence about their misfortune. 13 years have passed, and I still cannot last half a day without evoking my daughters.
Elvire has received a postcard from a friend announcing the death of a classmate. I was having a siesta. In my drowsy state I could hear the voice of my 12-year-old daughter talking to her father, respecting her mother's sleep. I'm going to have to tell Gauthier, aren't I? He was playing with his cousin. Gauthier does not want to hear about anything to do with death. So when Elvire told him, he hid his feelings and hardly broke off from his game. And Elvire was left alone with this news, which she had just learned from one of those holiday cards that should never give you that sort of news.
What's going on, I asked, pretending to have heard nothing and feeling sure that Elvire would want to tell me everything herself. She joined me on the bed, buried herself against me, sighed, and then cried. She had been telling me about this friend's illness since the beginning of the school year. I knew that Lauren came to school sporadically, that she had changed physically, that her mother, who was always cheerful, came to pick her up from school with her two younger children, asking her whether she had forgotten anything in her locker as you would to a child who still has 10 or 15 years of school ahead of them. Then that was it. Lauren sank into a coma.
Elvire had told me about that too. But now, as she cried, she realized she had never imagined that Lauren would actually die. And this death, this end to everything, this earthly truth which meant that the child who had been told not to forget anything in her locker would not begin the next academic year in three weeks time, this was so harsh and so invincible that Elvire had only her tears to link the two realities, that of a life, yesterday, which was complete even in a state of coma and death, which was eternal right from the first moment.
Now, even as she struggled with the sharp pain, she already knew that soon, very soon, this pain would soften. And despite her sobs, her shuddering little frame, her puffy red face, she was already missing the purity of this revolt before it had even begun to fade. And she refused to accept that this sorrow would become integrated into her life. When I tell my children about this one day, they won't understand how horrible it was, she told me. And then, maybe even tomorrow there will already be moments when I don't think about it.
This idea redoubled her anger. Far from hoping to suffer less, she never wanted the freshness of the pain to deaden. This was the only acceptable response to a disappearance that every part of her refused to accept. As I listened to her, I loved her for having already understood everything. And I thought of these letters, in which, so many years later, I try to discover exactly what has become of all those feelings.
Genevieve Jurgensen's book is called The Disappearance. It's published by Norton. Excerpts were read by actress Felicity Jones.
Coming up, more people trying to make sense of the senseless, including a story by David Sedaris. In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: Look For The Union Label
We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Look for the Union Label. In this act, two people, father and daughter-- we'll hear from them both-- start to compose a story about death before anybody has died.
Adrian L. Leblanc
Well, it simply began by sitting in the kitchen of my home, reading the Boston Globe. And I looked out on a beautiful fall day, looking out at a maple tree in front of my yard, and suddenly it occurred to me that I should write my obituary, or begin working on it. No special reason.
Adrian N. Leblanc
It must have been probably over the Christmas holidays, probably last year.
And you were visiting your parents' house?
Adrian N. Leblanc
My parents. Around that time. And I was on the telephone. And I was just looking for a pad of paper to write something down. And I just noticed on a yellow legal pad that my father had started writing his obituary.
But it wasn't labeled obituary at the time?
Adrian N. Leblanc
No. No. It just said born in 1917 to Albany. And it just was incredibly straightforward and standard.
And I just couldn't believe it. I didn't actually have an emotional response to the obituary part at all. I was just sort of-- I guess I was amused in a way, because he is such an interesting person. And the writing was just sort of the most basic details about his family. And it didn't really say anything about him.
In other words, he's a more interesting person than the writing, itself.
Adrian N. Leblanc
Right. And I don't know. And I didn't really process the thought. I just went straight to him. And I said, Dad, my god, this is so boring. I said, you've lived a much more interesting life than this. And he said, well, then help me write it. You're a writer. Help me write it. And all he knew was what the headline should be. That was sort of the one very clear thing that he knew.
And what should the headline be?
Adrian N. Leblanc
The headline should be-- I'm named after him. And it should say Adrian LeBlanc, comma, Product of the Working Class. That was what he saw.
Adrian L. Leblanc
Well, to me, that's very important, because when I say the working class, I'm talking about workers. Throughout my history, from the first factory job, first learning what a union was, and then being a committee man and president of local unions wherever I worked. And from there on, I gravitated toward becoming a full-time field representative. I tend to take positions, you know? I do this every day of my life. And I think that the obituary was like saying there are still union guys around. You follow?
Adrian L. Leblanc
I don't know if that's clear. But that was pretty much it, just like saying, look, 82 years later, from 16 to 82, there are still guys who are making a pitch.
Adrian N. Leblanc
And so we sit down. I'm pretty sure that first day we sat down. I opened my portable computer, and I said OK. And he said, so how do we do this? What do we do? And I said, well, I just need you to tell me about your life.
I've actually tried to do this with my dad before, not in the context of the obituary but in those moments where I felt, oh, I need to learn about my family history. But he was not very responsive. He would be very vague.
But for some reason, when he was thinking of his life in terms of an obituary, a lot of details came out that I don't feel I could've-- well, I wasn't able to get when I was trying to just have straight conversations with him about his biography, daughter to father.
I was wondering if it was an enjoyable process for you, talking to your daughter.
Adrian L. Leblanc
Yes. Yes. Yes. She's got a-- I find her to be a searcher and a prober with good instincts, and caring.
Adrian N. Leblanc
So I don't know. It was just interesting, and it came very easily. I learned so much about him.
Since it was an obituary you were writing, did the two of you talk about his death?
Adrian N. Leblanc
No. That's something that I think is-- I don't know. It's funny. In preparing for this, several of my friends were asking me about it. And it just sort of shocked me a little bit that they were thinking about it in that way. And then, of course, I realized it is an obituary.
I wonder if he understands it more the other way, that as far as he's concerned, it really is about his death.
Adrian N. Leblanc
I think he must. And I think over the years he's known how anxious my brother and I have been about him dying. So I think he often tries, in his way, to help us cope with it. He doesn't seem sort of nervous or frightened. So I don't know.
When I go to visit, I find leaving my parents sometimes quite difficult, because they are older. And I'm very busy. And I don't get back as often as I'd like to. And I think he knows how hard it is for me to say goodbye. And he'll say, I'm always with you. And I'll always be with you. That kind of thing.
I wonder if this whole process, you think you're doing it for him in a way, but maybe it's for you. He's doing this all for you.
Adrian N. Leblanc
I believe that's very possible. I think that's very possible, which is probably why he was a good union organizer. Because I'm feeling like I'm helping him do something. He was good at what he did.
Is one of the reasons that you've agreed to talk to your daughter about the obituary, and work with her on the obituary, is to help her prepare for the thought that you might die?
Adrian L. Leblanc
It could be. I haven't stayed with that thought. But it could very well be, Ira. Maybe you're clueing in. I think that thought has crossed my mind, but I haven't stayed with it. I haven't stayed. But you could be partially right.
Adrian N. Leblanc
Is there a way to ever-- I'm not sure I would want it to be easier. But I wonder if it's possible. Is it possible to even know what that could be like?
You're saying that no matter how we try to prepare for the death of somebody so close to us, there really is nothing we can do. We can think about it all we want.
Adrian N. Leblanc
Yeah, I definitely feel that with it. I mean, because obviously I've been working on an obituary, not really thinking at all about my father dying, not thinking that it's about death, just thinking that it's about talking to my father, and that I have all the time to sort of figure this out. I don't know. It's part of my relationship with him will be what happens when it's over, when he's physically gone.
I mean, my brother-in-law passed away. And he was quite sick before he died. And he was in a coma right up to the moment that he actually did die. And there was such a vast difference between him. Even though he wasn't available as the person we'd known, his physical life was so immense. And when it was gone, the loss of it was just huge. It was huge, and it happened in just a minute. And I just was so shocked by that, because I was so ready for him to die. We knew that he was going to die. He wasn't really with us anymore. And I was glad that I was able to at least understand how little I actually knew about it.
So how far are the two of you on the obit? Have you finished it?
Adrian N. Leblanc
No. No, I haven't actually-- I can't figure out how to write it except in the past tense. And it just seems completely bizarre to speak of him in that way.
So I understand she hasn't finished writing it.
Adrian L. Leblanc
No, we haven't completed it. No.
Do you feel like she's taking too long getting this done?
Adrian L. Leblanc
Do I think she's taking too long?
Adrian L. Leblanc
No, I didn't feel there was any-- there's no great rush that I know of. Do you have a feeling there should be a timetable?
No, I don't.
Adrian L. Leblanc
Are you rushing the process, Ira? That's not very--
No. No, I have no intention to rush the process.
Adrian L. Leblanc
I'm not going anywhere. I'm still bowling on Fridays with the senior citizens.
Adrian LeBlanc and his daughter, also named Adrian LeBlanc.
[MUSIC - "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME" BY BILLIE HOLLIDAY]
Act Three: Ashes
When somebody dies we can be haunted by the thought of them. And we can also be haunted by the way that we acted ourselves toward them. This next story is a story of both kinds of haunting. Several years ago, three weeks before his sister Lisa's wedding, David Sedaris got a phone call from his mom, back home in Raleigh, North Carolina. She had lung cancer. She was a lifelong, unrepentant smoker.
My sister Amy was with me when my mother called. We passed the phone back and forth across my tiny New York kitchen, and then spent the rest of the evening lying in bed, trying to convince each other that our mother would get better, but never quite believing it.
I had heard of people who had survived cancer, but most of them claimed to get through it with the aid of whole grains and spiritual publications that encouraged them to sit quietly in a lotus position. They envisioned their tumors and tried to reason with them.
Our mother was not the type to greet the dawn or cook with oats and barley. She didn't reason, she threatened. And if that didn't work, she chose to ignore the problem. We couldn't picture her joining a support group or trotting through the mall in a warm-up suit.
62 years old, and none of us had ever seen her in a pair of slacks. I'm not certain why, but it seemed to me that a person needed a pair of pants in order to defeat cancer. Just as important, they needed a plan. They needed to accept the idea of a new and different future free of crowded ashtrays and five-gallon jugs of wine and Scotch. They needed to believe that such a life might be worth living. I didn't know that I'd be able to embrace such an unrewarding future, but I hoped that she could.
If she'd had it her way, we would have never known about the cancer. It was our father's idea to tell us, and she had fought it, agreeing only when he threatened to tell us himself. Our mother worried that once we found out, we would treat her differently, delicately. We might feel obliged to compliment her cooking and laugh at all of her jokes, thinking always of the tumor she was trying so hard to forget. And that is exactly what we did.
The knowledge of her illness forced everything into the spotlight and demanded that it be memorable. We were no longer calling our mother. Now we were picking up the telephone to call our mother with cancer. We realized that any conversation might be our last, and because of that, we wanted to say something important. But what could one say that hadn't already been printed on millions of greeting cards and helium balloons? I love you, I said at the end of one of our late night phone calls. I am going to pretend that I didn't hear that, she said. I heard a match strike in the background, the tinkling of ice cubes in a raised glass, and then she hung up.
I had never said such a thing to my mother. And if I had it to do over again, I would probably take it back. It was queer to say such a thing to someone unless you were trying to talk them out of money or into bed. Our mother had taught us this when we were no taller than pony kegs. I had known people who said such things to their parents. "I love you." But it always translated to mean, I'd love getting off the phone with you.
We gathered together for the wedding, which took place on a crisp, clear October afternoon. I took my mother's arm and led her to a bench beyond the range of the other guests. The thin mountain air made it difficult for her to breathe, and she moved slowly, pausing every few moments. The families had taken a walk to a nearby glen, and we sat in the shade, eating sausage biscuits and speaking to one another like well-mannered strangers.
The sausage is good, she said. It's flavorful, but not too greasy. Not too greasy at all. Still though, it isn't dry. Neither are the biscuits, she said. They're light and crisp, very buttery. Very. These are some very buttery biscuits. They're flaky, but not too flaky. Not too flaky at all, she said.
We watched the path, awkwardly waiting for someone to release us from the torture of our stiff and meaningless conversation. I had always been afraid of sick people, and so had my mother. I think it was their fortitude that frightened us. Sick people reminded us not of what we had but of what we lacked. Everything we said sounded petty and insignificant. Our complaints paled in the face of theirs. And without our complaints there was nothing to say.
My mother and I had been fine over the telephone. But now, face to face, the rules had changed. If she were to complain, she risked being seen as a sick complainer, the worst kind of all. If I were to do it, I might come off sounding even more selfish than I actually was. This sudden turn of events had robbed us of our common language, leaving us to exchange the same innocuous pleasantries we'd always made fun of. I wanted to stop it, and so, I think, did she. But neither of us knew how.
After the gifts had been opened, we returned to our rooms at the Econo Lodge, the reservations having been made by my father. We looked out the windows past the freeway and into the distance, squinting at the charming hotels huddled at the base of other finer mountains. This would be the last time our family was all together.
It's so rare when one knowingly does something for the last time. The last time you take a bath. The last time you have sex or trim your toenails. If you knew you'd never do it again, it might be nice to really make a show of it. This would be it as far as my family was concerned. And it ticked me off that our final meeting would take place in such a sorry excuse for a hotel.
What more do you want out of a hotel, he shouted, stepping out onto the patio in his underpants. It's clean. They've got a couple of snack machines in the lobby. The TVs work, and it's near the interstate. Who cares if you don't like the damn wallpaper? You know what your problem is, don't you? We're spoiled, we shouted in unison.
My parents retired to their room, and the rest of us hiked to a nearby cemetery, a once ideal spot that now afforded an excellent view of the newly-built Pizza Hut.
Over the years, our mother had repeatedly voiced her desire to be cremated. We would drive past a small forest fire or observe the pillars of smoke rising from a neighbor's chimney, and she would crush her cigarette, saying, that's what I want right there. Do whatever you like with the remains. Sprinkle them into the ashtrays of a fine hotel. Give them to smart-ass children for Christmas. Hand them over to the Catholics to rub into their foreheads. Just make sure I'm cremated.
Oh, Sharon, my father would groan. You don't know what you want. He'd say it as though he, himself, had been cremated several times in the past, but had finally wised up and accepted burial as the only sensible option.
We laid our Econo Lodge bedspreads over the dewy grass of the cemetery, smoking joints and trying to imagine a life without our mother. If there was a heaven, we probably shouldn't expect to find her there. Neither did she deserve to roam the fiery tar pits of hell, surrounded for all eternity by the same [BLEEP] heads who brought us strip malls and theme restaurants. There must exist some middle ground, a place where one was tortured on a daily basis but still allowed a few moments of pleasure, taken wherever they could find it. That place seemed to be Raleigh, North Carolina, so why the big fuss? Why couldn't she just stay where she was and not have cancer?
Ever since arriving at the motor lodge, we'd gone back and forth from one room to another, holding secret meetings and exchanging private bits of information. We hoped that by preparing ourselves for the worst, we might be able to endure the inevitable with some degree of courage or grace. Anything we forecasted was puny compared to the future that awaited us. You can't brace yourself for famine if you've never known hunger. It is foolish even to try. The most you can do is eat up while you still can, stuffing yourself, shovelling it in with both hands and licking clean the plates, recalling every course in vivid detail.
Our mother was back in her room and very much alive, probably watching a detective program on television. Maybe that was her light in the window, her figure stepping out into the patio to light a cigarette. We told ourselves she probably wanted to be left alone. That's how stoned we were.
We'd think of this later, each in our own separate way. I, myself, tend to dwell on the stupidity of pacing a cemetery while she sat, frightened and alone, staring at the tip of her cigarette and envisioning herself, clearly now, in ashes.
David Sedaris. His story "Ashes" is in his book called Naked.
Adrian N. Leblanc
My god, this is so boring.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
Adrian L. Leblanc
I'm still bowling on Fridays with the senior citizens.
PRI, Public Radio International.