I had no idea Nate was an undercover cop in the Narcotics Division of the Chicago police department the first time I slept with him. I will skip the whole long, weird tale of his and my relationship, which only lasted 5 or 6 months, and took place when I was around 23 years old, other than to mention that my not knowing this essential fact was due both to the general social-and-mating practices of the period (early 1970's) and the circumstances under which we met (picked each other up at a now long-defunct bar called The Quiet Night, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I then resided and to which he had come on vacation).
Fast-forward to maybe 3 or 4 months into our relationship, which was a major crush, and of course, very exotic to both of us. No email then, but we managed daily or near-daily phone-calls, notes by mail, and his not infrequent visits to Eureka Springs. I think I'd visited him in Chicago maybe twice before I got the call. I remember my hand flew to my mouth and I literally dropped the phone, and had to pick it back up again from the floor onto which it had clattered, for after I had replied in the affirmative to "Is this Crescent Dragonwagon? " what I heard was "I'm a friend of Nate's. Now, it wasn't fatal, but Nate was stabbed in the middle of the night last night."
I got myself up to Chicago as soon as I could to be with Nate, who was already somewhat up and around by the time I arrived 2 days later. Fortunately, if you can even use 'fortunately' and 'stabbed' in the same sentence, he was stabbed in the spleen. Evidently, if you're going to be stabbed in the viscera, the spleen is a good place for it. Evidently, they got him to the hospital quickly. An inch up, down, sideways, or deeper, it would have been a different story. But this one was mostly, "Don't make me laugh, it hurts," and my going on short walks with him, cooking for him, rubbing his feet, and resuming sexual activity as soon as was possible, which was surprisingly soon (we were motivated).
But though this post has to do with mortality, it is not about Nate's being stabbed. All this is to explain my being present at the party Nate's buddies on the force threw for him to celebrate his survival, and welcome him back to active duty, a mere two or three weeks after the stabbing.
Now, picture this, though I know it stretches credulity (even mine, and I lived it, however cluelessly). Imagine a 23-year-old New York-Arkansan woman whose lifestyle has been, to put it mildly, alternative and boho from the get-go… a life that has included dropping out of high school, back-to-the-land era communal living, the taking pf psychedelics a few times, along with the straighter things: publication of a few of her books, semi-famous parents. Picture that young woman (I'm tempted, now, to say, 'girl', but such a designation would have outraged me at the time), in a large meeting room in Chicago, at police headquarters. Also present are maybe 20 or 30 Chicago cops, most in the Narcotics Division.
To say that Nate's pals were curious about me is an understatement on the level of "A stegosaurus is larger than a dog," not that I fully understood this at the time. I do not remember any other females present, though there must have been some. I do not remember if there was any food served (this is unusual; I always remember food), but there must have been some. I seem to remember beer. And I do know there was some punch, pink (improbably) and almost surely non-alcoholic.
I remember the punch because I was standing next to it, ladling some up for myself, when the conversation I am about to recount took place. I believe it was almost surely non-alcoholic, because, despite the early dabble in psychedelics, I don't drink and never have (other than a few sips of wine from a friend's glass, very occasionally). And it was there, at the punchbowl, that a burly, dark-haired guy, one of Nate's colleagues, introduced humself to me. He had a build one might perceive as threatening in some situations one could imagine a Chicago cop being in. But then and there, towards me, he emitted a sweet vibe.
Burly (friendly, dese-dem-dose accented): So. You're Nate's girlfriend.
Me (demurely): Yes. Yes, I am.
Burly: The one from Arkansas.
Me (agreeably): Yes.
Burly: The one who's a writer.
Me (cheerfully but with a slight manic edge; where is this going?): Yes, that's me!
Burly (musing, a little dreamily): Jeez, a writer. You know, I always thought, a writer, that's gotta be a great thing to be. You see your name on the paper, right there… (he pauses, thoughtfully) … Jeez, you know, you achieve immorality when you're a writer.
Me (instantly recognizing that I would remember this moment forever and that I must not, in any way, indicate this hilarious slip to this sweet guy, let alone what its nature was, because not only would that be incredibly boorish on my part, it would've embarrassed him down to his follicles… so, replying in a modest tone, lowering my eyes, I said): Well, I do my best.
And I do. Though rarely does it seem all that good to me. Hardly immortal. But not immoral, either.
Like anyone about to turn 60, my thoughts turn towards mortality. Even more so because I am not only a writer, but both a literary executor (of my late father, Maurice Zolotow, a show business biographer) and a literary-executor-to-be ( of my 97-as-of-this-writing mother, Charlotte Zolotow, a children's book writer).
And I am an Authors Guild member. Twice a year I read the Guild's Bulletin. Rarely do I get to the boxed-in listing titled "In Memoriam", and the one-paragraph-long obits of the better known writers on that list, which follow later, listed under "Deaths", without feeling that deep, unsettling, resonant twinge, occasionally with a sharp, sudden dart of grief. Sometimes I see the name of someone I actually knew, or knew of, or whose work I loved. The work lives; the person who wrote it does not. Of course I think about mortality. Far more than immortality. (Immoralit
y is another question, one we will not take up here, so don't get your hopes up.)
My mother, as I mentioned, is 97. About two months ago, we celebrated her birthday. "We" was me, my partner, David, most of our team of Jamaican and African caregivers and some of their partners and/or adult children, maybe 10 or 15 neighbors from the block on which Charlotte lives, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and a couple of her old friends from the publishing world. The party was held on her front porch, and there was quite a spread of food (of which, she said modestly, the jerk tofu I made was the hands-down favorite). It was a relaxed, come-and-go affair.
Charlotte was in her recliner, which had had to be moved from inside the house, and to which she had had to take a longer than usual wheelchair ride, so she sort of half-listened half-dozed throughout the early part of the party; eyes closed but smiling. I had the sense that she was rocking along in the sounds of conversation, people enjoying themselves, lids being flipped off bottles with church-key openers, laughing, greetings.
People sometimes say to me, "Is she still with-it?" Or "Does she have dementia?" Or they mention Alzheimers, or short-term memory loss… While Alzheimer's is out-and-out inaccurate in her case, I don't really like any of these other summations of her state, for they seem to pathologize (label as illness, or abnormality) the altered working of the mind in the very old, which is as unique, from what I can tell, as the working of a young child's mind… but normal within its paradigm. (Of course, I'm not talking about real illness, where there is a sudden and disordered change of mental state which causes distress, like Alzheimer's).
Charlotte sometimes is clear and coherent, sometimes off the wall. Sometimes she makes jokes. Sometimes she struggles for a word or words, or doesn't complete a phrase, especially if she's sleepy. (Like "L…l…l" for "love", let's say). Sometimes she truly is in altered state, perhaps finishing up unfinished matters from her early life (one evening she stayed up all night long, laughing and talking with her sister Dorothy, who died many years ago, and her young daughter Ellen, who was me before I became Crescent at 16 and thus in a sense also died many years ago; several nights, she's stayed up worrying about "the office" and if "everything is organized." The office was HarperCollins, where she worked as an editor for many years, and always did worry about).
Late in the afternoon of her birthday, Charlotte opened her eyes suddenly and looked at me. "What, " she asked slowly but clearly, "did I… miss?"
I thought a moment before I answered. Because maybe she meant that afternoon, while she was half-dozing, but maybe she meant something else, something bigger… so I tried to vibe it out. And I always, in such moments, try to orient her a little bit.
"Well, Charlotte, you're at 29 Elm , in Hastings, and we're having your birthday party today. You're 97 years old and … I don't think you missed much. Let's see… You were married, you had two children, you wrote an incredible number of books, you helped a lot of people write their books when you were an editor. You traveled all over America and through a lot of Europe. You had a lot of friends, you had a lover, you had a garden, you read hundreds and hundreds of books. You ate Indian food and Chinese food and French and Italian and Mexican food and now you're often having African and Jamaican food— really, I don't think there was anything big that you missed!"
Charlotte, who began laughing during this recitation, said, when I finished, wholeheartedly, "GOOD!"
But, does Charlotte remember writing 100+ children's books? No.
Her readers certainly do. And I (so strangely) am the gatekeeper of the bridge between them and her. The actual bridge is, of course, her work itself, which lasts, even as she does not and cannot, any more than the rest of us.
As this gatekeeper, her literary-executor-to-be, I am sort of Charlotte's executive secretary and the guardian of what I think she would have wanted me to say and do when she was in her middle-aged (as opposed to "right", another pejorative, dismissive word) mind. I answer emails that come in to her, and there are a lot. While some are seeking permission to reprint a poem of hers in an anthology, for instance, many more are just plain fan letters. Except, not just plain. Charlotte's readers, young and older, write about what her books mean to them. Often they reference having read them when they were children, and now reading them aloud to their own children, or even grandchildren.
Here is one email I received, and answered, yesterday.
"Hello! My name is Felicia … I am 20 years old. I'm writing to you today because I was recently going through some of my old books and I stumbled upon one of my favorite childhood books, I Like To Be Little.
"I researched the author and came across your website and email address. From what I understand, Mrs. Charlotte Zolotow is 97 years old! Wow! I'm happy to see that she has lived such a long and happy life.
"Mrs. Zolotow's book was a staple in my childhood. I remember buying the book from a little shop in our local library where they sold used library books. My family couldn't afford things like video games to buy me so instead they bought books. Whether they were second-hand or brand new, I cherished them all.
"I Like To Be Little taught me how to embrace my youth and not to be in a rush to grow up. This has become such an important lesson to me and now I am able to pass this book on to my 6-year-old niece. This story will always be relevant and I just wanted to thank Mrs. Zolotow for teaching me such a simple yet important life lesson. I hope to also pass this on to my future children so Mrs. Zolotow's work can live on.
"I hope this email reaches you. Thank you, Felicia "
My response to her:
"Thank you, Felicia… I am Crescent, Charlotte's daughter. My mother is indeed 97 years old now (and does not really remember writing her books). But she would have loved your letter. And I love it now! Thank you so much… I am very moved and grateful.
This response was truthful, yet less than complete. To state the whole truth, I'd have had to describe the poignancy of being in this role and relationship, to someone who created works like my mother did… and who is where and what she is now. And, though I am trying to do that here, I can't describe it, or explain, adequately.
Sometimes — always, actually — life just is too big for me. We are such tiny intricate pieces of an infinitely more intricate whole. We do the best we can, but really, with very little understanding of the part we play in the larger spiritual ecology.
Here in Vermont, in summer — yet, because we are past the solstice and the days are already shortening, moving towards fall and winter — the huge bullfrogs in our pond give their nightly throaty resonant calls, which always make me laugh. They sound from different sides of the pond, and, if I sit on the dock and listen, I can hear the distinct and unique tones of each different frog who is part of the choir. The depth of the one on the right, toward the sugar house, versus the one on the upper left in the cattails, a little higher in pitch, and the one in the near left, just past the dock, who is a bit softer. Slightly, subtly one of a kind. But all, to me, just delightfully humorous. (David, my partner, can imitate them flawlessly. And does, sometimes out of the blue, when he feels like making me laugh).
The frogs, like me, like Charlotte, are playing their parts, and presumably don't obsess about not having understanding about what those parts are, about "meaning", as much as I and most human beings do, and as Charlotte did.
And I hope I do as well at my work as the frogs do. And as my mother, who also didn't understand, did. She did so without understanding any more than I do (as I know from many conversations with her in the past and even, sort of, in the present, and from her work itself).
Ah, Mr. Burly Guy, back in Chicago more than 40 years ago, a writer doesn't and can't achieve immortality (though immorality, sure; much easier). If we are fortunate, and diligent enough at our practice of writing to get good at it; if we are able to empty out through and after practice enough for something greater than our small petty confused selves to flow through us, using us a conduit; if, if, and if, than just maybe our work may outlive us. And it may even connect us with others , across space and time and circumstance, in mysterious ways. Most of which, like my mother and Felicia, we will have absolutely no idea about.
Nor would it neccesarily be such a great thing for us if we did. The bullfrogs couldn't make their calls one bit better if they knew there were delighting me. If a writer meditates on immortality, or pleasing his or her readers, or writing something astonishing and earth-shaking, he or she is not working and the earth will not give the slightest shrug of astonishment. As William Faulkner said, "Not 'Be a writer.' Be writing." Well, yes, exactly.
And, as my mother unknowingly reminds me daily, even the chance to "be writing" is time-limited. Even if her mind worked in the fashion it once did — linear yet poetic, able to put thoughts and feelings into words, and find those words, and craft them into sentences that speak to readers — her arthritis-crunched fingers could not begin to hold a pen or tap a keyboard.
A woman in her late 20's with the same last name as Nate, my old cop boyfriend, contacted me on Facebook, saying she knew I'd once been friends with her dad. She'd found a copy of one of my books in the attic, inscribed by me to him. She made a friend request; I accepted. She and I have never had much Facebook interaction, but, through her page, I now know the slightest bit about how Nate's story came out. That he married. That he had children. What he looks like now (I cannot recognize, in the picture of her and her dad, the bright-eyed slim young man, the brave cop who survived a stab wound, and lived a fascinating almost actorly life when he was his 'underground' self on the job, with whom I was so briefly deeply and intoxicatingly infatutated, when I was myself younger than she is now).
Are my words or memories made "immortal" just because they are written down? I don't think so, but I don't think it matters, nor is that what I am trying for in my work. What matters is very mortal indeed, to me: life fascinates, seduces, crushes, and mystifies. I keep trying to figure it out, and realizing that I never will have any more than the most provisional understanding.
But one thing I also have come to realize is that, as I said in the subtitle of this blog, the human desire to tell and hear, read and write stories, is part of the process of life figuring itself out. What subtractions! What gifts! All that happens — love and loss, a stabbing to the spleen, the lovely funny self-important croaking of the bullfrogs, a pink punch, a misspoken word, a laugh, a platter of jerk tofu, a book finding its way into the life of a little girl whose parents couldn't afford video games, an old old lady on a front porch, wondering, one June day, if she has missed anything — it happens, all of it, in any event.
But if we write about it, for us at least, it goes unwasted. We won't be here long, any of us. But we were here. By writing, we bear witness. And, we bear life.
And, too, in the act of writing, if we are fortunate enough to hit "flow" (as inevitably happens at least sometimes, if one shows up on a daily basis) we don't think about any of that. We are, briefly, exempt from time altogether. We forget where we are, who we are, that time is passing. We look up, and realize that though we sat down after breakfast, it is already starting to get dark. We have a moment, sometimes a few hours, when, regardless of the quality of the writing produced, and whether anyone likes it or not, we have been exempt from time.
It has nothing to do, Burly, with seeing your name on a page. But it's as close as one can get to immortality… for a moment or two.