Saturday, March 24, 2012


It's been a week of losses--two to Alzheimer's and one to an angiogram. Because these have occurred thousands of miles away while I am in Italy, there is an extra aura of unreality about it all.  So of course I am out here weeding, as I try to process it a bit.

It's the third death that has left many of us feeling blindsided. The senior member of our book group, one of the country's most distinguished physicians and a prolific author, himself, will not be at the next meeting of the book group. My husband described him as a lovable curmudgeon;others in the group refer to "his unique wit and wisdom." Lovably (or by turns, irritatingly) cantankerous and opinionated, Howard was always a brilliant force of nature.

I am having a flashback to "The Basileus Quartet," an unforgettable 1984 film that opens with a fiery performance of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." (I hadn't recalled that it was a Franco-Italian co-production, but that makes it all the more appropriate for this blog.) In this case, death was not only part of the piece, but the first violinist and senior member of the quartet actually dies. The rest of the film is devoted to trying to fill his shoes, underscoring how much a group that has played together for so long is like a family.

It has taken me a while to feel that way about our book group, which I joined reluctantly. As one whose job it is to analyze literature, I was wearing my snobbish cap, thinking that no one would be reading or discussing things with the detail and intensity that I do, and to some extent, that has been true. Howard used to like to say that old people never emerge quite the same after surgery, and that he felt that his post-surgery self had become "less impatient." I feel similarly about my "book-group self," where I have learned to temper some of my desire not to let go of every possible point of interest, which may well be interesting only to me. I admit to having felt flattered, however, that Howard always seemed to want to hear what I had to say, even when he disagreed with me.

I got to see another side of Howard when in his semi-retirement, he saw my mom for G.I. consultations. He was great with her, and whenever she had a question, I knew that I could email him about it, and that every morning at 6AM, he was likely to answer. That's why it came as such a shock when Jim wrote to remind him about the next book group meeting, and got, in response: "Howard will not be able to respond to any messages for the foreseeable future." We later found out that during an angiogram, he had suffered a massive stroke from which he did not recover.

Howard and my 87-year-old mom were the same vintage. She seems to have taken in stride the news of his death, perhaps because, in recent years, she has had to get used to losing so many people in her life. Yet the view from our valley in Italy looks a bit better:it is not unusual to have formidable great-grandmas who, at 95+, are still ruling the roost. I aspire to be one of them. And I'd like my mom to join me.

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