For my trip to the funeral of my father-in-law, Laura’s father, Anne Mei’s grandfather, Joseph Rivkin, I decided to use the down times to finally read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death. In this short, dense book, she moves from her own personal reflections on the death of her mother to a wide-ranging, insightful exploration of how people write about death.
For me writing about Laura’s illness and death was a way of grieving. In particular by trying to understand Laura’s pain and to convey her experience in the early posts of this blog. After a few years, I couldn’t bring myself to read any more scientific or philosophical studies of pain or dying. Hence the delay in reading Danticat’s book. I still haven’t read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I’d unfortunately bought just before this mood struck me.
Danticat makes a point that the best writing about death focuses on the particulars. I think what I got tired of was reading and talking about the abstractions of pain and dying after I’d explored the particulars of what Laura called her “three kiss-offs.” Not that I’ve dropped my search for Laura entirely, as is evident in the periodic blog posts on the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice. Nor have I neglected the deaths of loved ones and friends.
Joe’s wife, Sophia Rivkin, has just completed a new chapbook of poems about the almost two years since her husband entered hospice, where Anne Mei serenaded him around his 100th birthday. It’s called River of Snow, and it is a good model of how to practice Danticat’s advice to write the particular. One touching particular I noticed this weekend was the way that Sophia almost always referred to Joe as “my husband.”
As I sat in the Ira Kaufman Chapel listening to Joe’s surviving children share their father’s life, sitting on the side so I could watch his grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and in-laws express their love for him and for each other, I could not think of a better refutation to a question Tolstoy raises in his Confession and which Danticat returns to more than once:
Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?
Joe’s family lives that meaning.