Years later, my high school sweetheart read The World According to Garp. Afterwards, whenever things were going badly, she would say her version of a line from the book: “The Under Toad is out today!” (See excerpt from the book below.)
The Under Toad IS out this week. Her husband just died today (July 19, 2017). Earlier this week a friend of a friend died of breast cancer. This evening’s online news flashes that John McCain has GBM, the same cancer that killed Ted Kennedy and my wife Laura. The Washington Post gave a blunt description of McCain’s situation:
“Glioblastoma is an aggressive type of brain cancer, and the prognosis for this kind of cancer is generally poor. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) survived less than 15 months after his was found in 2008.”
CNN followed a similar statement with the same bullshit that Laura and I were told nine years ago when she was first diagnosed:
“Still, one 2009 study reported that almost 10% of patients with glioblastoma may live five years or longer, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.”
At times like this I try to remember that the Under Toad is just one way of talking about the natural flow of living and dying. The day after my friend’s friend died, her grandson was born.
Excerpt from “The World According To Garp” by John Irving
Irving Duncan began talking about Walt and the undertow – a famous family story. For as far back as Duncan could remember, the Garps had gone every summer to Dog’s Head Harbor, New Hampshire, where the miles of beach in front of Jenny Fields’ estate were ravaged by a fearful undertow. When Walt was old enough to venture near the water, Duncan said to him – as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan – ‘Watch out for the undertow.’ Walt retreated, respectfully. And for three summers Walt was warned about the undertow. Duncan recalled all the phrases.
‘The undertow is bad today.’
‘The undertow is strong today.’
‘The undertow is wicked today.’ Wicked was a big word in New Hampshire – not just for the undertow.
And for years Walt reached out for it. From the first, when he asked what it could do to you, he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea. It could suck you under and drown you and drag you away.
It was Walt’s fourth summer at Dog’s Head Harbor, Duncan remembered, when Garp and Helen and Duncan observed Walt watching the sea. He stood ankle-deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him.
‘What are you doing, Walt?’ Helen asked.
‘What are you looking for, dummy?’ Duncan asked him.
‘I’m trying to see the Under Toad,’ Walt said.
‘The what?’ said Garp.
‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.
Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever-watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad.
Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt (‘Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!’ Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy – when depression had moved in overnight – they said to each other, ‘The Under Toad is strong today.’
‘Remember,’ Duncan asked on the plane, ‘how Walt asked if it was green or brown?’
Both Garp and Duncan laughed. But it was neither green nor brown, Garp thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an automobile.