Reading Aloud to My Father I chose the book haphazard from the shelf, but with Nabokov's first sentence I knew it wasn't the thing to read to a dying man: The cradle rocks above an abyss, it began, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. The words disturbed both of us immediately, and I stopped. With music it was the same - Chopin's Piano Concerto - he asked me to turn it off. He ceased eating, and drank little, while the tumors briskly appropriated what was left of him. But to return to the cradle rocking. I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss. That's why babies howl at birth, and why the dying so often reach for something only they can apprehend. At the end they don't want their hands to be under the covers, and if you should put your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture of solidarity, they'll pull the hand free; and you must honor that desire, and let them pull it free.
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We Let the Boat Drift I set out for the pond, crossing the ravine where seedling pines start up like sparks between the disused rails of the Boston and Maine. The grass in the field would make a second crop if early autumn rains hadn't washed the goodness out. After the night's hard frost it makes a brittle rustling as I walk. The water is utterly still. Here and there a black twig sticks up. It's five years today, and even now I can't accept what cancer did to him - not death so much as the annihilation of the whole man, sense by sense, thought by thought, hope by hope. Once we talked about the life to come. I took the Bible from the nightstand and offered John 14: "I go to prepare a place for you.""Fine. Good, " he said. "But what about Matthew? 'You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'" And he wept. My neighbor honks and waves driving by. She counsels troubled students; keeps bees; her goats follow her to the mailbox. Last Sunday afternoon we went canoeing on the pond. Something terrible at school had shaken her. We talked quietly far from shore. The paddles rested across our laps; glittering drops fell randomly from their tips. The light around us seemed alive. A loon-itinerant- let us get quite close before it dove, coming up after a long time, and well away from humankind
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We try a new drug, a new combination of drugs, and suddenly I fall into my life again like a vole picked up by a storm then dropped three valleys and two mountains away from home. I can find my way back. I know I will recognize the store where I used to buy milk and gas. I remember the house and barn, the rake, the blue cups and plates, the Russian novels I loved so much, and the black silk nightgown that he once thrust into the toe of my Christmas stocking.
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Happiness There's just no accounting for happiness, or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away. And how can you not forgive? You make a feast in honor of what was lost, and take from its place the finest garment, which you saved for an occasion you could not imagine, and you weep night and day to know that you were not abandoned, that happiness saved its most extreme form for you alone. No, happiness is the uncle you never knew about, who flies a single-engine plane onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes into town, and inquires at every door until he finds you asleep midafternoon as you so often are during the unmerciful hours of your despair. It comes to the monk in his cell. It comes to the woman sweeping the street with a birch broom, to the child whose mother has passed out from drink. It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker, and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night. It even comes to the boulder in the perpetual shade of pine barrens, to rain falling on the open sea, to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
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Here You always belonged here. You were theirs, certain as a rock. I'm the one who worries if I fit in with the furniture and the landscape. But I 'follow too much the devices and desires of my own heart.' Already the curves in the road are familiar to me, and the mountain in all kinds of light, treating all people the same. and when I come over the hill, I see the house, with its generous and firm proportions, smoke rising gaily from the chimney. I feel my life start up again, like a cutting when it grows the first pale and tentative root hair in a glass of water.
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Otherwise I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.
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I divested myself of despair and fear when I came here. Now there is no more catching one's own eye in the mirror, there are no bad books, no plastic, no insurance premiums, and of cours eno illness. Contrition does not exist, nor gnashing of teeth. No one howls as the first clod of earth hits the casket. The poor we no longer have with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour, and God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.
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