What Would Jimmy Buffett Do (or If I Live to be Ninety)

by Steve

This journal has been my place over these past eight months to reflect, vent, discover and in some cases even procrastinate, all in the worthwhile interest of coming to terms with Lia’s juvenile diabetes. I like to think we are all better because of it, and we are, all of us, better for just keeping our health and the wellbeing of others at the forefront of our attentions. Today though, what I’d like to use this space for is simply a place to pose the title’s stirring question…. with maybe just a tad bit of brooding thrown in for what I hope will be good measure.

We’ll get the brood out of the way to begin with.

There is plenty in my adult life I’m ashamed to admit: little talent for fixing broken things, not flossing daily, deer hunting from my back porch. Two in particular however have been on my mind lately. The first concerns John Steinbeck’s epic novel, East of Eden, and it’s sweeping portrayal of the human struggle between good and evil. The second is of a much more dutiful, personal nature.

One day many years ago, my wife and I were talking and agreed to read each others favorite novels. Hers was East of Eden, and mine, All the Pretty Horses. She, of course, followed through and we shared many wonderful evenings talking about the book and reading passages together of McCarthy’s rich and beautifully rendered prose. His is a stripped-down, vigorous version of storytelling that I greatly respect and strive for in my own fiction writing. My wife knows this. She encourages it, she wants me to be successful.

As for my reading of East of Eden, all I could say was I tried, and I did. But each time I started I failed to get past the novel’s memorable opening descriptions of the Salinas Valley long enough to become involved in the Cane/Abel story, which clearly was penned by an enormously gifted writer, someone with whom my own work could never compete. At that time, reading Steinbeck’s work (or McCarthy’s), reading almost anyone’s work, in fact, while laboring over my own was a recipe for self-rejection. Every word I wrote smelled of garbage or worse, it smelled of someone else’s garbage.

Then I got older and managed a few lucky breaks that enabled me to work harder at my writing until one day I started to think that this whole East of Eden thing might make for an interesting novel. So I tossed it around in my head, made a few notes, some character sketches, and cooked up the plot of this self-absorbed man whose chronically-distraught, novelist wife commits suicide without him having ever read any of her books. I then filed my notes away. When, several months later Lia was diagnosed with diabetes, I came across Franca’s book sitting on my bookshelf and I thought to myself: how pathetic. How goddamn sorry of me.

It is both strange and good how you start thinking about time and how you spend it when faced with life-threatening challenges. Some time ago, after surviving a seaplane crash in the waters off Nantucket, MA, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett wrote in his autobiographical, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, that within days of the crash he sat down with his pain and mortality and composed a list of wishful thinking, which began and/or possibly ended with the wish that the crash had never happened. But it had, and when he stoically accepted the fact that reality “had reared its ugly head, and shit had happened that was not just going to go away,” he was able then to “deal with it” and not stay pinned down with fear, frustration and guilt. For him, that meant hydrotherapy,  getting back on the water and, in this case, coastal bay fly-fishing.

I am an unlearned, land-locked sailor myself, and fly-fisherman un-extraordinaire, so I understand the attraction. I understand too that when your loving wife, who is also your number one fan and proven remedy for whatever ails you, tells you what her favorite book is you had better buck up and read it, not use it as a prop in a novel. What a shame though, it took me so long to get there. By the time early this past spring, when I finally took it down from the shelf once more, the book, or rather my reading of it, had become the butt of a sad little joke shared between the two of us.

We had known of Lia’s diabetes just a couple of short months and were still getting used to the daily multiple injections, counting carbs, combating highs and lows, and the loss of sleep that comes with the constant, ever-present worry of what if something went wrong. I was in much need of therapy and had found some even on water of my own. But a visit to Mother Nature can carry you only so far and reality set in again and I was back defending my daughter’s young life against an invisible enemy.

How would reading a book that did not deal directly with how to fight back help with that? Did I not have enough guilt already? Was this just my shame playing mental squash with me, or was losing myself in someone else’s fantasy just the universe’s way of offering me a sliver of peace in what had otherwise become our new and extreme reality? I tend to think in more down-to-earth terms and if treating diabetes was akin to a war then Franca and I were the generals and though it felt like we were winning, the shock and intensity of those early days was tiring and unshakable — we were tugged in so many directions (and still are on occasion). I was feeling a detachment from Franca and the lives we knew before. What I needed was a fresh healthy dose of something special, of what Buffett might say comes from the bottom of the heart.

So I started East of Eden for the umpteenth time and as I read I felt myself becoming part of a thing that Franca loved and had loved for many, many years before we’d met. The shared experience, not the story, was renewing my strength and reminding me of the joy to our simple togetherness. When this past week I finished the book I knew then why she loved it. It was beautiful, brutal and rousing, all of the things she had promised.

But more important than the work and the harmony it inspired in me is what I hope my reading it says back to her. You’re important to me. You matter.

To be continued….