“Don’t worry, I’m not dying,” said my wife Sheila.
But she was.
This was about three days before it happened, and she sat up in her hospice bed and gave me one of those complicated looks she had: comforting and teasing and scared and stubborn. She was a master of maneuvering through paragraphs of thoughts with a single expression.
“I’m not,” she said, “dying.”
“Okay,” I said.
I believed her.
Lately, now that she’s gone, I’ve been re-reading Sheila’s work, the writer Sheila Schwartz. Her short stories, her essays, her novel.
There is this one particular story of hers which you ought to check out, it’s called “Afterbirth,” and it’s in The O. Henry Prize Stories, 1999, edited by Larry Dark, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
It’s a story about a woman on a plane that is probably going to crash, and it starts out like this:
At first, when the captain’s voice came on over the intercom and made the announcement, she felt almost glad. Not gleeful exactly, but a sudden ching! of recognition coursed through her; events fell into place. She was glad she’d had her weekend at the hotel, glad for her swim in the hotel pool, for sleeping late, for the free hot coffee available in all the lobbies, tables laid out formally with linen napkins and china trimmed with gold leaf. She was glad, most of all, that she was flying alone; her husband and children hadn’t come with her as they’d threatened to at the last minute. She was glad to be so selfless knowing that they were safe on the ground.
The story then goes on to follow the passengers and crew as they prepare for an emergency landing—the seasoned business travelers, an elderly couple, an angry teenager, the flight attendants and the captain himself, heard only as a voice with a “cheery lilt to it.” Over the course of twenty pages, we observe the preparations and minor heroics and fears and squabbling, we observe as the main character considers the joys and mistakes of her life. As she braces herself.
But we stop before the plane actually makes its landing. Do they make it, or not? We never find out, though in her end notes Sheila says that the story was, to her mind, “…a kind of ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ only higher up in the air.” A story told by ghosts, I guess, though it actually ends in a state of hopeful suspension.
“Everyone still believed it couldn’t happen to them,” Sheila writes. “Not today, not with so much unfinished business, so much misunderstood, not with a husband and three babies waiting down below, their lives not yet unfolded, crushed up in cocoons of adoration, still wet with joy and love.”
That’s what I’d been thinking for a very long time.
And why not? She’d been outrunning her illness for almost eight years by that point—stage four ovarian cancer, advanced ovarian cancer, a death sentence for most people, but not for Sheila. She recovered, after her initial surgery and chemotherapy, and then when it came back two years later she recovered again, so when it came back a third time, I told myself that it was going to be fine, basically, it was just another hurdle to get over.
Early on, a doctor told us that with this type of cancer “we don’t really talk about being cured.”
“Rather,” he said, “We start to talk about the situation as a chronic illness. We look at you and we see that you’re young, you’ve got a good weight on you, you’ve got a good coloring. There’s reason to feel optimistic that, if the treatment is successful, you can continue on for quite a number of years.”
“What does that mean?” Sheila said. “A number of years?”
“That’s hard to say,” the doctor said. “Two? Five? More, perhaps.” He tossed off this last bit brightly, as if it was a festive indulgence—more, perhaps? Why not?– and I remember watching Sheila’s pale blue eyes harden. She was a creative writing professor, and she had developed a particular politely dismissive expression when she thought you were wrong, a look with which she gently prodded her fiction-writing students. Do you really think that’s the best ending for this story?
This was the gaze that she leveled at the oncologist, as if he were an apprentice writer who was insistently clinging to a bad plot device.
Two years? Five years? We both heard him say it, but we never spoke of it again.
“I’ve always believed in ghosts,” says the narrator of “Conception,” a story in Sheila’s collection Imagine a Great White Light. “I’ve heard of all kinds of ghosts—frightened, desperate, lonely, evil, crazy, of ghosts who came back for no reason at all, for whom the earth is a piece of distant music behind a locked door they can’t find…
‘Just like the living,’ somebody once told me. ‘They don’t know when to stop.’”
Maybe that was what we were like, I think now. Were we already ghosts, even months ago?
And yet we continued to make plans. We went on stepping gingerly into the future, expectantly. It seems crazy now that I look at the credit card bill, but we made plane reservations for a trip to Europe a year in advance. We worried over the flower garden, getting it ready for the winter so that it would be pretty when spring came. Sheila spent hours alone in her study, finishing the novel that she wouldn’t live to see published, and she began to schedule readings and so forth. On her computer were the outlines of two new books of short stories, elaborate notes and drafts and tables of contents.
After she died, I found lists all over the house. She liked to write on blank envelopes, as if she were putting an address on a letter. Here: groceries and incidentals we needed. Here: texts she was considering for a new class she wanted to teach. Here: new chemotherapy drugs she hadn’t tried, that she had read about somewhere…vinorelbine tartrate…etopside…nedaplatin…irinotecan…
I guess I should have known. She had started doing chemo again in June, and by November she looked pretty terrible. Her coloring, her weight, all the signs that doctor had mentioned years before, these were obviously not good. Her skin was mottled and liver-spotted like an elderly lady, and the hearty, swimmer muscles she’d been so proud of had wasted away so that her wrists were no wider than batons. The merrily spreading cancer cells bloated her legs and stomach, while her face grew gaunt: that sweetly prominent Jewish nose was now sharp and chiseled, like an Egyptian queen.
She went in to the emergency room on November 1st, with terrible stomach pains, and after a few hours her oncologist, Dr. Wang, showed up. “I think it’s time to consider Hospice,” the doctor told us, gently, and Sheila agreed.
“Just for a little while,” she said. “I just need some rest and then I’ll get back on my feet.”
Dr. Wang didn’t argue, though later a social worker stared at us in disbelief when Sheila repeated this plan. The social worker was full of professional earnestness and compassion, with one of those gentle voices that oozed Midwestern niceness. The kind of woman who wore sweaters with cute animals on them. The sort of woman who, over the years, always took an instant dislike to women like Sheila, silently disapproving of her acerbic jokes, her lack of make-up, her ironic clothes and goofy jewelry, her unmanageable long hair and cavalier sexiness. Even in her hospital bed, even at ninety pounds and bald, Sheila still retained the authoritative aura that rubbed this social worker the wrong way. Her expression tightened.
“Ms. Schwartz,” the woman said, as if she understood that Sheila was probably delusional. “Ms. Schwartz, you’re in hospice. Do you know what a hospice is?”
Did we? I guess it was beginning to dawn on us, why we were here, but Sheila shook her head.
“Look, I’m not ready to die yet,” Sheila said—and yes, she was, in fact, kind of blurry with pain medication at this point, but she spoke distinctly. “You have your agenda, but I’m not going along with it.”
I nodded in agreement. “We want to go home,” I said. “As soon as she’s feeling a little better, we’d like to go home.”
The social worker’s mouth pinched, and I observed as she wrote something privately onto her chart. Agitated, she probably wrote. Illogical.
During the last year of her life, Sheila was working on a collection of stories called In the Infusion Room. A series of interconnected stories, all about people with cancer.
She knew, of course, that “cancer” was the easiest sort of cliché in stories, the quick fix for pathos, a beginning writer’s mistake, a sorry genre in itself. Editors of literary journals begged: “Please: no science fiction, no horror, no cancer stories!”
It was her goal to reclaim the “cancer story” from the realm of Lifetime Channel TV—that bland, easy sentiment. She wrote a story about an oncologist who inherits his patient’s houseful of cats, which won an award. She wrote a story about a woman who was recovering from cancer who wanted to climb Mt. Everest—mountain-climbing was an obsession of hers, and she loved doing the research; she wrote a story about cancer wigs and Beauty School students; she wrote a story from the perspective of an oncology nurse, and another about a teenaged girl with cancer who becomes, to her humiliation, the class mascot–a pet project for the school goody-goodies to dote on.
These stories are peculiar, quirky. A lot of times they are laugh-out-loud funny at unexpected moments, and full of bottled-up grief that seeps out through the edges. And rage. Quick bursts of anger that jump out and stab you right in the heart.
One of the great things about Sheila’s writing—and about Sheila herself—was her ability to draw on a whole series of emotions at once without dissonance, her uncanny way of demonstrating just how complicated the concept of “humor,” or “tragedy” actually is.
Of course, it’s easier when things are neatly categorized, which may have been one reason that Sheila had such a struggle with Cancer Professionals.
People who say things like, for example, “The dying process can be an inspiring and beautiful journey.”
We used to joke about the “uplifting” articles in her cancer magazines. CAN CANCER TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE?
That was one that she found particularly galling, full of quotes from perky cancer groupies: “Breast cancer enabled me to let things go,” said one. “The everyday flow of things leaves you,” said another. “I used to be a glass-half-empty person. Now I’m not. Now I’m a glass overflowing more than anything!”
I remember how Sheila would glance up from her reading, her eyes bright with sarcasm.
“I feel so ungrateful,” she said. “I’m missing out on all these great opportunities for personal growth.”
I laughed. But as it turned out, most people didn’t.
Most people don’t like a sarcastic cancer patient, actually. It’s scary, and we discovered, as the years of her illness progressed, that even our dearest friends were reduced to platitudes. The idea that Sheila was dying was too painful for all of us, too unimaginable. Unacceptable. Nobody wanted to talk about it much. Aquaintances would ask: “How’s Sheila doing?” and I would say, “Oh, great, fine,” and it seemed more comfortable to leave it at that.
All of us learned, early on, that denial was the easiest route to take. It was such an effort, trying to conceptualize what was really happening, when all people really wanted was to be reassured, when there was such fervent hope for her to be well again. Thinking back, I can see that it had become such a habit that we actually began to believe it ourselves.
We’d been married for twenty years.
We met when I was an undergraduate student, and she was a first time teacher, straight out of Stanford, a former Stegner Fellow with a big teaching gig. She had a story coming out in The Atlantic, and I remember being impressed by that. I remember her teaching style, a kind of encouraging bluntness, the perfect combination of high expectations and high hopes. She would tell you honestly when something you wrote was awful, but you were always aware that she was looking for the best in you, that she believed that there was something precious in the simple desire to make art, that together you might be able to find it, that sweet spot where your own secret emotional life locked into a fictional world and made it come alive.
I know I’m only one of many of her students who fell madly in love with her, but I happened to be lucky. After my class with her was over, I used to write stories just so I could drop by her office to hear what she had to say about them, just to talk to her, to try to make her laugh that great bright, jolly, open laugh of hers, and—okay, I admit it—she was pretty voluptuous in her unassuming way, and I did find myself staring at her a little, her generous smile and her beautiful blue eyes, that look of child-like wonder and pleasure she would get when she talked about books or movies or works of art she loved.
There was a difference in our ages—she was eleven years older than me—and at first that was intimidating. I felt brave when I first asked her out to dinner, when we started meeting regularly at an Italian place near her house, purportedly to talk about my stories, but eventually just to spend time together. Looking back, I can see this as the major turning point of my life, I see how knowing Sheila created a pathway that I wouldn’t have been brave enough, or wise enough, to have chosen without her. The year after I graduated from college, I asked her to marry me.
Sheila published her first book in 1991, a collection of stories called Imagine a Great White Light. A good introduction to her work, full of award-winning, distinctive stories, a collection that USA Today named one of the best books of the year, but it didn’t bring her to the prominence that I imagined it would. We had two babies by that point, and she had a job as a creative writing professor at Cleveland State. She threw herself fiercely into motherhood and teaching, and began to work on a novel that she finished in the middle nineties. It was a brilliant book, I thought, but she couldn’t find a publisher for it, so she went back and radically revised it again, and then revised it again, and then revised it again.
One of the things that I never could figure out was why Sheila didn’t become a well-known writer. She was, herself, very modest and circumspect and philosophical about it, the world of writing was random, she said, but I was disappointed. Discouraged. She was so good, I thought, so brilliant sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. She was doing things with tone and intensity that I thought were entirely original and brilliant. Her fiction walks this incredible thin line between hilarity and despair, between the absurd and the tragic, between detachment and compassion. She maneuvers with a dizzying, frightening grace—the way that Phillipe Petit walked the high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
When her novel was finally accepted for publication in early 2007, well over fifteen years after she’d first started that original draft, Sheila’s life was so complicated that it was hard for her to take pleasure in it. Her elderly mother was living with us, and Sheila was busy ferrying her mother from one doctor’s appointment to the other; and meanwhile Sheila was beginning to experience glimmers of her own health problems. The cancer was returning, aggressively.
Sheila’s mom died in May, 2008, and in June Sheila started another regimen of chemotherapy in the hope that she could get a little more time.
Another year, we thought. Or maybe a little more? More perhaps?
She was so much looking forward to seeing this book published, this book that she’d revised and rewritten, over and over, this book that she’d stubbornly pursued for so long.
But she didn’t quite make it.
Her novel, Lies Will Take You Somewhere, is a family drama, both tragic and darkly funny, with odd gothic undertones that emerge and recede as the story progresses. It’s the story of the Rosen family: Saul, a rabbi; his wife Jane; and their three daughters. This was not the life that Sheila led, though maybe it was one that she once imagined for herself, back when she was a middle-class Jewish girl growing up in Philadelphia, back before she decided to marry a much younger gentile boy from the redneck end of Nebraska. The Rosens have the kind of life that maybe her mother would have nudged her towards, if Sheila had been less of a rebellious spirit.
Though the Rosen’s life is not exactly idealized. Saul is self-absorbed and rigid; Jane is a wifty, aging flower-child who has settled but has never truly known what she wants from life. The daughters are a handful. And everyone, it seems, is adrift in a secret interior world, disconnected from each other, sneaking through their private existences even as they perform a public version of themselves.
The first scene sets up this theme in a gentle, comic way, though eventually it will become darker and more frightening. Jane catches Saul smoking in his study.
At first, because it’s summer, she thinks it’s coming from outside—the tail end of a barbecue, a gang of teenagers strutting by showing off with a bag of weed— but as she opens the door a cloud comes billowing out, yellow, misshapen. Saul leaps to his feet, startled, his face contorted, as if she’s caught him with a lover.
“It’s not what you think,” he says, as the last puffs emerge from his lips.
“You’re smoking!” Jane exclaims, but Saul shakes his head, I’m not. I’m not.
“Then what are you doing—eating incense?”
Saul shrugs. Laughs a little. “I don’t know. I guess you caught me.”
“I guess I did.”
It would be funny, this blatant denial, except that Jane was just bragging to Dena, Saul’s secretary at the synagogue, about how easily Saul quit three years ago, without even a whimper, and never smoked again. There was never any backsliding.
“Is this the first time?” Her voice tightens. “Have you been doing this all along?”
This is the first in a series of little revelations, small lies and concealments which grow larger and more complex as the book progresses. The novel’s title, Lies Will Take You Somewhere, is taken from a Jewish proverb: “Lies will take you somewhere, but never back,” and the book is a lovingly detailed depiction of the tangle of untruths and self-deceptions that we perpetrate in order to make our lives run more smoothly.
When the novel begins, Jane is getting ready to travel to Florida to deal with her late mother’s estate—the house, which has been sitting unoccupied since her mother died six-months before.
As Jane begins to explore the house, she discovers more and more evidence that she didn’t know her mother as well as she thought she did, and her search to solve this mystery leads her into more and more surprising and ultimately dangerous territory. Meanwhile, back at home, Saul is struggling to deal with the children, particularly with their withdrawn, unhappy sixteen year old, Malkah—and he discovers secrets that Jane had been keeping from him.
The book has a kind of spiraling quality, both in its plot and in its emotional pull. With each turn, the novel grows increasingly menacing, and spooky, and these seemingly solid, ordinary middle-class lives unravel with unnerving swiftness.
And yet there’s a gentleness in the book as well, a compassionate and tolerant eye for foolish mistakes, a tenderness for that desperate struggle we are engaged in to find meaning, somewhere—anywhere.
There’s a passage early on in the book about Jane’s mother that I’m particularly fond of, because it nails a certain kind of melancholy, tenderly comic tone that Sheila does so well:
Jane can’t help thinking about her mother’s last moments. The neighbor
who’d found her mother’s body, before the EMT’s came, didn’t want to give her details. “Try not to dwell on it,” she said. “Your mother’s at peace. That’s all that matters.”
The chance to ask her face-to-face is gone now. The woman died too, from a fall, discovered on the concrete floor of her garage by another neighbor who herself died a few weeks after from a massive stroke—like a chain letter. Each time Jane made arrangements with a new neighbor to keep an eye on the house until she could come down, that neighbor succumbed, as if Jane were a curse, though Saul said this was nonsense, these were people well up in their eighties, their early nineties, this was the natural course of life, there was no curse, that was silly. But Jane still felt responsible. She kept the condolence notes they’d sent—“Our thoughts are with you”; “So sad for your terrible loss”—because she owed it to them, this last evidence of their existence, of their thoughtfulness even when they were so close to dying. She was moved by them, by their names at the bottom, their signatures as shaky as a ransom note—“Yours very truly, Sadie”; “Wishing you all the best, from Bernice”; or simply, “Your mother’s friend, Ethel”—old-fashioned names no one would use again in Jane’s lifetime, remnants of a different era.
I love this passage, with it’s “chain-letter” of vanishing neighbors, and Jane’s pursuit of the “details” of her mother’s death, as if the details might add up to some solution, like clues in a murder mystery. I love the way that these characters keep trying to put things together, to figure things out, like detectives, or archeologists sifting through debris.
When someone you love dies, it’s hard not to look for them. To wait for them to come back to you. Where are you? Where are you? “Loss” is a good word, I think, because you spend so much time thinking that you can find them somewhere.
The fact that they are gone—vanished– is the most unreal thing you can imagine, and so part of you keeps searching.
But there are gaps in the world, now. Places that she occupied that are just blank spots.
There is no writer who could blend the complicated, dissonant tones of comedy and sadness, irony and earnestness, satire and compassion, quite the way that Sheila Schwartz could do it.
Her students won’t get another teacher who will give them the same kind of courage, that particular mix of demand and support, the intensity of motivating attention she could level upon her protégées, a transformative energy.
There is no replacement for her laugh, a low, sly, conspiratorial chuckle, comforting. A laugh that came naturally, even in the face of darkness, a laugh that enclosed you. Yes, things are fucked, but at least we’re here together, aren’t we?
I still have her voice on my cell phone, a message from months ago that I keep saving over and over. I have her letters and notes and lists, I have her clothes, still on their hangers, I have the white carbon bits of her ashes in a box, which she asked that I scatter over some pretty body of water, someplace where she would have wanted to swim.
And of course I still have her books, her novel, her stories, the words that she put together to create imaginary worlds. I know that she believed that a work of art was the one way for us to stay on in the world after we are gone, that was the urgency that she put into her students, this is the piece of you that will last, this is you, so you’ve got to do it right.
Re-reading her work, I think I can find her, just for a moment. A hint of perfume in the backyard, a tiny light outside in the distance, winking on and off like a firefly. Yes, she is there, briefly, I can feel her–though in the end, I’m sorry, I would rather have the flesh.
See Also: The Believer Interview With Dan Chaon