Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wade in the Water

If this were a church service, instead of a blog entry, we'd have a hymn or two, some announcements, the selling of plenary indulgences, and -- at some point before the tedious sermon -- there'd be a reading. Our text this morning would come from Mrs. Dalloway1:
But he wanted to come in holding something. Flowers? Yes, flowers, since he did not trust his taste in gold; any number of flowers, roses, orchids, to celebrate what was, reckoning things as you will, an event; this feeling about her when they spoke of Peter Walsh at luncheon; and they never spoke of it; not for years had they spoken of it; which, he thought, grasping his red and white roses together (a vast bunch in tissue paper), is the greatest mistake in the world. the time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too shy to say it, he thought, pocketing his sixpence or two of change, setting off with his great bunch held against his body to Westminster to say straight out in so many words (whatever she might think of him), holding out his flowers, “I love you.” Why not? Really it was a miracle thinking of the war, and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her. Which one never does say, he thought. Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy. And Clarissa—it was difficult to think of her; except in starts, as at luncheon, when he saw her quite distinctly; their whole life. He stopped at the crossing; and repeated—being simple by nature, and undebauched, because he had tramped, and shot; being pertinacious and dogged, having championed the down-trodden and followed his instincts in the House of Commons; being preserved in his simplicity yet at the same time grown rather speechless, rather stiff—he repeated that it was a miracle that he should have married Clarissa; a miracle—his life had been a miracle, he thought; hesitating to cross. But it did make his blood boil to see little creatures of five or six crossing Piccadilly alone. the police ought to have stopped the traffic at once. He had no illusions about the London police. Indeed, he was collecting evidence of their malpractices; and those costermongers, not allowed to stand their barrows in the streets; and prostitutes, good Lord, the fault wasn’t in them, nor in young men either, but in our detestable social system and so forth; all of which he considered, could be seen considering, grey, dogged, dapper, clean, as he walked across the Park to tell his wife that he loved her.

For he would say it in so many words, when he came into the room. Because it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels, he thought, crossing the Green Park and observing with pleasure how in the shade of the trees whole families, poor families, were sprawling; children kicking up their legs; sucking milk; paper bags thrown about, which could easily be picked up (if people objected) by one of those fat gentlemen in livery; for he was of opinion that every park, and every square, during the summer months should be open to children (the grass of the park flushed and faded, lighting up the poor mothers of Westminster and their crawling babies, as if a yellow lamp were moved beneath). But what could be done for female vagrants like that poor creature, stretched on her elbow (as if she had flung herself on the earth, rid of all ties, to observe curiously, to speculate boldly, to consider the whys and the wherefores, impudent, loose-lipped, humorous), he did not know. Bearing his flowers like a weapon, Richard Dalloway approached her; intent he passed her; still there was time for a spark between them—she laughed at the sight of him, he smiled good-humouredly, considering the problem of the female vagrant; not that they would ever speak. But he would tell Clarissa that he loved her, in so many words. He had, once upon a time, been jealous of Peter Walsh; jealous of him and Clarissa. But she had often said to him that she had been right not to marry Peter Walsh; which, knowing Clarissa, was obviously true; she wanted support. Not that she was weak; but she wanted support.

As for Buckingham Palace (like an old prima donna facing the audience all in white) you can’t deny it a certain dignity, he considered, nor despise what does, after all, stand to millions of people (a little crowd was waiting at the gate to see the King drive out) for a symbol, absurd though it is; a child with a box of bricks could have done better, he thought; looking at the memorial to Queen Victoria (whom he could remember in her horn spectacles driving through Kensington), its white mound, its billowing motherliness; but he liked being ruled by the descendant of Horsa; he liked continuity; and the sense of handing on the traditions of the past. It was a great age in which to have lived. Indeed, his own life was a miracle; let him make no mistake about it; here he was, in the prime of life, walking to his house in Westminster to tell Clarissa that he loved her. Happiness is this he thought.

It is this, he said, as he entered Dean’s Yard. Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. Lunch parties waste the entire afternoon, he thought, approaching his door.

the sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing-table; worried; annoyed. It was perfectly true that she had not asked Ellie Henderson to her party; but she had done it on purpose. Now Mrs. Marsham wrote “she had told Ellie Henderson she would ask Clarissa—Ellie so much wanted to come.”

But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties? Why should Mrs. Marsham interfere? And there was Elizabeth closeted all this time with Doris Kilman. Anything more nauseating she could not conceive. Prayer at this hour with that woman. And the sound of the bell flooded the room with its melancholy wave; which receded, and gathered itself together to fall once more, when she heard, distractingly, something fumbling, something scratching at the door. Who at this hour? Three, good Heavens! Three already! For with overpowering directness and dignity the clock struck three; and she heard nothing else; but the door handle slipped round and in came Richard! What a surprise! In came Richard, holding out flowers. She had failed him, once at Constantinople; and Lady Bruton, whose lunch parties were said to be extraordinarily amusing, had not asked her. He was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words.)

But how lovely, she said, taking his flowers. She understood; she understood without his speaking; his Clarissa. She put them in vases on the mantelpiece. How lovely they looked! she said. And was it amusing, she asked? Had Lady Bruton asked after her? Peter Walsh was back. Mrs. Marsham had written. Must she ask Ellie Henderson? That woman Kilman was upstairs.

“But let us sit down for five minutes,” said Richard.

It all looked so empty. All the chairs were against the wall. What had they been doing? Oh, it was for the party; no, he had not forgotten, the party. Peter Walsh was back. Oh yes; she had had him. And he was going to get a divorce; and he was in love with some woman out there. And he hadn’t changed in the slightest. There she was, mending her dress. . . .

“Thinking of Bourton,” she said.

“Hugh was at lunch,” said Richard. She had met him too! Well, he was getting absolutely intolerable. Buying Evelyn necklaces; fatter than ever; an intolerable ass.

“And it came over me ‘I might have married you,’” she said, thinking of Peter sitting there in his little bow-tie; with that knife, opening it, shutting it. “Just as he always was, you know.”

They were talking about him at lunch, said Richard. (But he could not tell her he loved her. He held her hand. Happiness is this, he thought.) They had been writing a letter to the Times for Millicent Bruton. That was about all Hugh was fit for.

“And our dear Miss Kilman?” he asked. Clarissa thought the roses absolutely lovely; first bunched together; now of their own accord starting apart.

“Kilman arrives just as we’ve done lunch,” she said. “Elizabeth turns pink. They shut themselves up. I suppose they’re praying.”

Lord! He didn’t like it; but these things pass over if you let them.

“In a mackintosh with an umbrella,” said Clarissa.

He had not said “I love you”; but he held her hand. Happiness is this, is this, he thought.

I hold my near-constant mental references to music and literature an unfortunate frailty. There can be little doubt that if I had had an appropriately profligate youth, I would have lived things rather than read about them. By way of example, one or more of my absinthe-induced wrong turns would have landed me in the middle of a civil war, and the resulting syphilitic lovers, comrades-in-arms, and delirious-strangers-mistaking-me-for-someone-qualified-to-administer-last-rites -- all too numerous to count -- would have expired in my arms2. Thus, I would now have plenty of personal experience to draw upon when speaking to the dying.

Alternatively, if I were a member of the Bloomsbury set, I -- like Clarissa and, presumably, her author -- would likely hold the notion that some things are so obvious that they don't need to be said. Consequently, if I were to be faced with -- to choose an entirely haphazard3 and unlikely example -- the death of a close family member, all I would have to do is show up with a brave smile and some flowers.

I agree with the contention that 80% of success is showing up, but 80% is only a B-, and there are some areas where you really want to pass with distinction, or even honors. My father was so pleased by my mere presence this past weekend, that, without saying anything, I was probably already at an 85, and I hadn't even brought flowers4, though I did bring along YFU, which is always better. I was glad to be of some practical use when my parents met with the admissions nurse from the hospice program and during a subsequent meeting with one of the primary care nurses, but it was clear that we were there mainly for moral support.

Moral support, apparently, is a lot more effective than I'd realized. When we arrived, my father had just been released from the hospital, perhaps twelve hours after getting the less-than-six-months prognosis from his primary care physician, and he was demoralized and unable to get out of bed. By the time we left, he was getting around with a walker and downright cheerful. I'm sure the hospice program's excellent palliative care had a lot to do with that, but I'm also certain that our visit had a lot to do with it.

I'd been worried about bringing YFU along because I'd thought that my father would still be in the hospital, and, even if he wasn't, that there'd be nothing for her to do. But I'd told her to bring along something to read, and she interpreted "something to read" as the season 4 and 5 DVDs from Buffy. As a side effect, my father may now be hooked, but I reckon that he has more than enough time left to watch the entire series, plus Angel.

My mother had insisted that I have YFU bring along her swimsuit so that the two of them could "sneak off" to the beach on Saturday afternoon. It does seem that no trip to Bradenton is complete without a trip to the excellent beach there5, and while I had not originally planned to accompany them, my father's younger brother had flown in to see my father, and he arrived mid-Saturday morning. I figured that he should have some time alone with my father, so I drove my mother and daughter to the beach. The Gulf waters cannot help but be restorative, even if you only walk beside them, especially on such a gorgeous day. My mother sat on a towel and soaked in the sunlight, and I'm sure it was a much needed respite. YFU danced in the edge of the water, and I walked down the shore a little ways. There were many young fathers playing in the waves with their young sons. It brought back memories of many long-ago trips to the sea.

When we were driving back to my parents' house, my mother told me that after I had gone to bed the previous night, my father had told her "I didn't realize he loved me so much," because I had sat with him on the bed and held his hand for a half-hour or so. I was glad that my doing so had made him so happy, but I couldn't help feeling guilty that he hadn't already realized the depth of my affection. He told me later that he and his father had always gotten along, but that his father had never really told him that he loved him. My grandfather, long since dead, certainly never struck me as a cold person, so I assume that he was a creature of his time and upbringing and assumed, like the Dalloways, that actions speak louder than words.

But they don't, at least not always, and not when the words are consistent with the actions. I couldn't help feeling sad that my father never shared with his father some of what he and I shared this weekend. It's unlikely that my father's and my love for each other is any more profound than my father's and grandfather's love for each other was, but my father doesn't seem sure of that, despite my grandfather's actions, because of what was not said.

Given that, you would think it would have been easy, on my last evening there to tell my father that he had always been the best father that anyone could want. Especially since it's true. And I did say it, but it really wasn't easy, perhaps because, when you're not in the habit of saying that sort of thing, it's something that you would only say to the dying. It was a kind of acknowledgment that we both had accepted the inevitability and (relative) imminence of his death, and while that acceptance is a blessing, it's a blessing that's paid for with a great deal of pain.

But the pain passes, or at least it receded for us, and my visit there left both of us with a great deal of peace and gratitude. The acceptance, the peace, and the gratitude are things that my father and I arrive at in very different ways: he sees them as gifts from God, and I see them as our gifts to each other. But we both got to the same place, and we both got there fairly quickly. It was a reminder of how similar we are, and I can't imagine anyone I'd rather be like.

1You know that you can just skip the readings if you feel like it, right? I always try to pay attention to the readings in church, but I almost invariably end up staring out the window. It's really a lovely idea to build a sanctuary with big floor-to-ceiling windows and surrounded by a forest and gardens, but it does make it easy for the mind to wander.

2"Syphilitic" is meant to modify my notional dying lovers rather than my notional dying lovers and my notional comrades-in-arms and the delirious strangers, but if you want to think of the latter two classes of people as also being syphilitic, well, damn this war.

3It is a perhaps unfortunate result of my forced-but-unused scientific training that I do not say "random" unless I would feel comfortable that my usage of the word would pass peer review. Not that my peers would know any better.

4I did, of course, send some flowers to my mother for Mother's Day. They were still in a box, lying inside the entryway when we arrived on Friday, my mother having been too concerned with getting my father home from the hospital to notice that anything had been delivered. Fortunately, I arrived before the heat had done any serious damage to them.

5The other thing, apparently, that no trip to Bradenton is complete without, is a trip to WalMart to buy something we forgot to pack. The beach has an atavistic and healthful call; WalMart is more of a siren, causing me to lose my moral compass and my rectitude to falter on its rocky shore. YFU kept telling me that we should move to Florida, and when I told her that the reason why we couldn't is that if we did, we would become frequent WalMart shoppers, she realized I had a powerful argument.


  1. I got my answer then. Good :) The beach does seem really excellent.
    It seems somehow always difficult to speak out ones love to ones parents... if "there is no love but proof of love", words seem somehow too "tacky"

  2. But why does the long Woolf quotation read mangonel for the throughout?

  3. Because I'm an idiot. When I read the e-text, I thought to myself, "Wow. I must really be getting old: I don't even remember 'mangonel' from the last time I read Mrs. Dalloway." And, as it happens, I didn't remember it because it wasn't there. It was a corrupted e-text. I have made the necessary correction.

  4. And I thought you made it on purpose!

  5. Thank you...I have been searching for hours on where the Mangonel came from. I thought it was some Modernist abstraction which had been edited out of the original. Now I can rest.