I added Warren Zevon’s darkly comic song, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” to my playlist after age and illness made death my new roommate, and I felt a need for better company. Lately, in light of current events—I’m writing this as the impeachment hearings unfold—I’ve felt like transposing the lyrics into second person, because our mutual shit is definitely fucked up.
I don’t even know my country anymore, and at the same time I know it all too well: I came of age during the civil rights revolution, but as a child I lived in the segregated South with dirt-poor farmers, no indoor plumbing, and a shotgun in the corner that everyone knew how to use. Both worlds were shaped by unbelievably hard work, poverty, and fierce sacrifice—most American families have at least that much in common, despite our bloody and divisive history, despite anger, blame, ignorance, and fear, which we also share.
“You can dream the American dream,” Zevon once wrote, “but you sleep with the lights on and wake up with a scream.” He was a literary musician who wrote about the terrorism of mortality for most of his life, like a captive journalist embedded behind enemy lines.
His mother was a Mormon from Salt Lake City, his father a Russian gangster from—of all places—Ukraine; growing up, Zevon played classical piano and when they moved to Los Angeles, he studied with Igor Stravinsky, who lived nearby. No wonder his music was out of the mainstream, whether it was classical, folk, or rock: Dostoevsky with a guitar.
He earned the regard of people like Springsteen and Dylan but not their fame—he was confined to cult status in content as well as genre, due to his obsession with the “wretched human condition” of aging and his role as the “travel agent for death,” as he wryly put it (“you know, spokesperson for the doomed”). It was a role from which he was only released, ironically, by the surprise of his own sudden terminal diagnosis.
He died of mesothelioma, which could not have been an easy way to go. And yet his music near the end was full of tenderness rather than terror or regret, and made hardly any mention of dying beyond the beautifully oblique lyric, “keep me in your heart for a while.” By the time he was ill, I guess, he and death had gotten to know each other well enough to arrive at some kind of accommodation, like family who finally stop yelling and learn to accept each other.
I’m speaking now of the family we were born into—of parents and bothers and sisters, of neighborhoods and countries—and ultimately, of the human family blindly colonizing this lush planet with a dangerous combination of ambition, ability, ignorance, and belief.
Acceptance doesn’t come easy when people are doing real damage to themselves or others, so most of us run through other options first, like the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression, loneliness. Eventually, we may get so depleted or disgusted that we just give up: we disengage because we conclude that these people are just hopelessly frozen like insects in amber, stuck in some misguided, wrongheaded, or outdated belief system, or too psychologically impaired to reach. There’s no getting through to them, and resignation at least offers us a chance to walk away emotionally.
In contrast to resignation’s retreat, though, acceptance stands still. It holds its ground and looks reality in the eye, even as it gives up wishing that other people would change. Acceptance doesn’t require anything of others, but it demands much more of us than mere resignation, namely, the ability to identify with those who trouble us—and that may only happen when we get old enough or sick enough or threatened enough or mean enough to realize that we are walking in their same old shoes. It can be a shock to find ourselves limping along on bound and painful feet, to feel the rocks in our own road start to poke through the worn-thin soles of our defenses. Or maybe we realize that we, too, are stuck.
The other day I had such a shock, remembering the years during which my older son’s father was slowly immobilized by Parkinson’s disease, remembering how he lay in bed day after week after month after year while I tried, of necessity, to get on with the business of life. I thought I had done well enough by him, all things considered, but now I saw that his constricting world was something I could not even begin to understand until death moved in as my own roommate and I found myself lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Instantly, that shock of recognition revealed the magnitude of what my husband had suffered, and I was overcome with regret about how I had treated him, wrapped in sorrow because only now, all these years later, could I fully understand the man I had loved.
Compassion is a hard, hard lesson—and yet its tears fall on us like the blessing of rain after a killing drought.
I came across Warren Zevon’s song “Fistful of Rain” at about that same time, in one of those mysterious synchronicities that art seems to facilitate. It washed up on the shore of my life like a note in a bottle on the internet sea—and despite its painful opening commentary on the American dream, despite the obvious futility inherent in the title image—this song struck me stock still with hope, as if grace had come knocking at the door after a long absence, and I knew that knock. I heard it in the heartbeat bass underneath Zevon’s exotic combination of penny whistle, piccolo, and harmonica; it was the kind of tune that makes you feel like you should go outside and take your hat off out of respect, while the procession passes by:
“In a heart,” Zevon explains, “there are windows and doors—you can let the light in, you can feel the wind blow. When there’s nothing to lose, and nothing to gain—grab ahold of that fistful of rain.”
Note to longtime subscribers: I took this blog private a few years ago in order to redesign it, but my life got redesigned instead. I only started writing again a year or so ago, with a piece I kept to myself called “When Death Is Your Roommate” (a sexy topic sure to captivate the demographic that can no longer read, remember, or buy books!). I’ve finally been convinced, however, that I should come out of my self-imposed literary quarantine, reopen the blog, and share what’s been consuming my attention. Because suddenly, death is everyone’s roommate.
P.S. After I posted this, I realized I should have added some reassurance for those of you who are old friends as well as subscribers: I did have a cancer episode, but the treatments went well and resulted in a very low chance of recurrence. Everything else is merely debilitating, so the only terminal diagnosis I currently have is the one that comes as an addendum to every life, down in the fine print at the bottom of the page. The thing is, my new roommate knows it by heart and recites it every time I try to get rid of him, like the section of US code that prohibits evictions in a covered section 8 housing project. More about him another time.