On Writing a Memoir
All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of character, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of never being quite right. As I have said before in these pages, it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or more exactly to feel less uncomfortable with, ‘Edward’, a foolishly English name yoked to the unmistakably Arabic family name ‘Said’. True, ‘Edward’ was for the Prince of Wales who cut so fine a figure in 1935, the year of my birth, and ‘Said’ was the name of various uncles and cousins. But the rationale of my name broke down when I discovered no grandparents called ‘Said’, and when I tried to connect my fancy English name with its Arabic partner. For years, and depending on the exact circumstances, I would rush past ‘Edward’ and emphasise ‘Said’; or do the reverse, or connect the two to each other so quickly that neither would be clear. The one thing I could not tolerate, but very often would have to endure, was the disbelieving, and hence undermining, reaction: Edward? Said?
The travails of bearing such a name were compounded by an equally unsettling quandary when it came to language. I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was mine beyond any doubt. What I do know, however, is that the two have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, or, more often, one correcting and commenting on the other. Each can seem like my absolutely first language, but neither is. I trace this primal instability to my mother who I remember speaking to me both in English and in Arabic, although she always wrote to me in English – once a week, all her life, as did I, all of hers. Certain spoken phrases of hers, like tislamli or Mish ‘arfa shu biddi ’amal? or rouh’ha – dozens of them – were Arabic, and I was never conscious of having to translate them or, even in cases like tislamli, of knowing exactly what they meant. They were a part of her infinitely maternal atmosphere, for which in moments of great stress I found myself yearning in the softly uttered phrase ya mama, always dreamily seductive then suddenly snatched away, with the promise of something in the end never given.
But woven into her Arabic speech were English words like naughty boy and of course my name, pronounced Edwaad. I am still haunted by the sound, at exactly the same time and place, of her voice calling me Edwaad, the word wafting through the dusk air at the Fish Garden’s closing time, and me, undecided whether to answer or to remain in hiding for just a while longer, enjoying the pleasure of being called, being wanted, the non-Edward part of myself finding luxurious respite in not answering until the silence of my being became unendurable. Her English deployed a rhetoric of statement and norms that has never left me. Once my mother left Arabic and spoke English there was a more objective and serious tone that mostly banished the forgiving and musical intimacy of her first language, Arabic. At age five or six I knew that I was irremediably naughty and at school all manner of comparably disapproved of things like fibber and loiterer. By the time I was fully conscious of speaking English fluently, if not always correctly, I regularly referred to myself not as me but as you. ‘Mummy doesn’t love you, naughty boy,’ she would say, and I would respond, half plaintive echoing, half defiant assertion: ‘Mummy doesn’t love you, but Auntie Melia loves you.’ Auntie Melia was her elderly maiden aunt, who doted on me as a very young child. ‘No she doesn’t,’ my mother persisted. ‘All right. Saleh loves you,’ I would conclude – Saleh was Auntie Melia’s driver – rescuing something from the enveloping gloom.
I hadn’t then any idea where my mother’s English came from or who, in the national sense of the phrase, she was: this strange state of ignorance continued until relatively late in my life, when I was in graduate school. In Cairo, one of the places where I grew up, her spoken Arabic was fluent Egyptian, but to my keener ear, and to the many Egyptians she knew, it was, if not outright Shami, then perceptibly inflected by it. Shami (Damascene) is the collective adjective and noun used by Egyptians to describe both an Arabic-speaker who is not Egyptian and someone who is from Greater Syria, i.e. Syria itself, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan; but Shami is also used to designate the Arabic dialect spoken by a Shami. Much more than my father, whose linguistic ability was primitive compared to hers, my mother had an excellent command of the classical language as well as the demotic. Not enough of the latter to disguise her as Egyptian, however, which of course she was not. Born in Nazareth, then sent to boarding school and junior college in Beirut, she was Palestinian, even though her mother Munira was Lebanese. I never knew her father, but he, I discovered, was the Baptist minister in Nazareth, although he originally came from Safad, via a sojourn in Texas.
Not only could I not absorb, much less master, all the meanderings and interruptions of these details as they broke up a simple dynastic sequence, I could not grasp why she was not a straight English mummy. I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities – mostly in conflict with each other – all my life, together with an acute memory of the despairing wish that we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all-Christian, or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian, and on and on. I found I had two alternatives with which to counter the process of challenge, recognition and exposure to which I felt subject, questions and remarks like: ‘What are you?’ ‘But Said is an Arab name.’ ‘You’re American?’ ‘You’re an American without an American name, and you’ve never been to America.’ ‘You don’t look American!’ ‘How come you were born in Jerusalem and you live here?’ ‘You’re an Arab after all, but what kind are you?’
I do not remember that any of the answers I gave out loud to such probings were satisfactory, or even memorable. My alternatives were hatched entirely on my own: one might work, say, in school, but would not work in church or on the street with my friends. My first approach was to adopt my father’s brashly assertive tone and say to myself: ‘I’m an American citizen, and that’s it.’ He was American by dint of having lived in the United States followed by service in the Army during World War One. Partly because this alternative was not only implausible but imposed on me, I found it far from convincing. To say ‘I am an American citizen’ in the setting of an English school, with wartime Cairo dominated by British troops and what seemed to me a totally homogeneous Egyptian populace, was foolhardy, something to be risked in public only when I was challenged officially to name my citizenship; in private I could not maintain it for long, so quickly did the affirmation wither under existential scrutiny.
The second of my alternatives was even less successful. It was to open myself to the deeply disorganised state of my real history and origins as I had gleaned them and then to try to make some sort of sense of them. But I never had enough information; there was never the right number of functioning connectives between the parts I knew about or was able somehow to excavate; the total picture was never quite right. The trouble seemed to begin with my parents, their pasts and names. My father Wadie was later called William (an early discrepancy that I assumed for a long time was only an Anglicisation of his Arabic name, but soon it appeared to me suspiciously like a case of assumed identity, with the name ‘Wadie’ cast aside except by his wife and sister for not very creditable reasons). Born in Jerusalem in 1895 (my mother said it was more likely 1893), he never told me more than ten or 11 things about his past, none of which ever changed and which hardly conveyed anything except a series of portable words. He was at least forty at the time of my birth.
He hated Jerusalem, and although I was born there and we spent long periods of time there, the only thing he ever said about it was that it reminded him of death. At some point in his life his father was a dragoman and because he knew German was said to have shown Palestine to Kaiser Wilhelm. Never referred to by name except when my mother, who never knew him, called him ‘Abu Asaad’, my grandfather bore the surname ‘Ibrahim’. In school, therefore, my father was known as Wadie Ibrahim. I still do not know where ‘Said’ came from, and no one seems able to explain it. The only relevant detail about his father that my father thought fit to convey to me was that Abu Asaad’s whippings of him were much more severe than his of me. ‘How did you endure it?’ I asked, to which he replied with a chuckle: ‘Most of the time I ran away.’ I was never able to, and never even considered it.
One day my mother announced that John Gielgud was coming to Cairo to perform Hamlet at the Opera House. ‘We must go,’ she said with infectious resolve, and indeed the visit was duly set up, although of course I had no idea who John Gielgud was. I was nine at the time, and had just learned a bit about the play in the volume of Shakespeare stories by Charles and Mary Lamb I had been given for Christmas a few months earlier. Mother’s idea was that she and I should gradually read through the play together. For that purpose a beautiful one-volume Shakespeare was brought down from the shelf, its handsome red morocco-leather binding and its delicate onion-skin paper embodying for me all that was luxurious and exciting in a book. Its opulence was heightened by the pencil or charcoal drawings illustrating the dramas, Hamlet’s being an exceptionally taut tableau by Henry Fuseli of the Prince of Denmark, Horatio and the Ghost seeming to struggle against each other as the announcement of murder and the agitated response to it gripped them.
The two of us sat in the front reception room, she in a big armchair, I on a stool next to her, with a smoky half-lit fire in the fireplace on her left, and we read Hamlet together. She was Gertrude and Ophelia, I Hamlet, Horatio and Claudius. She also played Polonius, as if in solidarity with my father, who often quoted ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’ as a reminder of how risky it was for me to be given money to spend on my own. We skipped the whole play-within-a-play sequence as it was too bewilderingly ornate and complicated for the two of us.
There must have been at least four, and perhaps even five or six sessions when, sharing the book, we read and tried to make sense of the play, the two of us completely alone and together, with Cairo, my sisters and father shut out.
I did not understand many of the lines, though Hamlet’s basic situation, his outrage at his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage, his endless wordy vacillation, did come through half-consciously. I had no idea what incest and adultery were, but could not ask my mother, whose concentration on the play seemed to have drawn her in and away from me. What I remember above all was the change from her normal voice to a new stage voice as Gertrude: it went up in pitch, smoothed out, became exceptionally fluent and, most of all, acquired a bewitchingly flirtatious and calming tone. ‘Good Hamlet,’ I remember her clearly saying to me, not to Hamlet, ‘cast thy nighted colour off,/And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.’ I felt that she was speaking to my better, less disabled and still fresh self, hoping perhaps to lift me out of the sodden delinquency of my life, already burdened with worries and anxieties that I was now sure were to threaten my future.
Reading Hamlet as an affirmation of my status in her eyes, not as someone devalued, as in mine I had become, was one of the great moments in my childhood. We were two voices to each other, two happily allied spirits in language. I knew nothing consciously of the inner dynamics that link desperate prince and adulterous queen at the play’s interior, nor did I really understand the fury of the scene between them when Polonius is killed and Gertrude verbally flayed by Hamlet. We read together through all that, since what mattered to me was that in a curiously un-Hamlet-like way, I could count on her to be someone whose emotions and affections engaged mine without really being more than an exquisitely maternal, protective and reassuring person. Far from feeling that she had tampered with her obligations to her son, I felt that these readings confirmed the deepness of our connection to each other; for years I kept in my mind the higher than usual pitch of her voice, the unagitated poise of her manner, the soothing, conclusively patient outline of her presence, as goods to be held onto at all costs, but rarer and rarer as my delinquencies increased in number, and her destructive and dislocating capacities threatened me more.
When I saw the play at the Opera House I was jolted out of my seat by Gielgud’s declaiming ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us,’ and the sense it conveyed of being a miraculous confirmation of what I had read privately with Mother. The trembling resonance of his voice, the darkened, windy stage, the distantly shining figure of the ghost, all seemed to have brought to life the Fuseli drawing that I had long studied, and it raised my sensuous apprehension to a pitch I do not think I have ever again experienced. But I was also disheartened by the physical incongruities between me and the men whose green and crimson tights set off fully rounded, perfectly shaped legs, that seemed to mock my awkward carriage, my unskilled movements, my spindly, shapeless legs. Everything about Gielgud and the blond man who played Laertes communicated an ease and confidence of being – they were English heroes after all – that reduced me to buglike status, curtailing my capacity for enjoying the play. A few days later, when an Anglo-American classmate called Tony Howard invited me to meet Gielgud at his house, it was all I could do to manage a feeble, silent handshake. Gielgud was in a grey suit, but said nothing; he pressed my small hand with an Olympian half-smile.
It must have been the memory of those long-ago Hamlet afternoons in Cairo that made my mother, during the last two or three years of her life, enthusiastic once again about us going to the theatre together. The most memorable time was when – her cancer afflictions already pronounced – she arrived in London from Beirut on her way to the US to consult a specialist; I met her at the airport and brought her to Brown’s Hotel for the one night she had to spend there. With barely two hours to get ready and have an early supper, she nevertheless gave an unhesitating ‘yes’ to my suggestion that we see Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton as Antony and Cleopatra at the Haymarket. It was an understated, unopulent production, and the long play transfixed her in a way that surprised me. After years of Lebanese war and Israeli invasion she had become distracted, often querulous, worried about her health and what she should do with herself. All of this, however, went into abeyance, as we watched and heard Shakespeare’s lines (‘Eternity was in our lips and eyes,/Bliss in our brows’ bent’) as if speaking to us in the accents of wartime Cairo, back in our little cocoon, the two of us very quiet and concentrated, savouring the language and communion with each other – despite the disparity in our ages and the fact that we were mother and son – for the very last time. Eight months later she had begun her final descent into the disease that killed her, her mind ravaged by metastases which, before striking her completely silent for the two months before she died, caused her to speak fearsomely of plots around her. The last lucidly intimate thing she ever said to me was ‘my poor little child’, pronounced with such sad resignation, a mother taking final leave of her son. Eighteen months later I was diagnosed with the leukaemia that must have already been in me when she died.
When I was growing up I always wished that she might have been the one to watch me play football or tennis, or that she alone could have talked to my teachers, relieved of her duties as my father’s partner in the joint programme for my reform and betterment. After she died, and I no longer wrote her my weekly letter, nor spoke directly to her in our daily phone-call, I kept her as a silent companion. As a small boy to be held in her arms when she wished to cuddle and stroke me was bliss indeed, but such attention could never be sought or asked for. Her moods regulated mine, and I recall one of the most anguished states of my childhood and early adolescence was trying, with nothing to guide me and no great prospect of success, to distract her from her role as taskmaster, and to tease her into giving me approval and support. A good deed, a decent grade, a well-executed passage on the piano might bring about a sudden transfiguration of her face, a dramatic elevation in her tone, a breathtakingly wide opening of arms, as she took me in: ‘Bravo Edward, my darling boy, bravo, bravo. Let me kiss you.’
Yet most of the time she was so driven by a sense of her duty as mother and supervisor of household life that the main voice that has stayed with me from those years is the one that called out injunctions: ‘Practise your piano, Edward!’ ‘Get back to your homework.’ ‘Don’t waste time: begin your composition.’ ‘Have you had your milk, your tomato juice, your cod-liver oil?’ ‘Finish your plate.’ ‘Who ate the chocolates? A full box has disappeared. Edward!’
Time seemed forever against me, and except for a brief morning period when I sensed the day ahead as a possibility, I was boxed in by schedules, chores, assignments, with not a moment for leisurely enjoyment or reflection. I was given my first watch, an insipid-looking Tissot, at the age of 11 or 12; for several days I spent hours staring at it, mystified by my inability to see its movement, constantly worried that it had stopped. I suspected at first that it was not entirely new since there seemed to be something suspiciously worn about it, but was assured by my parents that it was indeed new, and that its slightly yellowed (tinged with orange) face was characteristic of the model. There the discussion ended. But the watch obsessed me. I compared it first with what my schoolmates wore which, except for the Mickey Mouse and Popeye models that symbolised the America I didn’t belong to, struck me as inferior to mine. There was an early period of experimenting with different ways of wearing it: the face turned inwards; on the sleeve; underneath it; fastened tightly; fastened loosely; pushed forward onto my wrist; and on the right hand. I ended up with it on my left wrist, where for a long time it gave me the decidedly positive feeling of being dressed up.
But the watch never failed to impress me with its unimpeded forward movement, which in nearly every way added to my feeling of being behind and at odds with my duties and commitments. I do not recall ever being much of a sleeper but I do remember the faultless punctuality of early-morning reveille and the sense of anxious urgency I felt the moment I got out of bed. There was never any time to dawdle or loiter, though I was inclined to both. I began a lifelong habit then of experiencing time as a wasting, while also resisting it by doing more and more (reading furtively, staring out of the window, looking for a superfluous object like a penknife or yesterday’s shirt) in the few moments left before the inexorable deadline. My watch was a help when it showed me that there was time to spare, but most often it guarded my life like a sentinel, on the side of an external order of parents, teachers and inflexible appointments.
In my early adolescence I was completely in the grip, at once pleasant and unpleasant, of time passing as a series of deadlines – an experience that has remained with me ever since. The day’s milestones were set relatively early in that period and have not varied. Six thirty (or in cases of great pressure six – I still use the phrase ‘I’ll get up at six to finish this’) was time to get up; 7.30 started the meter running, at which point I entered the strict regime of hours and half-hours governed by classes, church, private lessons, homework, piano practice, sports, until bedtime. This sense of the day divided into periods of appointed labour has never left me, has indeed intensified. Eleven a.m. still imbues me with a guilty awareness that the morning has passed without enough being accomplished – it is 11.20 as I write these very words – and 9 p.m. still represents ‘lateness’, that moment which connotes the end of the day, the hastening need to begin thinking about bed, the time beyond which to do work means to do it at the wrong time, fatigue and a sense of having failed all creeping up on one, time slowly getting past its proper period, lateness in all senses.
My watch furnished the basic motif underlying all this, an impersonal discipline that somehow kept the system in order. Leisure was unavailable. I recall with stunning clarity my father’s early injunction against remaining in pyjamas and dressing-gown past the early morning hours; slippers in particular were objects of contempt. I still cannot spend any time at all lounging in a dressing-gown: the combined feeling of time-wasting guilt and lazy impropriety overwhelms me. As a way of getting around the discipline, illness (sometimes feigned, sometimes exaggerated) made life away from school positively acceptable. I became the family joke for being especially gratified by, even soliciting, an unnecessary bandage on my finger, knee or arm. And now by some devilish irony I find myself with an intransigent, treacherous leukaemia which, ostrich-like, I try to banish from my mind entirely, attempting with reasonable success to live in my system of time, working, sensing lateness and deadlines and that feeling of insufficient achievement I learned fifty years ago and have so remarkably internalised. But, in another odd reversal, I secretly wonder to myself whether the system of duties and deadlines may now save me, although I know that my illness creeps invisibly on, more secretly and insidiously than the time announced by my first watch, which I carried with so little awareness of how it numbered my mortality, divided it up into perfect, unchanging intervals of unfulfilled time for ever and ever.
In early September 1991, on the eve of the Madrid Peace Conference and 40 years after I left the Middle East for the US, I was in London for a seminar I had convened of Palestinian intellectuals and activists. After the Gulf War and the Palestinian leadership’s fatal stand alongside Saddam Hussein, we were in a very weak negotiating position. The idea of the conference was to try to articulate a common set of themes that would assist our progress towards self-determination. We came from all over the dispersed Palestinian world – the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian diaspora in various Arab countries, Europe and North America. What transpired during the seminar was a terrible disappointment: the endless repetition of well-known arguments, our inability to fix on a collective goal, the apparent desire to listen only to ourselves. In short, nothing came of it except an eerie premonition of the Palestinian failure at Oslo.
Midway through the debate, during one of the scheduled breaks, I phoned Mariam, my wife, in New York to ask her if the results of the blood test I had taken for my annual physical had been satisfactory. Cholesterol was what had concerned me and no, she said, everything was fine on that front but added with some hesitation: ‘Charles Hazzi’ – our doctor – ‘would like to speak to you when you get back.’ Something in her voice suggested to me that all was not well, so I immediately rang Charles at his office. ‘Nothing to get excited about,’ he said, ‘we’ll talk in New York.’ His repeated refusals to tell me what was wrong finally provoked me to impatience. ‘You must tell me, Charles. I’m not a child, and I have a right to know.’ With a whole set of demurrals – it’s not serious, a haematologist can very easily take care of you, it’s chronic after all – he told me that I had chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), although it took me a week to absorb the initial impact of my diagnosis. I was asymptomatic and sophisticated diagnostic techniques were needed to confirm the original finding. It was another month before I understood how thoroughly shaken I was by this ‘sword of Damocles’, as one doctor called it, hanging over me, and a further six months before I found the extraordinary doctor, Kanti Rai, under whose care I have been since June 1992.
A month after I was diagnosed I discovered myself in the middle of a letter to my mother, who had been dead for a year and a half. Somehow the urge to communicate with her overcame the factual reality of her death, which in mid-sentence stopped my fanciful urge, leaving me slightly disoriented, even embarrassed. A vague narrative urge seemed to be stirring inside me, but I was too caught up in the anxieties and nervousness of my life with CLL to pay it much attention. During that period in 1993 I contemplated several changes in my life which I realised without any fear would be shorter and more difficult now. I thought about moving to Boston to return to a place I had lived in and enjoyed when I was a student, but I soon admitted to myself that because it was a quiet town relative to New York I had been thinking regressively about finding a place to die in. I gave up the idea.
So many returns, attempts to go back to bits of life, or people who were no longer there: these constituted a steady response to the increasing rigours of my illness. In 1992 I went with my wife and children to Palestine for the first time in 45 years. In July 1993 I went on my own to Cairo, making it a point in the middle of a journalistic mission to visit old haunts. All this time I was being monitored, without treatment, by Dr Rai, who occasionally reminded me that I would at some point require chemotherapy. By the time I began treatment in March 1994 I realised that I had at least entered, if not the final phase of my life, then the period – like Adam and Eve leaving the Garden – from which there would be no return to my old life. In May 1994 I began work on the memoir I am writing.
These details are important as a way of explaining to myself and to my reader how the time of the memoir is intimately tied to the time, phases, ups and downs, variations in my illness. As I grew weaker, the more the number of infections and bouts of side-effects increased, the more the memoir was my way of constructing something in prose while in my physical and emotional life I grappled with the anxieties and pains of degeneration. Both tasks resolved themselves into details: to write is to get from word to word, to suffer illness is to go through the infinitesimal steps that take you from one state to another. With other sorts of work that I did, essays, lectures, teaching, journalism, I was going across the illness, punctuating it almost forcibly with deadlines and cycles of beginning, middle and end: with this memoir I was borne along by the episodes of treatment, hospital stay, physical pain and mental anguish, letting those dictate how and when I could write, for how long and where. Periods of travel were often productive since I carried my handwritten manuscript with me wherever I went and took advantage of every hotel room or friend’s house I stayed in. I was therefore rarely in a hurry to get a section done, though I had a precise idea of what I planned to put in it. Curiously the memoir and the phases of my illness share exactly the same time, although most traces of the latter have been effaced in the story of my early life. This record of a life and the ongoing course of a disease are one and the same, it could be said; the same but deliberately different.
And the more this relationship developed the more important it became to me, the more also my memory – unaided by anything except concentrated reflection on and archaeological prying into a very distant and essentially irrecoverable past – seemed hospitable and generous to my often importunate forays. Despite the travail of disease and the restrictions imposed on me by my having left the places of my youth, I can say with the poet: ‘Nor in this bower,/This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d/Much that has soothed me.’ There had been a time when I could not bear to think about my past, especially Cairo and Jerusalem, which for two sets of different reasons were no longer accessible. The latter had been replaced by Israel, the former, by one of those cruel coincidences, was closed to me for legal reasons. Unable to visit Egypt for the 15 years between 1960 and 1975, I rationed early memories of my life there (considerably chopped up, full of atmospherics that conveyed a sense of warmth and comfort by contrast with the harsh alienation I felt in my New York life) as a way of falling asleep, an activity that has grown more difficult with time, time that has also dissolved the aura of happiness around my early life and let it emerge as a more complicated and difficult period. To grasp it, I realised, I would have to be sharply alert, awake, avoiding dreamy somnolence. I’ve thought in fact that the memoir in some fundamental way is all about sleeplessness, all about the silence of wakefulness and, in my case, the need for conscious recollection and articulation as a substitute for sleep. Not just for sleep but for holidays and relaxation, all that passes for middle and upper-class ‘leisure’, on which, about ten years ago, I unconsciously turned my back. As one of the main responses to my illness I found in the memoir a new kind of challenge: not just a new kind of wakefulness but a project about as far from my professional and political life as it was possible for me to go.
The underlying motifs for me have been, on the one hand, the emergence of a second self buried for a very long time beneath a surface of often expertly acquired and wielded social characteristics belonging to the self my parents tried to construct, the ‘Edward’ I speak of intermittently, and, on the other, an understanding of the way an extraordinary number of departures have unsettled my life from its earliest beginnings. To me, nothing more painful and paradoxically sought after characterises my life than the many displacements from countries, cities, abodes, languages, environments that have kept me in motion all these years. Twelve years ago I wrote in After the Last Sky that when I travel I always take too much with me, and that even a trip downtown requires the packing of a briefcase stocked with items disproportionately larger in size and number than the actual period of the trip. Analysing that, I concluded that I had a secret but ineradicable fear of not returning. What I’ve since discovered is that despite this fear I fabricate occasions for departure, thus giving rise to the fear voluntarily. The two seem absolutely necessary to my rhythm of life and have intensified dramatically during the period of my illness. I say to myself: if you don’t take this trip, don’t prove your mobility and indulge your fear of being lost, don’t override the normal rhythms of domestic life now, you certainly will not be able to do so in the near-future. I also experience the anxious moodiness of travel (la mélancolie des paquebots, as Flaubert calls it; Bahnhofstimmung in German), along with envy for those who stay behind, whom I see on my return, their faces unshadowed by dislocation or what seems to be enforced mobility, happy with their families, draped in a comfortable suit and raincoat, there for all to see. Something about the invisibility of the departed, being missing and perhaps missed, in addition to the intense, repetitive and predictable sense of banishment that takes you away from all you know and can take comfort in, makes you feel the need to leave out of some prior, but self-created logic, and a sense of rapture. In all cases, though, the great fear is that departure is the state of being abandoned, even though it is you who leave.
During the last few months of my mother’s life she would tell me plaintively and frequently about the misery of trying to fall asleep. She was in Washington, I in New York, we would speak constantly, see each other about once a month. Her cancer was spreading, I knew. She refused to have chemotherapy: ‘Ma biddee at’adthab,’ she would say: ‘I don’t want the torture of it.’ Years later I was to have four years of it with no success, but she never buckled, never gave in even to her doctor’s importunings, never had chemotherapy. But she could not sleep at night. Sedatives, sleeping pills, soothing drinks, the counsel of friends and relatives, reading, praying: none, she said, did any good. ‘Help me to sleep, Edward,’ she once said to me with a piteous trembling in her voice that I can still hear as I write. But then the disease spread to her brain, and for the last six weeks she slept all the time. Sitting by her bed with my sister Grace, waiting for her to awaken, was, for me, the most anguished and paradoxical of my experiences with her.
Now I have divined that my own inability to sleep may be her last legacy to me, a counter to her struggle for sleep. For me sleep is something to get over as quickly as possible. I can only go to bed very late, but I am up, literally, at dawn. Like her, I don’t possess the secret of long sleep, though unlike her I have reached the point where I do not want it. For me, sleep is death, as is any diminishment in awareness. During my last treatment – a 12-week ordeal – I was most upset by the drugs I was given to ward off fever and shaking chills, and manifestly upset by the sense of being infantilised, the helplessness that many years ago I had conceded as that of a child to my mother and, differently, to my father. I fought the medical soporifics bitterly, as if my identity depended on that resistance.
Sleeplessness for me is a cherished state, to be desired at almost any cost; there is nothing for me as invigorating as the early-morning shedding of the shadowy half-consciousness of a night’s loss, reacquainting myself with what I might have lost completely a few hours earlier. I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, are borne along during the waking hours, and at their best they require no reconciling, no harmonising. They may be not quite right, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That scepticism, too, is something I particularly want to hold onto. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned to prefer being not quite right, out of place.