Ten years and one week ago I was stricken with congestive heart failure during a Broadway preview that took place as a blizzard was getting underway. I managed to sit through the performance, climbed into a cab afterward with the help of a friend and a press agent, went straight home, and spent the rest of the night thinking. Early the next morning I called 911 and was rushed through the falling snow to the nearest hospital. Six days later I returned to my apartment with a half-dozen bottles of pills in my bag, cured and chastened and certain above all things that I wanted to keep on living.
The decade that separates me from that terrifying week has been crowded beyond belief. I published two biographies and wrote three opera libretti. I reviewed a thousand shows for The Wall Street Journal, including the greatest production of a play that I’ve seen in my entire theatergoing career, then wrote one of my own. I went to the MacDowell Colony, served a term on the National Council on the Arts, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Bradley Award. I acquired two dozen pieces of art. I made—and kept—many new friends. Most important of all by far, I entered into what has proved to be the most profoundly fulfilling relationship of my life, my marriage to Mrs. T.
None of these things would have happened if I had died in 2005.
I wrote earlier that year, apropos of a vacation I had taken in the summer, of “the tentacles of dailiness.” The curse of a busy schedule, no matter how much you like what you do, is that it cannot but lure you away from complete awareness of the miracle of life itself. This is something that I feel moved to write about not infrequently, and on two occasions when I have done so in the past, in the spring of 2005 and again last April, I quoted something that John Lukacs said in a memoir called Confessions of an Original Sinner:
The mystery and the reality of our lives consist in the understanding that we are coming from somewhere and that we are going somewhere, and that between these two mysterious phases God allows us to live and to know that we live while we live. Out of what is darkness to our imperfect minds, for sixty or seventy or eighty years we are living in the light, in the open.
I know not whence I came or where I’m bound, but I do try—intermittently and imperfectly—to know that I Iive while I live. What’s more, my brush with death, frightening though it was, has helped me to be “present” in a way I had previously found difficult. I wish I were better at it, but I used to be much worse, and to have gone from one condition to the other is no small thing.
Today I’ll be rehearsing Satchmo at the Waldorf at Chicago’s Court Theatre. As I wrote yesterday, rehearsing a play is an all-consuming process which forces you into the moment. Few things are more exciting. But artists (and I now count myself among their number, if only in a part-time way) too often forget that there is a “real” life beyond the compass of their work, and that it is, or ought to be, more important than the work.
Barry Shabaka Henley, Charles Newell, and I were talking last week about a passage from Satchmo at the Waldorf in which my made-up Louis Armstrong speaks to this problem in words that derive directly from a remark that the real Armstrong once made. After paying tribute to the virtues of Lucille, his fourth and last wife, my Armstrong says:
You know the thing about Lucille? She know the horn come first, ‘fore everything, even her. Cause me and my horn, we the same thing. We know each other. Pick it up, the world’s behind me. Don’t concentrate on nothing but the notes. I love them notes. What you hear coming out a man’s horn, that what he is.
If I were, like Armstrong, a creative genius, I might well feel that way, too. But I’m not, and I understand that my work, as important as it is to me, is not the most important thing in my life.
Yes, my work makes the rest of that life possible. It pays the bills, and does so in a way that I usually find pleasurable, at times ecstatically so. But I don’t live for it. As starry-eyed as it may sound, I now know that I live for love—the love of my wife, family, and friends—and for those passing moments of heightened awareness when I emerge from the cloud of dailiness and behold, if only for a few fleeting seconds, the piercing beauty of the world.
This knowledge is the gift my illness gave to me. I wish I were more consistently deserving of it, and of those who love me. Still, I try always to remember, as Philip Larkin wrote, that what will survive of us is love, and to be as worthy as possible of the inestimable privilege of living “in the light, in the open.” Even on the worst of days, it’s the best place there is.
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To Be Alive!, a film written and directed by Alexander Hammid and Francis Thompson and shown at the Johnson’s Wax Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965. It won an Oscar in 1965. This is a single-screen version of the original film, which was originally shot to be projected on three different screens: