Beware the Abyss

Beware the Abyss
Written for my Creative Nonfiction Class – Fall 2011
by Thomas Jay Rush

I am standing on the brink of an abyss. I am looking out over a cliff into a beautiful and terrifying landscape. I’m concerned that if I take an initial step into that country I may not return. I have a family who needs me. So, in this essay, I may appear tentative – as if I’m dipping my toe in the water – and I am. But I think it’s the safest way to proceed.
I’ve struggled for two weeks to come up with a topic for this paper. This is my fifth draft. In my first draft, I equated David Foster Wallace’s work to the beef in a stew that has been simmering in my mind for months. A podcast on literary criticism (Fry 2009) played the role of the onions in that stew.

In another draft, I claimed I was of two minds about Wallace – one mind, a twelve year old boy, intimidated by his intellect and the depth of his writing, and the other mind, a fifty-two year old man who has been liberated by the free abandon Wallace exhibits in his work. That fifty-two year old man thought: if David Foster Wallace can do it, I can do it. In that draft of my essay, there was an apocryphal battle between those two voices. The twelve-year-old won.

In another draft, using way too many footnotes, I tried to mimic the “second voice” Wallace refers to in a famous taped interview with Charlie Rose (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I’ve been taught that a writer should avoid cliché. It turns out, using footnotes in an essay about David Foster Wallace is an extreme example of the cliché. Trying to be original, I changed that draft to use an extended forward, which I noticed Wallace had not used. I discovered the reason why he hadn’t – because it’s a bad idea. That draft didn’t work either.

All of those previous drafts of my essay have fallen by the wayside (cliché). They now reside deep inside a folder called “~/Documents/Wayside/Incomplete David Foster Wallace Essays” (cliché defeating humorous aside).

The abyss I referred to earlier is the abyss of David Foster Wallace criticism. I found a website on the Internet called Howling Fantods (Maniatis n.d.). It was built and is maintained by Nick Maniatis, a high-school English teacher in Australia. The site is recognized as “the pre-eminent David Foster Wallace website.” (Crawford n.d.) The community of scholars concerned with David Foster Wallace uses the site as a centralized resource for scholarship on Wallace.

If the worldwide web can be said to be a fabric then this website is definitely a thread. And pulling this thread unravels not just an adult XL sized sweater (a beautiful sweater of many colors, to be sure) but an entire clothing factory of David Foster Wallace criticism. Not just a clothing factory – an entire landscape zoned for heavy industrial.

One particular essay linked from this site is called “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). This article summarizes the state of David Foster Wallace criticism as of 2010. There were two particular passages in that essay that stuck me as particularly relevant.

The first passage I will discuss in detail below. This passage perfectly describes, I think, what David Foster Wallace was trying to do in his work. The passage is very “dense”, by which I mean that it is written with the supposition that the reader is familiar with the ideas of literary criticism. I am going to attempt to “unpack” that dense passage.
In the second passage, Kelly lists a series of writers and philosophers he believes would be helpful in understanding Wallace’s work: George Berkeley, Gilles Deleuze, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, William James, Fredric Jameson, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, Gilbert Ryle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Kelly 2010).

Twelve-year old boy: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of any of these writers.
Fifty-two-year old man: Whoa – I’ve never even heard of three-quarters of these writers.

I take Kelly’s suggestion seriously. I believe him when he says that to understand Wallace’s work one must first understand these writers. Also, I want to understand exactly what that dense passage means. For this reason, I am going to do two things with the remainder of this essay.
First, I will write a brief sketch on each of the writers mentioned in the above list. These are not intended to be authoritative sketches. I am only making this list as a sort of road map, for a time when I might revisit this place. Also, I think these sketches will serve as an exercise in summarizing the lives and work of these writers (as we did in class). As I enter into this landscape that so fascinates and frightens me I need a road map. These sketches will serve as the beginnings of that map.

In the second part of this essay, I will excerpt an extended passage from Kelly’s article and try to explain what I think the passage means. I will “unpack” the text, as Wallace might say (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I think the passage perfectly summarizes what Wallace was trying to do. The passage refers implicitly to work of many of the writers mentioned in the sketches. This is another justification for creating these sketches.

One of the ingredients in the stew from the first draft of my essay, I called it onions, was a podcast I’ve been listening to by Dr. Paul Fry (Fry 2009) from Yale University called “Introduction to Theory of Literature”. The podcast is a series of 26 one-hour long lectures on the history of literary criticism: from the study of hermeneutics or literary interpretation, to gender and identity studies. I started listening to these lectures before having read David Foster Wallace. Each lecture is devoted to an important development in the history of literary criticism – this translates to a discussion on the work of one writer. Many of who, coincidentally, are on the above list. In these lectures I first heard of Derrida, and Gadamer and Wittenberg. I listened to these lectures closely – I grocked very little. Putting these sketches together will help to reinforce what I learned in those podcasts.
Finally, I truly believe that it is impossible, at this stage in my understanding of Wallace’s work, for me to say anything interesting or original about him as a writer. I quite simply do not feel qualified (twelve-year-old boy speaking).

In fine David Foster Wallace style, then, and drawing heavily from Dr. Paul Fry’s lectures, (please be aware that at this point I am now officially “in over my head” and the abyss that I thought I was looking over has suddenly morphed into the edge of a deep swimming pool, and I’m diving in without swimmies), I now present:

SKETCHES OF WRITERS AND PHILOSOPHERS ONE MUST UNDERSTAND IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (DFW).

Note: Most of this information is from a combination of Wikipedia (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia n.d.), Stanford Online Dictionary of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.), and Dr. Fry’s lectures (Fry 2009).

George Berkeley
b. 1685 d. 1753
Also called Bishop Berkley, George Berkley, was an Irish philosopher who lived and worked between 1685 and 1753. He was a proponent of a theory called immaterialism. Which very broadly contends that reality consists of no physical objects. That everything is either “spirit” or “idea,” and that spirit perceives idea and idea is perceived by spirit. His theory may be seen as a reaction to materialism, which was prevalent at the time.

William James
b. 1842 d. 1910
The brother of novelist Henry James, William James studied at the Lawrence Science School at Harvard and the Harvard Medical School. He wrote many influential works of philosophy and influenced many later generations of thinkers including Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
b. 1889 d. 1951
A professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 to 1947, Wittgenstein apparently published very few things while he was alive (a book review, a children’s dictionary, one article and a 75 page book). A book published two years after he died, Philosophical Investigations, was named in 1999 as the most important book in 20th century philosophy.

To poorly summarize my understanding (which is poorly understood to begin with) Wittgenstein believed that most philosophical questions could be made moot if one refused to allow the discussion to leave the “rough ground” of everyday language.

Quoting un-cited text from Wikipedia: He argues philosophical problems are bewitchments that arise from philosophers’ misguided attempts to consider the meaning of words independently of their context, usage, and grammar.

Martin Heidegger
b. 1889 d. 1976
Heidegger says: “In an interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself [“the text” in the words of Dr. Fry], or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being [a challenge to the authority of the author as to interpretation].”

Gilbert Ryle
b. 1900 d. 1976
Born in Brighton, England, Ryle lived and worked his entire life in England. From 1935-1945 he taught and wrote at Cambridge. His theories were along the lines of Wittgenstein, in that he thought of philosophical ideas as something distinct from everyday experience.

A regular person knows experience in the same way a farmer might know the land, in the sense that he toils with it every day. A philosopher knows experience more in the way a mapmaker knows a landscape.

He is one of the “ordinary language philosophers” who believe that some of the difficulties of philosophical questions lie in the loss of being in touch with everyday language.

His most famous book, published in 1949, was called The Concept of Mind.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
b. 1900 d. 2002
Born in Germany in 1900, Hans Gadamer lived to the age of 102. He died in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied under and was influenced by Martin Heidegger. His most important book, published in 1960, was called Truth and Method, in which he argued that people approach the reading of a text with preconceived ideas. As soon as a reader reads one part of a text he forms conclusions on the remainder of the text. He carries this expectation forward as he encounters further parts of the text. Gadamer called this back and forth of expectation and encounter the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer argued that a reader is constantly trying to “merge” his understanding of what the writer is saying with his own prior knowledge. He claimed he was not trying to explain how people “aught to” read a text but how people actually do read a text.

From Gadamer: The reader projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges…because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning.

Paul Ricoeur
b. 1913 d. 2005
As an indication of just how deep this swimming pool is I searched on Google for this writer and found a link to a website called the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford n.d.). There are 2,500 articles listed in their table of contents about every possible philosophical question. I retreated fairly quickly from this website.

Paul Ricoeur was a prominent 20th century philosopher. For more information please see the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Paul de Man
b. 1919 d. 1983
Professor Fry, in his lecture on the work of Paul de Man, with whom he was apparently a contemporary and colleague, says, “…what we…write in our papers, is grounded in theoretical premises which, if we don’t come to terms with them, we will simply naively reproduce…so it is as crucial…to understand theory” (Fry 2009).

This sentiment, that if we don’t understand the ideas upon which we are basing what we write we are simply naively reproducing other people’s work, is exactly the reason why I didn’t feel qualified to allow myself to enter into the land of serious David Foster Wallace criticism and chose instead to write these simple sketches.

Gilles Deleuze
b. 1925 d. 1995
An interesting website, by an artist called Mark Ngui, shows drawings made to try to elucidate the ideas contained in the first two chapters of Deleuze’s book: A Thousand Plateaus. I reproduce one small image from that website here (Ngui n.d.), as another indication (as if it’s needed) of the depth of the DFW swimming pool:

Jacques Derrida
b. 1930 d. 2004
This important writer published over 40 books on diverse topics. He taught at the University of California, Irvine but also held positions at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking of a famous lecture Jacques Derrida gave at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, Professor Fry says “this extraordinary event in the imaginations of people thinking about theory…[brought]…about a…revolution from the preoccupation we had in the mid-sixties with structuralism to the subsequent preoccupation…with deconstruction. (Fry 2009)”

Derrida subsequently published another important essay called “Différance,” which played an important role in the history of literary criticism as well. A very simple description of the ideas in this paper is that all things are defined only in terms of being different from other things, that without being able to specify what a thing is in relation to other things it is not possible to say anything about that thing.

William Wimsatt
b. 1907 d. 1975
Wimsatt was a professor of English at Yale University from 1939 until his death in 1975, 36 years later. He published many papers on literary criticism. One important paper was called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) which was published in The Sewanee Review in 1946.

In that paper, Wimsatt argued, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art!” [My exclamation point]

He also said, later in that article, in what I call his famous twelfth footnote : “the history of words after [his italics] a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant…should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.”

Professor Fry spent a long time on this writer in his lecture. I found the idea of the Intention Fallacy interesting. Wallace mentions the intentional fallacy in his essay “Big Red Son.”

Richard Rorty
b. 1931 d. 2007
A philosopher and writer who taught at Princeton, the University of Virginia and Stanford University, Rorty developed ideas called neopragmatism. His work was based, in part, on the works of Derrida and Heidegger. William James was apparently a pragmatist, so Rorty’s ideas are an incorporation and expansion of some of the pragmatist ideas.

Wikipedia claims that the Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy calls Rorty’s work a “postmodern version of pragmatism.”

Fredric Jameson
b. 1934 d. present
Born in 1934, Jameson was an American literary critic. His most famous work was titled Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1991.

Martha Nussbaum
b. 1947 d. present
A teacher at Harvard and Brown Universities, Martha Nussbaum now teaches philosophy, law, and divinity at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum has “a concern for nut-and-bolts utility” (Boynton n.d.). Which means she wants her philosophies to have a practical effect on the world. She has studied women’s poverty in India. Through her teaching of law she hopes to have a lasting effect on society. She was born and raised in the privileged world of Bryn Mawr, PA and attended the Baldwin School.

Nussbaum was the winner of many awards including being named one of the world’s top 100 intellectuals (how can they possibly tell?) by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In the remainder of this essay I will discuss a passage taken from “David Foster Wallace: the Death of an Author, the Birth of a Discipline” by Adam Kelly (Kelly 2010). Hopefully, some of the ideas in this passage may be better understood given the above sketches.
The article is a summary of David Foster Wallace scholarship. Studies in David Foster Wallace have experienced a huge upsurge since his death, in 2008, by suicide. The article discusses the fact that Wallace was one of the early “internet age” writers. It discusses how Wallace’s fan base actually played an important role in the furtherance of studies about his work. One amateur fan actually went to Amherst College Library and discovered an important early draft of a Wallace short story from the time he was a student. The article then goes on to say:

What became known as “literary theory,” and eventually simply “theory” (see Culler), initially arose as a method of reading “against the grain,” with the aim of exploring a text’s unconscious (whether political, psychological, gendered etc.).

In other words literary critics, at the beginning of the discipline, were trying to understand what the writer was saying by focusing on the actual text. Trying to determine what was hidden in the text’s unconscious. The theories of Sigmund Freud came into play here and some literary critics hung their work on the ideas of Freud’s id, ego, and superego (Fry 2009). One critic, Wimsatt, claimed, in a paper called “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr 1946) that it was not only not possible but not desirable to try to understand the original intention of the author of the piece. He claimed that once a literary artifact is “born” it is no longer the province of the author to determine what it means. He contended that everything a critic needs to make an interpretation is in the text (Fry 2009).

Kelly goes on to say:

But as theory has moved from a position of peripheral challenge to one of conventional centrality in academic discourse, its relation to texts has become newly problematic…

In other words, as literary theory has gained relevancy and become more broadly disseminated, it has encountered new problems, those problems arising…
…both because the epistemological claims of high theory have come under fire from a variety of sources…

…that fire coming from not only other literary critics but increasingly from the authors whose authority is being challenged. He continues…
…and because literary texts have begun to engage critically with their own relation to theoretical formulations [italics mine].

This, I think, is the crux of what David Foster Wallace was doing. He was “engaging critically…[with]…theoretical formulations.” Kelly goes on to say:
Literary critics…have explored this problem in general…but Wallace critics have found it easier to negotiate because of the assumption of genius and encyclopedic knowledge attached to their object of study.

In other words, it is assumed that Wallace was both familiar with and was incorporating in his writing the theories of the literary critics. He understood the game the critics were playing, and he wrote his work not only for the regular reader but also in response to what the critics and literary theorists were saying. And this causes new difficulties for the theorist. The theorist’s object of study is squirming under the microscope.

Further in the piece Kelly says:

Whereas the rise of theory was initially viewed as the conclusive destruction of intention [Kelly is referring to Wimsatt here (Wimsatt Jr 1946)], …here intention is birthed again to co-exist with theory, resulting in fresh forms of critical engagement.

This is why Wallace is an important writer; some have called him the most important writer of his generation. I don’t think Wallace initiated this “rebirth” of intention (based on my limited understanding, the early practitioners of post-modernism may have initiated these “fresh forms of critical engagement,” but Wallace certainly added to it).

Further in the article, Kelly says:

When theory was at its zenith in the academy, what a writer thought he or she was doing in their fiction was not a decisive factor for critics; but when major writers become willing to engage the discourses of theory itself [my italics] – to speak the language of the critic, and challenge that language on its own turf – it is impossible not to take notice.

Wallace was “engaging in the discourse of theory itself.” He was “challenging” the critics on their own terms. The article quotes Wallace as saying:
The contemporary artist can simply no longer afford to regard the work of [literary critics]…as divorced from his own concerns.”

I think Wallace had read all of the theory. I think he had understood all of the theory. I think he incorporated it into his work.
In short, I think he grocked it (see fn 1).

During the last few months I’ve been reading the work of a man named John Barth. (He was the “celery” in the stew.) John Barth had a long career teaching writing at Penn State University, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University. He wrote an important collection of post-modern short stories called “Lost in the Funhouse.” In one essay called “It’s a Short Story” (Barth 1992), Barth says that early in his career, while he was being taught writing at Johns Hopkins, he was having difficulty trying to meet the expectations of his teachers. He describes a time when he finally realized that he could just go off on his own. That he could go off in his own direction. That he could dive into the swimming pool without his swimmies (my words not his). I really loved this idea, this sense of freedom. The writing of David Foster Wallace gives me that same feeling.

This sense of freedom is what has allowed this fifty-two year old man to finally come to the end if this convoluted and probably confusing essay. 

COPY OF EMAIL OFFICIALLY INCLUDED AS PART OF THIS PAPER:

From: Thomas Jay Rush
Subject: End of Year Paper
Date: December 12, 2011 9:50PM EST
To: Anne Kaier

This email is officially part of the paper I handed in earlier this evening. I believe one of the things that David Foster Wallace was trying to do with his many footnotes and asides was to make certain that he was fully communicating everything he needed to say. This is why he goes into such excruciating detail (Wallace, CharlieRose 1997). I totally understand this. I always feel that I’ve left a million things unsaid in my writing.
I started writing one version of my paper wherein I included tons of footnotes but I quickly realized that writing a paper on David Foster Wallace and using footnotes was pure cliché, so I abandoned that paper. I then tried to invent a new method to do the same thing, something that Wallace hadn’t already done. I struck upon the idea of using a “foreword” but after a short time I discovered why David Foster Wallace had not used a foreword in any of his essays – because it’s a stupid idea. So I abandoned that draft as well.

I’m sending this email because this is the method I’ve hit upon to speak with what Wallace called a “second voice.” But now that I’ve come to actually write the email I find I don’t have very much further to say.

So I’ll just say this: Thanks for the fine class. I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I look forward to taking further classes with you in the future. Have a nice holiday. 

Works Cited

Barth, John. “It’s a Short Story.” The Second International Conference on the Short Story – Proceedings (University of Iowa), June 1992.
Crawford, Ashley. “David Foster Wallace: Pale Kingdoms.” 21C Magazine. http://21cmagazine.com/#1379093 (accessed December 8, 2011).
Fry, Dr. Paul H. Introduction to Theory of Literature. Podcast. Yale University. New Haven, CT, Spring 2009.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Trade, 1961.
Kelly, Adam. “David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.” Issue 2. Irish Journal of American Studies. Summer 2010. http://www.ijasonline.com/Adam-Kelly.html (accessed December 6, 2011).
Maniatis, Nick. Edited by Nick Maniatis. http://thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ (accessed December 6, 2011).
Ngui, Mark. Drawings of Thousand Plateaus. http://bumblenut.com/drawing/art /plateaus/index.shtml (accessed December 12, 2012).
Wallace, David Foster, interview by Charlie Rose. An Interview with David Foster Wallace. New York, New York, (March 27, 1997).
—. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2007.
—. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993).
Who Needs Philosophy?: A profile of Martha Nussbaum. http://www.robertboynton.com/ articleDisplay.php?article_id=55 (accessed December 10, 2011).
Wimsatt Jr, M. C. Beardsley and W. K. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review (Johns Hopkins University Press) 54, no. 3 (July 1946).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Metaphysics Research Lab , Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/ (accessed 12 5, 2011).
Wikipeida. http://www.wikipedia.org.

Watch the Glue

Brooke, my brother and the general contractor for a huge renovation I made to my house in 2006, and I were reviewing the design of a bookcase in the basement of my house.  Jerry, one of Brooke’s workers, had already spread some glue on a peice of plywood on the floor where the bookcase was going to be built.  Brooke and I were both, in turn, waving our arms and saying things like “No – it should go here”, or “Yes – that is what I mean”.

The entire time we were there one of us would move towards the glue on the floor and the other one would put his arm up, pulling the first back away from the glue, saying “Watch the glue”.

Our conversation when something like this: “I think the bookcase should be wider”, “Watch out!”, “I saw the glue – stop”, “No, I think it should be taller”, “Watch the glue”, “I saw it.”.

After about three or four such exchanges we realized what we were doing and started laughing.  I said that Jerry, who was standing off to the side and watching us, shaking his head, would probably walk over and show us what he thought about the bookcase and step right in the glue.

It was pretty funny.  We finally agreed on a design for the bookcase and Jerry bent his head to the task again and finished contact cementing the plywood.  Contact cement must ‘set-up’ for ten minutes before you can use it.

After about 9 minutes Don Rush, the painter, came down into the basement.  I innocently asked him what he thought about the bookcase…..

The Birth of Emily

October 5, 1996

…..for many weeks before the birth

Jay fears that Meriam will yell at him and call him an asshole during the delivery….like in the movies.

2:20 PM – Thursday Oct 3, 1996

Meriam tells a co-worker that she thinks she is going to have the baby soon.

3:10 PM

Meriam has her regularly scheduled doctor’s visit to check on the status of her pregnancy.  Her due date is still twelve days away; Oct. 15th.  The doctor performs an internal and informs Meriam that the baby may be breach.  The doctor wants Meriam to make sure she informs the attending physician if she goes into labor so that they can do an ultrasound to find out if the baby is indeed breach.  If the baby is breach the delivery may have to be done cesarean.

Meriam tells Jay the news.  Jay is concerned but ignorant.

…that night

Jay goes out with his friend Tim Murphy to dinner.  Meriam watches Must-See-TV.

2:50 AM – Friday Oct 4, 1996

Contraction numero-uno!  A mild contraction lasting about 20-30 seconds.  Meriam wakes up.  Goes back to sleep.

3:10 AM

Contraction numero-dos!  Another mild contraction.  Meriam wakes up.  Is this it?

3:45 AM

The third contraction this hour.  Meriam wakes Jay.  Jay is concerned but ignorant.  This is the beginning of a 23 hour ordeal.  From now until the baby is delivered Meriam does not miss a contraction.  In the next hour or so the contractions go from 3 an hour to 12 an hour (or one every five minutes).  The contractions start becoming more pronounced.  Jay groggily asks what date it is.  Is today the fourth?  Was yesterday the fourth?  Oh my God. Please let today be the fourth.

5:30 AM

Contractions have been coming at regular five minute intervals for about an hour.  Jay feels that we should call the Doctor just to be safe.  Wants to err on the side of conservatism because of the potential for breach birth.  We call the Doctor.

5:40 AM

Doctor calls back, asks a bunch of questions.  We tell him that we think the baby is breach and ask if we can come into the hospital to get the ultrasound.  He says we should come in.

6:00 AM

We arrive at the hospital and are asked to wait in the pre-admittance room.  We wait about five minutes and a nurse comes in and straps Meriam to a fetal monitor.   The monitor shows that the baby’s heart beat is strong and steady at about 170 beats per minute.  The sound of the heart is something that we will become very accustomed to.  Its a good sound. 

We wait about ten more minutes and Doctor Bruce Laminica comes in.  He is the doctor on call.  He does the ultrasound and discovers that the baby’s head is in exactly the right position – down.  Jay looks over the doctor’s shoulder and see what he thinks is a penis (later to be proven wrong – the nurse thinks it was probably the umbilical cord).  Jay thinks he’s having a son.  He doesn’t tell Meriam so as not to ruin the surprise.   The doctor does an internal and pronounces Meriam 1.5 cm dilated (the ultimate goal is 10 cm).  He tells us not to worry about the breach birth but that we should go home and call back when the contractions become much stronger and more frequent.  Meriam and Jay are both disappointed, at least Jay is.  He had been thinking on the way up to the hospital “This ain’t so bad”.  Little did he realize that Meriam was only just beginning.

 6:30 AM

 They arrive back home from the hospital.  Meriam walks the newly painted and wallpapered hallways for the next seven and half hours.

 8:30 AM

 Jay calls Richard, letting him know that Meriam has probably gone into labor.  Richard tells Jay to take the day off.

10:30 AM

Jay calls his mom letting her know what’s happening.  He tells his mom that he wants more than anything for the baby (Jay thinks baby boy) to be born today.  It would be a living memorial to his brother Jimmy who was killed in a car accident ten years and four days ago.  The fourth of October is Jimmy’s birthday.  His mother cried.  The baby boy’s name would have been Alexander James.  Jay thought it would be fitting.

2:00 PM

Meriam has been contracting (and watching TV – Regis and Cathy Lee) for six or seven hours.  She can’t lay down.  The one time she tried she threw up on Jay’s pillow and Jay’s side of the bed.  Jay cleaned it up without even complaining.  The most poignant demonstration of his love in seven years since he didn’t get upset with her when she got his car stolen.  Meriam calls the doctor hoping he will tell her to come to the hospital.  The nurse asks if Meriam can walk while she’s having a contraction.  Meriam says yes.  Nurse says “Your probably not ready yet, but you can come in if you want”.  We go to the hospital.

2:30 PM

After waiting in the pre-admittance room again with the heart monitor on (still pumping!)  Doctor Zamora comes in.  Doctor Zamora is rough-edged.  Probably about 45 years old.  He has a joking manner but his jokes are harsh.  If you ask a stupid question he gives a smart-aleck answer.  I felt (and I think Meriam agreed) that he was hard to take at first, but over the next twelve hours we found him to be a nice caring person.  He was very supportive to Meriam in the moment of truth when the baby was coming out.  Ultimatly,  that was all that mattered. 

Doctor Zamora did his first of many internals that day.  He pronounces Meriam 1.5 cm dilated.  Dissapointment! At least that’s what Jay felt.  He had been thinking on the way up to the hospital “This ain’t so bad”.  We packed our bags and took the ten minute trip back home for the second time this glorious day.  The doctor told us to come back around 5:30 PM.

6:00 PM

Meriam has been contracting all day.  She is about at the end of her rope.  We decide to go back to the hospital.  Jay has to finish putting together the bassinet before they leave.

6:30 PM

3 cm.  The doctor tells us to either go back home or walk the halls of the Danbury hospital for an hour and then come back.  We decide to walk the halls, having walked the halls at home enough for one day.  We find a quiet unused area of the hospital with a small waiting room with a TV.   Jay watches baseball as Meriam paces, contracts and lets the baby drop down into place.  Emily waits patiently, her heart beating strongly.

7:30 – 8:30 PM

We return to the labour and delivery area of the hospital.  We are escorted into a large birthing room.  Meriam is put into bed.  Her contractions have become very strong.  They are about three to four minutes apart lasting almost a minute.  Our nurse’s name is Mary Ellen.  She is very kind.  Probably about thirty years old.  She helps Meriam into bed and gets an IV started.  She says that the IV has to be administered before they can give Meriam any pain medicine.  Doctor Zamora (or as I have started calling him Doctor Internal) comes in and announces 4 cm and the baby is at a -2 station.  This means that the baby’s head has not moved all the way down into it’s proper position.  The doctor expresses a little bit of concern for the position of the baby, saying that about 20% of baby’s who are in a similar position need to be taken cesarean. 

The doctor says that he will administer an epidoral when Meriam is 5 cm dilated.  The nurse says that by the time the IV is completed Meriam should be ready.  Jay tries to help Meriam through her contractions as best he can (which involves repeatedly saying “It will be OK.  It’s almost over” and holding her arm).  Meriam is screaming.  Meriam is pleading for it to end.  The nurse is very kind. 

Emily is expressing herself wonderfully with the help of the fetal monitor.  Her heartbeat is staying pretty steady through the contractions which the nurse tells us is a sign that she has not really moved into the birth canal yet.  But everything is going fine.

9:00 PM

Meriam is at the absolute peak of her pain.  Doctor Internal announce 6 cm.  It’s time to administer the pain medication.  Meriam audibly smiles.  The doctor has Meriam role over on her side and sticks a catheter into her spine.  He then runs a tube up over her shoulder.  At the end of this tube is a place for him to insert the medicine.  Meriam’s contractions are frequent, long and powerful.  She is very tired.  Crying for relief.  The doctor administers the epidoral and within minutes Meriam has stopped feeling the contraction except for a slight pressure.  She is very pleased. 

I am concerned that the epidoral will slow the labor and that we will miss 12:00.  Meriam’s pain disappears.  Looking at the monitor it appears that the strength and frequency of the contractions have subsided, but the nurse says otherwise.  Meriam is able to rest a little bit.  She does not like the feeling that the epidoral is giving her as far as her legs are concerned.  She can’t feel her legs.  She has a slight fear that she won’t be able to move them again, but at least the pain is gone.  Meriam lays quietly for the first time in 17 hours.  Jay read a book.

10:15 PM

Meriam asks for and receives another dose of medicine.  7 cm. 

11:00 PM

Mary Ellen (the nurse) ends her shift.  She is replaced with another nurse called Marie.

11:30 PM

Meriam asks for and receives another dose of medicine. 8 cm on one side, 7 on the other?  Is that what I heard the doctor say?  It didn’t make much sense to me but then I’ve never really looked all that closely. 

I can tell that Emily is going to be cute just from her heart beat.  It’s got a cute rhythm. 

Marie, the new nurse, is just as kind and helpful as the previous nurse.  She tells us that once we start pushing we might be pushing for two or three hours.

12:00 PM  – Saturday Oct 5, 1996

Chance for a memorial passes.  Not a problem.  Wish it could have happened but doesn’t matter.

12:55 PM

Doctor Internal announces that Meriam is at 10 cm.  It’s time to push.  Meriam asks for and is denied another dose of medicine.  She is starting to feel the contractions again.  Jay is beside Meriam’s bed, holding her arm and the back of her neck.  The nurse instructs Meriam to pull her legs apart at the knees to open her vagina as wide as possible and push down into her rectum. 

The doctor comes in for the first few pushes and instructs Meriam on how to do it correctly.  Meriam pushes.  It smells funny. The nurse says “Push, push, push, push, push, push, push.”  The first five or six pushes (about three or four minutes apart) are probably not all that effective.  Meriam has to learn how to push.  She is a quick study.

1:15 PM

Meriam is really getting the hang of pushing.  She says it is very painful but it’s infinitely better than a contraction without pushing.  I can see that something is happening because the baby’s heart beat goes down almost to nothing when Meriam is pushing.  I can also start to see that the area just above Meriam’s pubic hair is starting to rise up.  Before this time this area was flat.  Her stomach was puffed out about fifteen inches in front of her but this area was flat.  I could see that something was changing.

In the only incident of Meriam expressing anger at Jay she says “Do you mind you asshole!  I’m busting my butt and your falling asleep.”  This after Jay yawns in her face during a particularly strong contraction.  

1:50 PM

The nurse says that Meriam is doing very well.  She is now at about a +2 station which means the baby has moved very well down the birth canal.  I can see that the area above Meriam’s public hair is starting to rise up.  Meriam is really pushing hard.  She is getting four and sometimes five pushes for each contraction.  The nurse says this is really great.  The nurse shows me the top of Emily’s head.  I cried.

2:35 PM

Doctor Zamora says “I think we can have this baby out in two or three more pushes”.  A couple of other nurses and Doctor Zamora’s assistant come into the room.  A large machine is rolled out of a closet.  Doctor Zamora starts to put on his surgical scrubs and surgical gloves.  He doesn’t quite finish.

2:38 PM

Meriam is getting a contraction.  The baby’s heart stops.  The top of the baby’s head starts coming out.  The nurse is trying to help the doctor get his gown and gloves on.  The top of the baby’s head is sticking out of Meriam by two or three inches.  It’s the size and shape of a child’s toy football.  It’s all red and blue.

The doctor pulls on the baby’s head and then says “The head is born”.  I’m blubber “Oh my God”.  Meriam is screaming “Get it out! Get it out!”.   The doctor twists the baby’s head to see it’s face and uses a syringe to clean out it’s nose and mouth.  This baby is not breathing.  Its quiet except for Meriam screaming, but there doesn’t seem to be any life in the baby.  The doctor reaches in and pushes the baby’s shoulders together.

2:42 PM

Plop!  Out pops the whole baby.  Her skin is an ugly worm-like white.  They clamp off the cord.  The assistant hands me a scissors to cut the cord.  It takes a few second to register and then I say “No. No.”.  The assistant cuts the cord.  Meriam is crying.  The baby is starting to change color to red.  Nurse says “It’s a girl”.  I thought it was a boy.  More than OK.  I wanted a girl anyway.

The rest of that night….

A lot of sewing and blood and afterbirth and measurements and baths and diapers and very little sleep.  We are moved over into our room about 5:30 AM.  Meriam is doing fine.  The baby is doing fine.  The cot I get to sleep on is not.

The next two days….

The following people came to visit (in order of appearance): Richard, Laura, Jack, Sarah, Mary, Karl, Peter, Megan, Iraj (Bubba), Lucik, Grammy and Grandpa.  Meriam is doing very good.  Not feeling a lot of pain.  Tired.  Thinner.  Baby is doing very well.  Everything is checking out fine.

Every single person who has seen her says “She’s very cute”.  Meriam and I determine that even discounting for the fact that we are her parents it’s true.  One nurse sees her and does not remark on her cuteness.  Jay attributes this failure to some personal family problem in the nurse’s life.  Hospital food is really bad.  We order out pizza.  Baby doesn’t like pizza.  Eats colostrum instead.  Seems satisfied.  Jay prays that she stays that way forever.

My Brother’s Death

His death occurred at 1:37am. Saturday morning. September 27, 1986. He was seven days short of his twenty fourth birthday.

The last time I had seen my brother was around 7:30pm the night before when we discussed our plans for the weekend. Jimmy said he was going out with some friends. I planned to go down to Brooke’s house to visit with he and his wife. The next morning we were all going to help my other brother, Lee, with parking cars at the annual Quakertown airport hot air balloon festival. We were supposed to be at Lee’s at 6:30am, Saturday.

I told Jimmy not to stay out too late. He told me to shut up and mind my own business. We ate supper and Jimmy got ready to go out. I walked down to Brooke’s house and stayed there about two or three hours. It was probably around 10:30pm when I got home. Jimmy was not home yet. I got ready and went upstairs to bed, leaving the lamp on in the living room so Jimmy could see what he was doing when he got home. I didn’t go to sleep right away.

I laid awake reading a book called “Death of a Salesman”. I was awake longer than usual that night because I was getting very near the end of the book and I wanted to finish it. I thought it was an excellent book; very well written. I finished the book around 1:00am. As I shut off the light and rolled over to fall asleep I thought I heard a car door slam. I thought he was home. I remember thinking it was odd that I didn’t hear him climb the stairs, but I fell asleep.

The next morning my alarm sounded at 6:00am sharp. I did not want to get up. I felt kind of like shit but I got up anyway and got a shower. Something was strange. Jimmy’s bed hadn’t been slept in. I didn’t think it about it too much. I thought maybe he slept on the couch so I proceeded to get my shower. I got dressed and went downstairs to wake up Jimmy, but all I found downstairs was the lamp I had left burning the night before. Now I started to think this was a little strange.

Jimmy was not the type to shirk responsibility. If he had to be somewhere he was usually there. I was a little annoyed so I gave his friend Jim Tice a call to see what was going on. I didn’t really want to go park cards either, and I’d be damned if I was going to go if he wasn’t. There was no answer at Jim Tice’s. I cursed him and went up to Lee’s, figuring I’d try again from up there.

I got up to Lee’s around 6:30am. Lee asked me where Jimmy was and I said I didn’t know, but that I thought he was at Jim Tice’s. Lee was not terribly happy about this. I suppose he didn’t want to park cars either. We went into Lee’s house to get some coffee while we waited for some other people who were supposed to come. Around 6:45am we got a call from Feryl Myers, our friend who was going to help also. He was at my parent’s house where I has just left. Apparently Jimmy had arranged to have Feryl pick him up.

When Feryl arrived at our house there was a cop car in our lane. It seems the cops had been trying to get a hold of someone in our house since 2:30am. They said they had called about ten times. They even sent out a car to see if anyone was at home. I hadn’t heard them. Apparently, I’m a very heavy sleeper. Now things were starting to get really weird.

I had woken up, gotten a shower and gotten out of the house in between calls from the police. Feryl told Lee over the phone that he didn’t know what it was all about but that we were supposed to call the Doylestown Hospital about Jimmy. He had been in an accident. Lee told me to go pick up Feryl at my parents house and bring him back to Perkasie, even though Feryl had a car, and it was totally out of the way. I did this as Lee called the hospital.

When Feryl and I returned to Lee’s we found that another friend, Mary Keller, had arrived. I guess there were a lot of cars to park. Lee invited everyone he knew. Lee had called the hospital. They hadn’t told him anything, only that he should come there as soon as possible. We called Brooke and Robin and told them to meet us at the hospital.

Feryl and I went in my car, while Lee, Kathy and Mary went in Lee’s. I remember thinking on the way down what a pain in the ass this was. My parents were on vacation in Louisiana, and weren’t expected home for at least another week. I kept thinking that I would have to visit Jimmy in the hospital. I hate hospitals.

We arrived at the hospital between 7:10am and 7:15am. We searched around for where we were supposed to go until we found the emergency room entrance. There was a little room just off of the emergency room into which we were led. There was a policeman around age 50 sitting behind a desk. Brooke and Robin were already in the room. They were holding each other. They did not look happy. I don’t remember what happened next.

I remember thinking to myself that everybody had someone else to hug. Lee had Kathy. Brooke had Robin. I guess I could have had Feryl but I settled for Mary. She was a big help. She loves our family very much. We’ve known her since we were kids. She was one of my sister’s best friends and our moms were best friends when they were girls. We sat in that room forever while the policeman took down some crap information and tried to help us decide what to do next. Then we were taken into another room where a “crisis” councilor was. He was supposed to ease our pain. What an asshole! I guess I shouldn’t say that. He was only trying to do his job, and he really did sound concerned, but he was still a dick. We sat in that room for forever again and Mary said a prayer and hugged everybody. We didn’t know what to do.

We finally decided that Brooke, Robin and Lee’s wife Kathy should go to Becky and Neal’s because we didn’t think we should tell them such bad news over the phone. I don’t know what went on out there. Lee, Mary and I were going to go to Uncle Feryl’s house. I don’t remember why. I forget what happened to Feryl Myers.

We went to my Uncle Feryl’s. I stayed in the car, Lee and Mary went inside. In a few moments, I heard the strangest sound I ever heard in my life. Uncle Feryl was wailing. Wailing; that’s the only word for it. It sounded like a out loud laugh. I thought I was losing it. I stayed out in the car for a while until Lee came out and said that he and Uncle Feryl were going to my Aunt Dolly’s to see if they could get a hold of my parents. I was supposed to stay at Uncle Feryl’s until they got back. I was really not into that so I walked home. It’s only about a mile. When I got home I was soooooo lonely and sad that I didn’t know what to do.

I went up in my bedroom and I CRANKED some John Prine music. John Prine’s songs are some of the few songs that I can play along with on my guitar. I must have had been playing it at about 9000 decibels. I played the same songs six times. When I got tired of this I gave my old girlfriend a call. I hadn’t seen her in about two months, but I didn’t know what else to do. She got there about a half an hour later. I guess Lee and Mary had gotten home by then. I cant remember. Kim, my old girlfriend, wasn’t much help. I think she cried more than I did. After a short time, people started coming. I couldn’t ever begin to list them all. I just know that for the next three days there were at least ten people in our house at all times. It was nuts. It was kind of fun; not a whole lot of fun, but kind of.

I forget whose idea it was, but about six of us piled into my cousin’s van to go pick up my mother and father at the airport. That sucked. We drove all the way to the airport, about an hour and a half drive, and those fucking people in that van did not shut up for one second. They talked about everything single subject under the sun. I was going crazy. I just wanted them to shut up. I couldn’t stand it. I just laid in the back seat trying to fall asleep, but I couldn’t. When we got to the airport we were early, so I had to sit and listen to people talking some more. I couldn’t wait till that plane got there. When it did my mom and dad were the last one’s off the plane.

I saw lots of people meeting their loved ones that they hadn’t seen in years. Hugging and kissing each other while I waited to see the faces of my parents. This is another part I don’t remember too well, but I remember that my father was not talkative (I liked that) and my mother was very upset. My father didn’t talk for about two weeks. My mother was amazing, very upset but also very strong.

We got back in the van and drove home. Again the people in the van wouldn’t shut up. We got home and the rest of the day, still Saturday, is sort of a blur. I went up to my room and CRANKED some more music. A little less than 9000 decibels this time; we had company after all. But that helped.

I remember that Brooke came up to ask me to come downstairs and be with him. He said he needed me. I told him that I didn’t have anything to give him. He walked away angry or hurt or disappointed or something. The hours passed. There was a lot of food. I wasn’t into it. I guess I must have gone to bed.

That whole day it was cloudy, it looked like it wanted to rain. The next morning when I woke up it was a beautiful day. The first thing I heard was a bird singing. The whole day there was a million people at my house. It was decided that my cousin David would fly down to Louisiana to pick up my parents car. He wouldn’t even let my dad pay for his plane ticket. He’s great. He told me he loved that day. Him telling me that probably meant as much to me as anything anyone has ever said to me.

It’s kind of funny the way people react in a situation like a death of someone close. They all want to do anything they can to help. It seemed to me that the ones who were the most afraid of death themselves, are the ones who are the most eager to help. I think that by helping they think that it won’t hurt as much. One thing I learned is that it hurts no matter what you do. Another thing I learned is that there are a lot of people in this world that really love me and my family. I learned how important those people are to me. I still take them for granted, but at least I know that they are important.

Later that second day, Sunday, I wrote the poem , or whatever it is, on the following page. My brother Lee, against my request, read it at his funeral.

Yesterday was Jimmy’s day.
The world knew this.
It cried all day.
It knew that something was terribly wrong.
The sun didn’t even show it’s face.

But this morning when i awoke in knew today was our day.
The first thing i heard was a bird singing.
It was a beautiful song, a song filled with hope.
And it woke up the singer in me that was sleeping
for a very long time.

Today the sun still won’t show it’s face.
The clouds still cover the sky.
Tomorrow the sun will shine; and i’ll be glad it does.
but some days the clouds will return.
I don’t know if they will be stormy or calm
but then i never knew what Jimmy was going to be either.
The clouds are Jimmy’s. They always will be.

But the birds are ours, the birds are for the living
and the living have to start singing again.
It’s just that now our song has to be better.
It has to be sung louder and with more feeling, because
one of our best singers isn’t here to help us anymore.

Blooming Glen, PA — Sometime in late 1986 or early 1987