I finished a novel this morning on my subway ride to work. I had to read the last paragraph twice and felt that peculiar almost weightless feeling that comes when you finish a book. I read the last page again and then looked up, disoriented. The car was crowded and two older women stood in front of me. I had noticed them before but didn’t want to break the spell of that last page.
Now that I was done I offered my seat to the shorter woman who looked older. She refused.
“You saying I look old?” she said and then smiled.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “If I see you again I won’t extend the courtesy.”
She liked that and when the person sitting next to me stood up at the next stop, she sat down.
“You know you are damned either way,” she said. “If you offer the seat you can offend someone’s pride, if you don’t offer it, you have no manners.”
“The worst is when you offer it to a woman you think is pregnant,” said her friend, still standing after she refused my offer to sit, too. “Then you find out she’s not.”
I told them that my parents raised me to have manners but for most of my life I performed acts of kindness selfishly, keeping score of how many nice things I’d done.
“Well, it’s karma,” said the standing woman.
“No,” I said, “it was a set-up to feel burned if things didn’t go my way.”
I said that now I do what I do because it makes me feel good not because it means anything else.
“That’s a good philosophy of life,” said the older woman sitting next to me.
I told her that it was a relief. We talked about courtesies and feminism and she said that women can confuse gender and manners. Then she said, “Where are we?”
“Two more stops,” her friend said.
I asked where they were going and the woman sitting next to me said, “Roosevelt Hospital.”
“Oh, for you or to see someone?” I said, regretting it as soon as the words came out of my mouth.
“I’m starting chemo today,” she said.
“Really? You look vital,” I said and regretted that even more.
She said she felt great but worried that her children were so upset.
“I told them that I’m as strong as I’ve felt in a long time,” she said and we talked about feeling helpless. Her kids are helpless to make her better and she is helpless to help them. As she spoke I remembered the review of the new Joan Didion memoir that I’d read last weekend in the New York Times. The book is about how the author handled the death of her daughter, which happened shortly after the death of her husband. John Banville concluded his review with:
The author as she presents herself here, aging and baffled, is defenseless against the pain of loss, not only the loss of loved ones but the loss that is yet to come: the loss, that is, of selfhood. The book will be another huge success, for reasons not mistaken but insufficient. Certainly as a testament of suffering nobly borne, which is what it will be generally taken for, it is exemplary. However, it is most profound, and most provocative, at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.
The older woman sitting next to me looked strong and she smiled and told me how much she liked her doctors. When we got to 59th street I leaned over and kissed her cheek and she stood up and the two women pushed through the crowded car. I looked after them and saw the older woman turn back and smile and me. I thought of my wife and how I always look after her when I leave her on the subway. The woman waved and then was gone.
[Photo Credit: Dark Magoo]