what men live by.

i’ve been reading to my mom whenever i’m in town, hoping that the sound of my voice will be soothing to her. early in her treatment i kind of took on this role as her best friend, who would visit for a few days to watch movies and tell funny stories. though i’m needed here more consistently now i’ve tried to hold onto those activities in an effort to give her respite from the relentless onslaught of her disease.

thus far we’ve read two books: first salman rushdie’s shalimar the clown and then falling man by don delillo.

the former concerns kashmir and its progression from utopia full of warmth and compassion to pock-mocked terrain overrun with militants from india and pakistan, and, more generally, the roots of terrorism (ideas, revenge, american foreign policy, love, honor) and the friction caused by faiths and cultures attempting to coexist.

even though my mom is significantly more tolerant and liberal than, say, an iranian supreme leader, i stumbled over passages like the following that occurs near the end of the novel and describes the excessively brutal destruction of a kashmiri village:

who lit the fire? who burned that orchard? who shot those brothers who laughed their whole lives long? who killed the sarpanch? who broke his hands? who broke his arms? who broke his ancient neck? who shackled those men? who made those men disappear? who shot those boys? who shot those girls? who smashed that house? who smashed that house? who smashed that house? who killed that youth? who clubbed that grandmother? who knifed that aunt? who broke that old man’s nose? who broke that young girl’s heart? who killed that lover? who shot his fiancee? who burned the costumes? who broke the swords? who burned the library? who burned the saffron field? who slaughtered the animals? who burned the beehives? who poisoned the paddies? who killed the children? who whipped the parents? who raped that lazy-eyed woman? who raped that gray-haired lazy-eyed woman as she screamed about snake vengeance? who raped that woman again? who raped that woman again? who raped that woman again? who raped that dead woman? who raped that dead woman again?

during the reading of falling man, fictionally retelling the events (moreso the mindset of new yorkers) since the planes, i told her that i sometimes think about becoming a professional poker player, like one of the main characters, after his job and his former life are rendered meaningless in comparison to the grandeur of the present and the impossibility of the future. delillo’s writing style — disjointed dialogue, sometimes hollow characters — worked better than in his other books, as it made sense that people would be wandering semi-consciously and the world would be abstract as if shadowed by a great fog.

in the novel, a woman leads a writing group where people with alzheimer’s disease recount their lives. one member wrote, i would say to someone at least he didn’t die with a tube in his stomach or wearing a bag for his waste, and my mom gripped my hand tightly with recognition.

perhaps some will think it’s cruel that this subject matter and these themes have been pervasive during our time together, but, don’t worry, my mom does not require shielding from reality.

as i chose the third book i thought about its predecessors. adding to the weight of my decision was the awareness that this would be the last book she ever heard. believing in the circular nature of everything, i opted for the past, purchasing a copy of the grapes of wrath, because when i began reading in my youth, my mom gave me her collection of sixteen john steinbeck books. she hasn’t read any of them since high school.

though we’re only a few pages in, parallels between her illness and the narrative can be easily drawn. i’ve long said that it’s as if she is disintegrating on the inside, cancer becoming all encompassing, like the dust in the novel, until the living cells become merely an appendage.

when the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards. now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. the people brushed it from their shoulders. little lines of dust lay at the door sills.


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