An explanation, and an apology
by Bernard Brandt
I see that I have not been writing much in my weblog these days. With the exception of math (and more about that later), I have not been doing much of anything these days. I suppose I should explain.
Those four or five of the people who read this wretched weblog are probably aware that a bit more than a year ago, my second wife died, horribly, of cancer. Probably, fewer of them are aware that my first wife also died, horribly, and in my arms, of lung cancer, about 23 years ago. I haven’t talked about that much. I suppose that I should.
I’ve read that Alexander Aitken, the brilliant New Zealand mathematician, was both gifted and cursed with an excellent memory. Gifted, because it allowed him to become a lightning calculator, a superb violinist, a premier mathematician, and an excellent scholar. Cursed, because he could not forget the tragedy of Gallipoli during World War I, when he personally witnessed the deaths of most of his comrades during that war. Whether he wanted to or not, he would constantly be called back to relive those moments, when he saw his comrades shot, or skewered by bayonets, or blown to torn bloody bits. For decades afterwards, in spite of his brilliance, he was cursed with a deep and a dark depression.
I’m similarly gifted and cursed, though not to the same extent. At times, it takes me some attention before I can call back a memory of the past. But when I do, it comes in full color and sound. My dreams are particularly vivid as well, when I have them. Up until recently, I tried blocking those dreams as much as possible, for reasons which will become obvious later. And I am not as cursed as A.A. Aitken was: he personally witnessed the deaths of dozens of his friends. I only witnessed the death of one, the one whom I loved more than my own life. That was enough, alas.
Because, for the last twenty-three years, on a weekly and sometimes on a daily basis, I would relive those months of seeing Carolyn start to fade, of going to the doctors finally to receive her diagnosis and sentence of death, and of caring for her in our small apartment with her mother and her child, my step daughter. And finally, I would relive that moment when I saw her silently pleading at me for life with her eyes, while her lungs were filling with the fluid from the cancer that finally choked her, broke her heart, and crushed her life out.
Certain things were triggers of those memories. Hearing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings was one of them. That piece, one of the most sorrowful I know, was also a match for the process of her decline, her diagnosis, her death, and my desolation afterwards.
Another trigger was any recollection of the last days of the marriage of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. I have still not been able to bring myself to watch more than a few minutes of Shadowlands. I am, however, a fair Lewis scholar, and have read as much as I could of his writings. It was enough for me on one occasion, years ago, to hear a new visitor at my church, who didn’t know me from Adam, talking blithely about this wonderful play and movie, about an Oxford scholar who met and married a beautiful and brilliant woman, only to lose her to cancer just a few years later.
I nodded dully, said something like, ‘How nice’, and proceeded to drink until I could blind and deafen myself to those memories.
Those who know me personally and well know that alcohol is my medicine of choice for self medication. It is the only thing that I don’t fear that can at least drive the memories away for a night. I tried one of my second wife’s Oxy-Contin tablets once, after her death, but while it also could drive away the memories, and I felt at some peace for a time, I didn’t feel like me anymore, for days afterwards. I gave the rest of her considerable supply of those tablets to a chemical disposal dump afterwards.
But unfortunately, alcohol is one of those unhealthy coping mechanisms that I’ve picked up during this so-called life of mine. I recall one time, just a few years ago, when I and my second wife, Beth, had been given plane tickets so we could attend an Epiphany feast of some of my oldest and dearest friends. They had all known me when I was married to Carolyn. And, unfortunately, the memories of Carolyn were all over the place there. I proceeded to drink myself to near aphasia, to the evident embarrassment and pity of all who were there. I’m very, really, and truly sorry about that, guys. But if you will pardon the wretched pun, there were exterminating circumstances.
And, unfortunately, both my depression and my self-medication have had many other bad effects, on me and those around me. I lost my step-daughter, Adrian, because of it. I do not blame Adrian’s grandmother at all for living together with me and Adrian for a year, until she could complete the process of obtaining joint custody, and then moving out. While I could have contested the process and probably retained joint custody, I had long before promised Carolyn that I would do nothing to interfere with how she and her mother would raise Adrian. I did my best to keep that promise. But I lost Adrian entirely because of that. I’m sorry, Adrian. But I was pretty much useless then, anyhow. You were better off without me.
I also am finding, now that I am finally beginning to come out of my decades’ long depression, that an additional unhealthy coping mechanism has been a response to any loss with an inappropriate and extreme fear and rage. It happened about twelve years ago, when Beth was first being diagnosed with the cancer which ultimately killed her, and when I was in the process of losing my last full time job. I was a member of a e-mail group of my friends. One of those friends, alas now an ex-friend, a brilliant woman with degrees from Berkeley, Harvard Divinity, and U.Penn. Medical School, put forth the proposition that in the Book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi had had a sexual alliance before Ruth’s marriage to Boaz.
I am still of the opinion that, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, this is an idea not to be lightly tossed aside, but hurled with great force. I said as much, then, and far more, in my response to her e-mail. One can disagree without being disagreeable. But I wasn’t. I was as poisonous and as demonic as a human being can be. I broke a perfectly good e-mail chain with many good friends. I lost a good friend. As I am coming back to something which roughly approximates sanity, I look in horror and shame on what I did to my friends, and to my ex-friend. I’d like my friends to know I’m sorry for what I did back then. And I’m sorry, Barbara. I was beastly to you. I would like to ask for your forgiveness, but quite frankly, I don’t think I deserve it after all these years.
And in this last year, I have similarly, after my loss of Beth, acted viciously and poisonously towards others either on FB, my weblog, or in my e-mails, and for much the same reasons. I’m sorry, all. Now that I finally have a better idea myself of what I’m doing, I’ll try to do better, or at least not to do it again. Not that you probably will want to have much more to do with me, anyhow.
Finally, all those unhealthy coping mechanisms and that dark sense of humor mentioned above have combined to cause me to misjudge disastrously the effect of what I say or write. One prime example of that was one time a month or so ago when a now ex-FB friend by the name of Sarah McMenomy made a comment extolling the efficacy of meditation. Having made a study and a practice of such things as self-hypnosis, autogenic training, Taoist and Chan (or Zen) Buddhist, and Eastern Orthodox meditation systems since I was 13, I quite agreed with her.
But as a joke, and in hopes of beginning a conversation, I wrote in the comments to her posting something to the effect that in meditation, one should ‘STFU, but keep it all inside’. By this, I meant to say that most meditation begins with inner silence. I also meant to refer to that skit in The Birdcage, when the late Robin Williams performs that tour de force choreographic display of ‘Michael Kidd, Martha Graham, Fosse, Madonna’, ‘but keep it all inside’.
I fear, alas, that Sarah just thought I was telling her to ‘STFU’. Things went downhill from there, and what I meant for praise of her years of meditation, she took as being patronizing. She blocked me. I quite understand. But if someone could show this message to Sarah, I would really appreciate it. I’d like to tell her I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.
Look, everyone: I’m not trying to excuse or justify or even to mitigate the wreckage I have made in and of my life. I’ve screwed things up, and badly. I’m a broken, twisted, toxic alleged human being. I finally get all that. Now that I’m beginning finally to get out of the middle of myself and see what I’ve become, I have come to look with horror and shame and guilt at what I am and have done.
I just wanted you all to know why and how it all happened. Sorry.