Reading and scribbling: the story

We knew without being told that this was probably the last Avastin infusion.  The oncologist’s Hail Mary pass was not working. As we pulled onto the interstate heading out of the city, I told Laura that I would go on family leave and then retire. I didn’t say it then, but throughout this whole ordeal, I had felt guilty about all the time Laura had spent at home alone while I was at work. She asked what I would do with myself if I retired.  I said that I would write, something I had wanted to do for years.  In her inimitable way with words, even in her weakened state and advanced aphasia, Laura asked, “Why do you want to waste your time?  What are you going to do, read and scribble?”  As one doctor told us at the beginning, “Anger brings back those words.”

Particularly since we received the news that the stereotactic radio surgery (SRS) had not worked, Laura had been fretting about what was going to happen to Anne Mei and me.  She felt that I needed to hang on to my position as township manager, just as I was becoming more and more alienated from that job.    But there was more to it than that.  That’s the way she saw me. She said that it would be better if I did consulting, or got an academic job, if I changed jobs at all.

At this point, Laura mostly wanted everything to stay the same—with me working and Anne Mei in private school.  I tried to explain that family leave was not some noble, altruistic gesture.  I tried to explain that family leave would actually protect me from some of the nastiness I was experiencing at work.  I could not get through.  She knew that she was not going back to her job.  She feared that any move on my part would jeopardize my job.  She kept repeating, “We have conflicts.”  There was no question what she meant, unlike some of her other statements to be explored in these presentations.

Reading and scribbling were, of course, precisely what cancer in the left temporal lobe of her brain had taken from Laura.  Reading and scribbling may have been my salvation, but their absence was Laura’s cross.

Laura was not speaking hypothetically about my reading and scribbling.  For years Laura had been going to bed an hour or two before I did.  While she read in bed and then went to sleep, I would sit in a recliner in the living room with our dog Toto on my lap, reading and making notes on what I read.  The scribbling part had begun after my mother died, about eight years before Laura’s diagnosis.  For reasons I still do not understand, I started Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the fourth or fifth time during my mother’s final illness.  I actually finished it shortly after she died.   Not only did I not understand Levinas very well, I realized how limited my philosophical education had been.  So instead of my usual fare of pulp fiction, I started plowing my way through the classics of Western philosophy and taking notes.  During this period I also did yoga and then started taiji, leading to reading and scribbling Daoist and Buddhist philosophy.  During Laura’s illness my reading changed to Buddhist scriptures.

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