Vollendungsroman, the Apocalyptic, and “What Are You Going Through?”

I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old.  There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings.  (Readers, help me with this!)  Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one.  It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.  Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it.  The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse.   Think about it.

The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet.  It ends as the narrator stays with a  friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her.  In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster.  The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.

One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.)  And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance.  It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient.  The question is how is one – one person or one people –  to deal with the reality of the situation.

I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self.  The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we.  Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around.  Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?

What Are You Going Through,  the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil.  She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died.  The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015.  His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human BeingA human being, one particular human being.  Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality.  He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him.  Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:

…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.

Maybe.  The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.

Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life.  It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them.  It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief).  He says this:

I am living today in that breathing space.  I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.

But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences.  Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.

Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life.  I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive.  And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”

I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction.  Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.

For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen.  Enjoy.

The Age of Grandmothers

Grandmothers are getting older.  My mother was 47 when her first grandchild was born and around 54 when her last one was born.  I had my first grandchild at 57, and they are still being born (please stop!).  Many of us waited longer to have children and many of our children are putting off parenthood even longer.  In fact, the average age of first-time grandparents has increased two years just since 2011.  Granny will, indeed, be the white-haired old lady with her knitting if this continues. What does this mean?  Having just come back from a week visiting my daughter, who is a single mother of a two-year-old and a newborn set of identical twins, I can report from the field.  My daughter is about to turn forty.  She is exhausted – and Nana (that’s me) is thirty years older and well beyond exhausted – after just a week. 

Do this exercise.  Think of your grandmother(s) at the time you were six or eight.  And then calculate how old those ancient women seemed to you at the time.  Of course, the grandmothers people my age had were different in many ways.  Most of them kept their teeth in a cup in the bathroom (who can forget the first glimpse of that!), used gossamer hair nets, and never even learned to drive a car.  But, for a moment, think about their numerical age.  They probably weren’t all that old.

There were always some grandmothers who were older, especially those whose middle-aged sons divorced their wives and started to procreate all over again.  But now, there are lots.  Our health may be better than our grandma’s was (we exercise and take our vitamins), but still we are definitely…older. 

This means a number of things.  We are not as energetic.  We are further away from our own time of caring for infants; an era of bottle sterilization racks and Dr. Spock has long since been replaced by disposable supplies and a long list of internet sourced dos and don’ts.   At my daughter’s house, she and her sitters used an app to keep track of feedings and diaper changes for the newborns.  I screwed it up.  I struggled with how much to ask of a pampered (adored) 2½ year old.  When I asked him to be quiet because I had finally gotten both his brothers to sleep at the same time, he showed me how loud he could scream.  I bit my tongue and went to get up the wakened baby.  He is a healthy two-year-old after all, and doing what two-year-olds do.  And I am an old lady remembering what it is like to do battle with a toddler.  Needless to say, in every battle with the little guy, I lost.

For I have forgotten.  I live far from my children and grandchildren, so I do not have the everyday experience of heating formula or distracting a toddler.  I re-learned a lot in a week.  I also fell in love with the eyes of babies who looked up at me with trust as I fed them their sustenance.  Would they remember my face years from now?  Will I look vaguely familiar the next time I visit?  I succumbed to the joy of a little boy who was learning to ask questions and was discovering the thrills of a garden hose.  I watched my husband, with whom I have never had children, cuddle, and converse with tiny babies, and show a little boy how to use a screwdriver.

And there is a vast difference between a grandchild in theory, a virtual grandchild, pictures of a grandchild, and one in the flesh, close to your flesh.  Zoom just does not cut it.  Caring physically for my grandchildren reminded me that my ties to my own children were born of those moments when I held them, wiped their faces, changed their diapers, and told them stories with words they could not understand – but that they seemed to listen to anyway.

Of course, it was all complicated by Covid-19.  My daughter lives in a college town, and the students had recently returned.  We mostly stayed home.  We drove two days to get there and brought our food, so we didn’t have to eat at restaurants, but there seemed no alternative to rest areas for bathrooms.  All the states we went through had signs on the rest areas requiring masks to enter; not even half of those who did enter were wearing masks.  We are home now and still waiting out our self-quarantine.  But it was well worth it.

There are many dilemmas stemming from how far many of us live from our children and grandchildren.  And by the time we consider moving close to them because we may “need” them as we begin to “fail,” our children will be preoccupied with orthodontic appointments, soccer games, and gymnastic lessons for their offspring.  And there is the problem of stepfamilies.  Almost no one in my parents’ generation was divorced or remarried, but in an era of blended families, whose children and grandchildren should you move close to?  And how do we get our children to let the little ones call their stepfather Grandpa?  These were not issues my parents faced.

Our cohort was sometimes labeled the “sandwich generation” as we had children, elderly parents, and jobs – often all at the same time.  But the generation following us is even more likely to be in this predicament.  And because of distance and age, they are not getting the help from their elders that some earlier generations got.  I sympathize.  For them and for us.  But mostly I am just tired.  And glad I went.

I have a couple of stories about grandmothers – you might try “Snickerdoodles” or “Common Enemy.”  I have an idea for a new one, but have not written it yet.  Still recuperating from my trip.