At midday last Wednesday I pulled the plug on my computer, packed an overnight bag, picked up a Zipcar from the garage around the corner, and hit the road. I’d been feeling fine ever since I left the hospital the week before Christmas, but it struck me that it was time to take a break from my daily rounds, and a look at the calendar told me that I could wedge a quick holiday in between my weekly Wall Street Journal deadlines and last Friday’s press preview of The Pajama Game. Having fallen in love with the ocean in the middle of my life, I decided to take a friend to Cape May, an island town at the southern tip of New Jersey, three hours south of Manhattan. It’s mostly shuttered in the off season, but a few inns and restaurants stay open for business the year round, and of course the Atlantic Ocean never closes.
As always, the tentacles of everydayness were slow to let me go. I spent most of Wednesday morning exchanging e-mails with my editors at the Journal, who were putting my Saturday column to bed and had a basketful of last-minute queries. It wasn’t until noon that was I able to make my getaway. No matter: I’d shed my cares by the time I crossed the George Washington Bridge, fired up the satellite radio in my rented car, and headed for the Garden State Parkway.
Cape May is an odd and charming place, a nineteenth-century seaside resort whose gingerbready Victorian summer homes survived a long stretch of disrepair and have now been restored to their former splendor. Rhythm of the Sea, the bed-and-breakfast at which my friend and I stayed, is a 1915 cottage located directly across the street from the ocean. The easygoing owners, Robyn and Wolfgang Wendt, have painstakingly redecorated the entire house in arts-and-crafts style. Yet it doesn’t feel at all like a museum, in part because the Wendts go well out of their way to make their guests comfortable. We felt at home the moment we walked through the door, and the three superlative meals we ate in the blue-walled dining room added immeasurably to our delight.
As I expected, there wasn’t much to do on Cape May in February, which suited me fine: I walked on the beach, drove around the island, sat by the living-room fire and read books I wasn’t reviewing, and slept deeply and well in my Stickley bed. None of this is to say that my holiday was untroubled, however. For the most part I was as happy as could be, but there’s something about a deserted shore in wintertime that has a way of putting night thoughts into the head of a middle-aged man–especially after he’s had a brush with death.
I’d brought Philip Larkin’s Further Requirements with me, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself recalling unsettling snatches of poetry as I gazed across the street at the moonlit waves. First Keats:
…then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
Then Matthew Arnold:
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
And then, no doubt inevitably, Aubade, the terrible poem Larkin wrote toward the end of his life after suffering a sleepless night during which he imagined his own death:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear–no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Most people touched by modernity, whatever their religious convictions, tremble from time to time at the imagined prospect of “nothing to think with,/Nothing to love or link with.” Larkin himself was terrified by the thought of his own death, and made no secret of the fact. Six years after writing “Aubade,” he reviewed D.J. Enright’s Oxford Book of Death, and you can smell the fear in every sentence:
For in the last analysis the intrusion of death into our lives is so ruthless, so irreversible, so rarely unaccompanied by pain, terror and remorse, that to “anthologize” it, however calmly, quizzically and compassionately, sems at best irrelevant, at worst an error of taste. “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily,” says La Rochefoucauld, and by their nature anthologies do not look steadily, nor do they explain or console: they entertain. And death is not entertaining. The chapter on “Care of the Dying” in any nursing manual makes this point more clearly.
Such bleak thoughts come no less naturally to a man who, like me, was carried down the stairs of his apartment house not long ago and carted away in a waiting ambulance to the nearest hospital, there to spend a nervous week dining on bland, unsalted food and spying the fear in the smiling eyes of the friends at his bedside.
So yes, I trembled–but not for long. Mostly I warmed myself beside the fire and ate the Wendts’ lovely meals and thought about how much I love my life, reflecting only occasionally on the blank face of the other side of the coin. It is, after all, as invisible to us as the far side of the cold white moon that shone upon the never-ceasing ocean waves, which will still be breaking on the beach at Cape May long after I am dead and gone to whatever unknowable fate awaits us all. What is visible, and therefore real, is the world that has been so good to me, and whose pleasures I now relish more fully and intensely than ever before: a roaring fire, a well-made soup, the smell of salt air on a cold February night, the company of an understanding friend. Could it be that my night thoughts were the pinch of seasoning that brought out the savor in these simple things, and made me realize anew how very much they mean?
On the way home I tuned in Frank’s Place on the satellite radio. Ella, Sarah, Peggy…and then, without warning, a voice I once knew as well as my own, singing a song I love:
You’re clear out of this world.
When I’m looking at you
I hear, out of this world,
The music that no mortal ever knew….
After waiting so long for the right time,
After reaching so long for a star,
All at once, from the long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are.
Ten years ago I sat in the control room of a recording studio and watched my friend Nancy LaMott lay down the vocal track to that song. A few months later, not long after we sat together in her living room and listened to the finished album that contained her performance of “Out of This World,” she was dead.
For a long time afterward I couldn’t listen to Nancy’s singing without crying. Now I listened, dry-eyed but still moved, and found myself thinking of yet another Larkin poem:
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
No sooner did I return home than I turned on my computer and plugged myself back into the waiting world. I checked my e-mail and found one hundred and eighty messages awaiting me. Sighing deeply, I looked up at the wall above my desk, high on which hangs a lithograph by Fairfield Porter called Ocean I. That, too, survives of him, as Nancy’s albums survive of her.
What will survive of me? Not my journalism, surely: we who write for newspapers know all too well how ephemeral our work is. Possibly one or two of my books will be read a decade from now, or even a half-century. Or not: it hardly matters in the end. Far better, I suspect, to be survived by love, whose ripples spread out unpredictably and miraculously across the ocean of life, breaking in time on beaches we will never see, there to be seen by onlookers who never knew us, and to comfort them as we in our turn have been comforted.
* * *
UPDATE, 2010: The “understanding friend” whom I took to Cape May was Hilary Dyson, the “Mrs. T” of this blog, who would later become Hilary Teachout. It was our first overnight trip together.