Featured in Colorado Review
Swimming with OliverNonfiction
Published Spring 2016
After a swim, that’s when I miss him most. In November, when the water temperature is in the sixties, when I’ve toweled off and put on my bathrobe and started up the leaf-strewn lawn from the dock to my house, that’s when I think: I have to phone Oliver and tell him what a glorious swim I just had. I’d often call him on weekday mornings after a swim.
Then I remember. I can’t phone Oliver. Oliver’s dead.
We met in the winter of 1986, at Simon & Schuster, his publisher, soon after The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat came out. I was still living in New York back then and had been assigned to interview him for a magazine. The office was at Rockefeller Center. On the street corner a vendor was selling hot chocolate from a cart. Having somehow intuited my subject’s love of hot chocolate, I bought two cups and rode the elevator with them in a paper bag.
They’d set us up in a conference room. I found him there, a big shy Santa in a white physician’s coat with a lush salt-and-pepper beard. He sat there with his knees spread apart, gripping them with his big hands, leaning forward into my questions.
“Would you say all people exist on a continuum of pathologies?”
“Ahm . . . yes, I suppose you could say that.”
“When you talk to people, are you constantly aware of their tics?”
“If you’re wondering if you’re being diagnosed, the answer is no.”
Having drained the liquid part of his hot chocolate, twirling a finger over the sediment at the bottom of his cup, with his characteristic stutter, he said, “I’m—I’m—I’m . . . tempted to—to—to . . .”
“Go for it!” I urged.
In tandem we licked hot chocolate sediment from our fingers.
Ten years later, I read “Water Babies,” his essay in the New Yorker about his passion for swimming. A swimmer myself, I thought: how fun it would be to swim with Dr. Sacks. I dashed off a letter—third item down on my bucket list of things to do before I died: “Swim with Oliver Sacks.”
His reply came a few days later, handwritten in green Flair on cream stationery with a cephalopod logo. The writing was barely legible. He’d be delighted to swim with me.
In the gloom of morning he calls from his car phone. “Olivah heah. Meet me on the Kappock Street ramp in five minutes?” With my gym bag holding my Speedo, goggles, cap, and towel, I hurry out of my Bronx apartment building, up the steep hill, and under the highway overpass slathered with graffiti. The sun has just broken over building tops.
He stands smiling next to his pulled-over Lexus.
“I’m pathologically early,” he says.
Mozart on the car stereo. Oliver sipping from a water bottle, discussing his book-in-progress, about his childhood embrace of metals, chemicals, and minerals. We take the Saw Mill River Parkway toward Connecticut.
Does this man know, has he any idea, what it means for me to sit with him in his car like this, guiding him toward my favorite lake for a swim? I remember those daydreams I had when I was a kid of the Beatles coming over for dinner.
The lake is on the former summer estate of a robber baron, now a state park. At its center: a small island with the remains of a decorative stone lighthouse. Swimming is prohibited. We have to scramble up some rocks and bushwhack our way to the swimming hole. If the ranger comes by in his truck, we’ll be hidden from view.
We undress and put on our Speedos. Since our first meeting Oliver’s trimmed down. A swimmer’s body: top-heavy, barrel-chested, and covered with gray fur, like a bear.
We swim twice to the stone lighthouse and back. Afterward we lie on a smooth rock, sunning ourselves. Bird songs. The wind whispering through tree branches.
“A beautiful day,” I remark.
“We live on a very nice planet,” says Oliver. “It will be a pity if we destroy it.”
We drove to my parents’ house. By then my father had suffered the first of a series of strokes that left him unable to recognize people and things, including me. He’d been an inventor. While he sat in his chair in the living room, I took Oliver to see his laboratory at the base of our driveway. Papa’s last project was a revolutionary transformer using spools of flat, lasagna-like copper instead of regular round wire for the windings. Oliver, lover of metals, was drawn instantly to a heap of copper scraps. He asked if he could take one.
“Yeah, by all means. Papa would be pleased.”
As we left the laboratory, I explained how, walking up the driveway as a boy, I’d pass by the window and see my father at work inside, always with a big smile on his face.
“An inwardly directed man,” said Oliver.
For the next fifteen years, Oliver and I swam together. In pools, lakes, rivers, ponds, creeks, estuaries, oceans. Twice we swam across the Hudson River, jellyfish and other matter oozing between our fingers. Though we timed our swims to fit the twenty-minute slack tide window, the second time we still got caught and swept downstream by the current. In torn Speedos we scrambled up the rocks, laughing.
Like my father, Oliver had a British accent, though his was the real thing, while my father’s was something of an invention. Though both men intimidated me with their genius, Oliver was much more forgiving of my intellectual laziness and ignorance.
After swimming, we would often stroll in the Bronx Botanical Garden. These strolls functioned as a kind of scratchpad on which Oliver worked out topics relevant to his latest work-in-progress. My role was mainly that of an ideal listener. Every so often I’d throw a question his way, or supply a useful analogy. But mostly I listened.
Usually our walks took the same path, beginning with a tour of the Members Only garden, with its varieties of wildflowers, then through the fern section, then into the woods, until we found ourselves walking along the Bronx River toward the Snuff Mill, stopping at a waterfall to watch the water cascade in a white, curtain-like sheet.
One day we discuss memory. Oliver distinguishes between two types of memory: procedural and episodic. Procedural memory applies to things we do without having to “remember” or even to think about them.
“The test for procedural memory is if you can do something else at the same time,” says Oliver. “Procedural memory is what we use when humming a symphony or reciting Shakespeare.”
“Or swimming,” I say.
“Yes,” says Oliver. “Or swimming.”
Episodic memory is more complicated. “With episodic memories,” Oliver explains, “the individual parts are connected or flow into each other like the links of a chain—though ‘flow’ and ‘chain’ don’t fit very well together.” As we keep walking Oliver arrives at a better analogy: a series of bridges below which, in a person with no episodic memory, there’s a bottomless chasm.
“This is what happened to Clive,” Oliver says, referring to the English musician who, owing to a traumatic injury, lost his episodic memory and can’t remember what happened a moment ago, or the moment before that. “Clive’s life consists of an endless series of discrete moments that exist completely independent of each other except when they’re united in some pattern by some procedure or design—like the notes in a symphony.”
We discuss other cases involving amnesia, including Jimmie, the Lost Mariner in the book that Oliver refers to simply as Hat or The Hat Book, and another man who, in order to compensate for his lost memory, never stopped talking, as though the only way he could pass safely from moment to moment (bridge to bridge) was on a river his own words.
“That was his way of avoiding the abyss,” Oliver says.
In the fern garden we study the names in Latin. Vulgaris: common. Silvaticus: wild. Praecox: precocious. Spicata: spiked. The droll absurdity of plant names. “Snake root.” “Strawberry bush.” Back at the magnolia trees, I cup a fat blossom in my hands.
Oliver: “Look at it calling forth—all of nature signaling, putting up banners, saying, Reproduce! Reproduce!” His expression turns suddenly wistful. “Maybe that’s why I feel the way I do today.”
“What way is that?”
“Ahm . . . nauseated.”
“I doubt that’s what nature intended,” I say.
Oliver laughs his snorty laugh.
At an outdoor café table, we trade different substances we’d like to swim in. Oliver would like to swim in a sea of gallium, the metal with a melting point of 85.6 degrees, the same as chocolate.
“Why not just swim in a lake of chocolate?” I ask.
“I like chocolate,” he replies, “but I love metals.”
“A sea of mercury?” I suggest.
“That would be very unhealthy.”
“What about Dutch gin?” (Oliver loved Dutch gin; a phalanx of the empty ceramic bottles lined the kitchen counter in his Greenwich Village apartment.) “You could get drunk while swimming.”
“True, but since alcohol’s density is lower than water’s, you’d have to be an extremely strong swimmer, and even then you’d probably sink like a stone.”
A kiwi, a pomegranate, a persimmon, other exotic fruits: that’s what my wife and I serve him for breakfast the first time he comes over. Our guest is delighted. Nothing he won’t try once. He doesn’t care if it satisfies his appetite, as long as it satiates his curiosity. The fruits could be poisonous; he would still try them. Oliver loves novelty, variety, eccentricity, excess. No wonder the elements amuse him. He approaches the periodic table like a child in a gelateria.
At our kitchen table, Oliver reads the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the only one we have (“You must get the King James”), quoting the nasty God of Deuteronomy, the “carrot and stick” God: He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.
When it’s too cold for lake swimming, or when we don’t have time for a day trip, we swim at Riverbank State Park on the Upper West Side. The park was built over a sewage treatment facility. When it first opened people avoided it because of the smell. The problem has since been remedied, sort of.
Arranging items in his trunk, transferring them in and out of an array of pockets and bags, Oliver indulges in some OCD counting:
1. Goggles in plastic bag
2. Plastic bag in coat pocket
3. Shoehorn out of gym bag
4. White sneakers in bag
5. Remove orange sneaker #1
6. Remove orange sneaker #2
7. Put on white sneaker #1
8. Put on white sneaker #2
9. Shoehorn back in gym bag
10. Seat cushion in plastic bag . . .
I’m reminded of Beckett’s Molloy sucking his stones.
We’ve changed and showered and stepped from the locker room onto the pool platform to find a group of lifeguards gathered around the shallow end, keeping us at bay as one of their number emerges from the water with a very small brown object caught in a fish net.
“Fecal matter,” the lifeguard pronounces grimly.
A toddler has shat in the pool, which is subsequently closed.
As we re-dress back in the locker room, I can’t resist saying, “What does a little fecal matter, anyway?”
Oliver: “One little turd and civilization grinds to a halt.”
We’d start lake swimming as early as April, with a ceremonial frigid plunge. We’d drive to one of several lakes up in the Catskills. Oliver’s driving was a blend of skill and aggression, augmented by Tourettic outbursts. Shit! Bugger! Fuck! He hated being stuck behind another vehicle, especially one that obstructed his vision (“Swinish SUVs!”). He’d slap the steering wheel, bang his fist on the dashboard, kick the floor. If I happened to be driving, he’d snarl, “Overtake! Overtake!”
Breakfast at a greasy spoon. With Oliver you had to be careful what you ordered, since he’d order the same thing, then get mad at himself—and by extension at you—if he didn’t like it. I order a corn muffin: a mistake. Though good in other respects, the muffin is very crumby.
“Ach,” Oliver says, picking crumbs from his lap with thick greasy fingers as if they’re worms or ants. “I despise crumbs. Why did we order these damned muffins? I never eat muffins. Now I know why. They’re much too crumby. I’ve never seen so many crumbs. Ach! Ugh! Remind me never to eat a corn muffin again!”
We stay at a lakeside hotel, in one of six small cabins dotting the shore. With wetsuits on we swim twice around the lake, then take turns sitting on a rock, helping each other off with the skin-tight wetsuits. The resultant tableaux is half vaudeville skit, half comic book, Laurel and Hardy meet Plastic Man.
The hotel is under new management. We’re the first customers of the season. They haven’t turned the heat on in the cottages. They give us extra blankets. It’s too cold to sleep. We spend the night shivering and talking. Oliver shares his sexual proclivities with me, a secret I’ll keep for the next twenty years.
Oliver: “I don’t initiate, but I don’t refuse.”
His sex life in a nutshell.
“When you hear a piece of music in your head,” Oliver asks later that day as we explore the lake’s perimeter by foot, “what is it that you hear, exactly?”
“I hear the music,” I answer.
“Note for note, fully orchestrated, or a simplified version?”
“Note for note,” I say.
“Like you’re listening to a recording?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“Interesting . . .”
“Why? What do you hear?”
“The raw melody line—as if a child were playing it on a toy piano or a xylophone.”
I asked him once if he’d ever encountered an old enemy, someone he once detested, but then, seeing this person years later, felt the urge to hug him or her. He had. I asked: “Do you think that response is the product of nostalgia? Masochism? Narcissism? Or a healthy outlook?”
“Maybe a bad memory,” he answered. “I know that I’ve run into people from my past whom I’d disliked or even despised, but who sparked wild enthusiasm when seen again twenty years later. I think the mere fact of having one’s survival thrust in one’s face by the survival of another may explain it. They’re still alive and so are we. A continuum is established and upheld for which we can only feel grateful, even if the other person happens to be someone whose guts we hated, who beat us up or made fun of us or gave us a stiff caning.
“Having said that,” Oliver continued after a pause, “were he still living and were I to see my old headmaster at Braefield, my impulse wouldn’t be to hug him, but to give him a swift solid kick in the rump.”
“How often did they cane you in that place, anyway?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Daily, twice a day, once every twenty minutes.”
“No wonder you carry that seat cushion around with you.”
Snorty laugh. “Very good!”
In low moods, Oliver puts himself down, lamenting his lack of significant accomplishments as a “real scientist”—like Darwin, Luria, and Mendeleev, his heroes. Oliver: “Ah, yes, Sacks. He had such promise, such potential. Pity he never amounted to very much . . .”
I cheer him up, or try to. “You’re something as good or better than a scientist,” I tell him. “You’re an artist. You make beautiful things with words. You entertain and move and educate millions of people. Your books are works of art.”
“Yes . . . ahm . . . I’ve had that thought from time to time.”
All the time I’m thinking to myself: If he hasn’t amounted to very much, what the fuck have I amounted to?
Oliver had an absolute horror of dog shit. One day, as we get out of his car near Riverbank, he steps in a pile.
“Damn it, Peter! Why didn’t you warn me? You’re a young man with a young man’s vision. Didn’t you see it? These people with their shitty dogs. No other city in the world is so full of dog shit! It’s everywhere! Remind me never to park along Riverside Drive again. A brand new pair of sneakers—ruined. I’ll have to throw them out, or boil them. I’ll have to boil my car. I’ll have to boil this stretch of sidewalk. The entire Upper West Side—all of New York City—the entire world, must now be sterilized through boiling.”
Discussion (while walking through the botanic garden) inspired by glorious yellow and red tulips, their burning mouths open to the sky. Subject: Cryptogamic plants. “Cryptogam”: a plant (fern, moss, algae, or fungus) reproducing by spores but that doesn’t produce flowers or seeds. Cryptogamic: plants in which the reproductive organs are concealed (unlike tulips and most other flowers that flaunt them to attract insects). Phanerogamic: the opposite meaning. Plants are phanerogamic when their reproductive organs aren’t merely visible, but gaudily displayed.
I ask Oliver, “Is man cryptogamic or phanerogamic?”
“Both,” he says. “On the one hand, our genitalia are located up front and forward, designed to attract attention or at least to be seen. Baboons come to mind. With humans the whole issue of hairlessness and the invention of clothes complicates things, though a few tribes today still go around completely naked. As for the design of the human body itself, its erect posture, that raises the question why—assuming he wants our genitals to be hidden—God didn’t provide for their concealment as he does with the elephant, for instance, and other mammals—and not just by a dab of pubic hair, either.”
“Other mammals don’t walk on two feet,” I observe.
“That’s right,” Oliver says. “As we must in order to use our opposable thumbs. If our pricks are exposed in the process, so be it.”
We sit by the waterfall observing a lone Canada goose as he stands there, motionless, admiring the view, apparently.
“Another argument for man’s essential cryptogamia,” Oliver continues, “is the fact that despite being clothed and having his genitals otherwise hidden for millennia, man still reproduces himself very successfully. Clothes don’t seem to have been an impediment.”
“If anything they’re an enhancement,” I say.
“Right, which raises another question: were we to shed all of our clothes and be more ‘at ease’ with our nakedness—with the sight of each other’s exposed genitals—would the sexual urge ‘relax’ and become diminished? In itself that might not be such a bad thing, but it tears a hole in the argument that nakedness is man’s natural state. Whatever else nature wants of us, it wants us to reproduce as much as possible.”
Oliver scrutinizes me. “Now you,” he decides, “with your macho leather jacket, you’re definitely phanerogamic.”
“What about you?” I say.
“Me, I’m strictly cryptogamic.”
The Canada goose stands there. We wonder what’s going through its mind. A moment of pure contemplation? A moment of aesthetic appreciation? A state of mental and physical suspension? A form of meditation? A hypnotic trance induced by the steady white noise and endlessly repetitive visual of the waterfall?
“All of the above,” Oliver decides.
Of mentor-disciple relationships, someone (I think it might have been Russell Baker) once remarked that no matter how much more successful an older writer may be, it’s a mistake for a younger writer to ever expect very much sympathy from him. The older writer has relatively little time left; as far as he’s concerned, the younger writer has his whole life ahead of him. Therefore older writer envies younger writer despite how little accomplishment or renown younger writer has achieved.
When I looked at Oliver, I saw someone whose talent and accomplishments I’d never begin to approach, let alone match, a man who, though nearly a quarter century older than me, had as much or more vitality and curiosity, and was far more industrious, intelligent, intuitive, and knowledgeable.
And when he looked at me, what did my friend see? Youth, time, infinite possibilities, inexhaustible potential: a (comparatively) limitless future.
Another trip to Huntington State Park. The last stretch takes us down narrow, twisty roads.
Oliver: “How much longer? I don’t like all these curves. Isn’t there a less curvy way to get there?”
A few miles from the lake, a tree-surgery truck blocks our lane. Despite a small pickup heading our way in the opposite lane, in a bold move Oliver pulls around the tree truck. But the pickup truck’s driver refuses to give way. Soon we’re face to face with him. Finally Oliver is forced to give in. Reverse, his least favorite direction. As the small truck passes (and I cringe) Oliver rolls down his window.
“What’s the problem?” he asks the pickup truck driver.
Pickup driver (stern-faced, lock-jawed, steely-eyed): “Obstructed lane stops.”
He drives off.
“Was that psychotic behavior?” asks Oliver as we head on. “Would you say the driver of that truck was psychotic? What sort of person behaves that way, do you know? I’ve never seen anyone act so absurdly. What did he mean by what he said, anyway? It sounded like some phrase out of some sort of military-strategy manual. Obstruction lane what? What on earth was he going on about? Is this science fiction? And his face—did you see that face? The face of of of of—of evil, a fascistic face! Those dull, deep-set eyes, that snarling, vicious, half-twisted mouth. I can’t do it justice. I doubt Poe could do it justice. Tell me: what sort of person has a face like that? I doubt that I’ll ever forget it. I’ll have nightmares about it. A truly psychotic face. Only I’ve met psychotics, and none of them were that disturbing. I mean, there really was something sadistic in that man’s look, in the furrow of his brow, in those cold, cruel, Satanic eyes. And just what point was he trying to make, anyway? What do you call such behavior? You’re a writer—how would you describe it? Aggressive—is that the word? Confrontational? Assertive? Was this a demonstration of what is meant by the phrase ‘to assert oneself’? ‘Self-assertion?’ Is that what he was up to, what he was demonstrating? That’s the problem with America, with this country, this confrontational, aggressive, righteously defensive, self-assertive, don’t-tread-on-me, Wild West aggressiveness. A showdown—isn’t that what we’ve just experienced? One needs to carry a six-shooter with that sort of mentality. But no, really, I ask you in all sincerity: might that person have been insane? Is it possible? . . .”
Oliver’s tirade lasts the rest of the way to the lake.
As we’re walking toward our swim hole, an old man fishing along an embankment sees us and jokes, “If we catch you, we keep you.” I joke back that I prefer to be fried in olive oil, with a dash of pepper and salt.
“You’re very sociable,” Oliver says as we walk on.
“That’s me doing my imitation of a normal person,” I say.
“Well, you’re very good at it,” says Oliver.
Oliver’s loves (a non-exhaustive list in no particular order): cycads, cephalopods (especially cuttlefish), orange Jell-O, swimming (especially the backstroke), ferns, copper, the heavy metals (the heavier the better), Mozart, Mendeleev (periodic table), Darwin, schmaltz herring (and herring of any persuasion), Swiss Miss (diet), Alexander Luria, spicy Thai chicken-coconut soup, big bathtubs, Dutch gin, motorcycles, minerals, his patients, his friends, yellow pads and colored Flair pens (green, purple, red), his standing desk, his Montblanc fountain pen, his Selectric, smoked salmon, radishes, Proustian sentences, Gibbon’s footnotes (and footnotes generally, including his own), hard cider, hot coffee (especially on the road), punctuality, his neck-worn pocket spectroscope . . .
We took a few road trips together. In Woods Hole Bay, Oliver swam while his friend Paul Theroux and I paddled kayaks. In Brattleboro, Vermont, we visited Saul Bellow and his family at their farmhouse. We pulled into the driveway and there he sat, Nobel Laureate, author of Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift, on a rocking chair, wearing a floppy fisherman’s cap, reading the Sunday Times. Oliver and I sat on either side of him, sipping beers as Saul told us the story of how, as an undergraduate, he and a fellow journalism student hitchhiked to Mexico, intent on interviewing Trotsky, how they got there just in time to view his corpse laid out on a gurney under a white sheet.
“I’ll never forget it,” Saul Bellow said. “His white beard had reddish brown gunk in it. To this day I can’t say if it was iodine or blood.”
That evening, at the dinner table, Bellow, who at eighty-seven had stopped writing, told the exact same story again, word for word.
In group situations, Oliver tended to listen rather than speak. He did so as Mr. Bellow shared with me his idea for a children’s book that he’d been wanting to write for a long time.
“It’s called ‘The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window,’” Saul said.
“Really?” I said. “That sounds fascinating. What’s it about?”
“I don’t know,” said Bellow. “I have no idea. All I know is there’s an elephant in Marshall Field’s window.”
Having delivered himself of his children’s book concept, Saul leaned close to me and, gesturing toward where Oliver sat, remarked sotto voce, “He’s a rare bird.”
At the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, we sit through a dress rehearsal of his friend Jonathan Miller’s production of King Lear, with Christopher Plummer doing a marvelous palsied Lear.
On the way back from Canada, we discuss possible titles for Oliver’s almost finished memoir [Uncle Tungsten]. He likes “The Garden of Mendeleev” but worries that not enough people know who Mendeleev was. We come up with some alternatives, including two inspired by Flaubert’s “The mind, too, has its erections”: Sacks’ Mental Erections and My Chemical Hard-Ons, by Oliver Sacks.
Other topics for the drive: Kaleidoscopic patterns under eyelids. Mental symphonies: imagination or hallucination? On fitting in, being or wanting to be “one of the guys.”
We take turns behind the wheel of Oliver’s Lexus, seeing who can get the best gas mileage. I win.
Christmas holidays. Riding the Amtrak from Washington, dc, to New York. We board the “Quiet Car,” no cellphones or radios of any kind permitted, hushed voices: “A library-like atmosphere encouraged.” Eureka! we think.
No sooner are we seated in the Quiet Car than we consider the possibilities. Why not Quiet Gyms and Quiet Restaurants, Quiet Cafés, Bars, and Beaches? How about a Quiet Brothel or a Quiet Construction Site? Our minds race with possibilities. Quiet Buildings. Quiet Streets. Quiet Neighborhoods. Quiet Counties. Quiet States. State motto on license plate: “Shhhh!” Imagine Quiet Radio Stations (instead of listening to talk or music, you tune in to silence). Quiet Books. Quiet Websites. “Quiet for Dummies.” Is it our imaginations, or do all of the passengers in the Quiet Car seem more sophisticated, better-dressed, better-looking, healthier, wealthier, wiser, and wittier?
Oliver and I (quietly) read our books. Oliver: Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Me: Out Stealing Horses. When we get bored we wander to the café car, Oliver bracing himself, his feet unsteady down the swaying aisles. We snack on hummus, olives, and tea. Back in the Quiet Car, Oliver is in a chatty mood. He whispers, discussing the distinction between romantic and clinical descriptions. I’m not sure how long we’ve been talking, whispering—five minutes, ten?—when a tall passenger wearing expensive tortoise-shell bifocals materializes, crouching in the aisle so his face is level with ours, a middle-aged face with thick gray hair brushed back and parted in the middle. His face is red; his eyes bulge.
“Excuse me,” the man seethes, “but you are talking”— his lips spell the words for us—“VERY LOUDLY. This is THE QUIET CAR. If you want to talk LOUDLY, move to some other car. This is THE QUIET CAR.” His jowls tremble. He looks as if he is headed for apoplexy. I say, “I don’t think we were talking that loudly.” “Yes, yes—you were talking VERY LOUDLY and this is the quiet car.”
The man returns to his seat.
Oliver and I exchange looks, then bury our chastened heads in our respective books. After a few moments Oliver opens the little vellum notebook he keeps with him always and writes, using one of the three colored Flairs he likewise keeps on hand at all times: Was that a bit exaggerated? He hands pen and pad to me.
I write: I think we’ve just encountered a Quiet Car Fanatic.
Oliver (writing): A Quiet Asshole.
Me: A Quiet Hole.
And so on. We giggle like school kids—silently. This is, after all, the Quiet Car.
In some ways he was like an older brother or an uncle to me; in others more like a father. Like a father he could be critical. On learning that, at fifty-three, I’d become—not on purpose—a father myself, his response: “That’s kid stuff, Peter. At your age you should know better.” He disapproved of my saying “different than” (as opposed to “different from.”). We disagreed over the proper use of “that” vs. “which.”
He could get angry, too. Once, at a swimming camp in Curaçao, while pulling ahead of him in a race, I accidentally kicked him in the face with my foot. I had no idea I’d kicked him. Later, in his room, I found him seated at his desk strewn with papers, with more sheets scattered on the floor, all with strange diagrams drawn on them with his red and green Flair pens, the sort of diagrams football coaches draw for their players, with circles, arrows, and Xs. They were Oliver’s schematics of “the event,” proving, beyond any doubt, that I and no other swimmer in the pack had kicked him in the face, as if he were preparing for a tribunal. I pleaded guilty. It took him a day or two, but he forgave me.
I was still living in New York when Oliver learned about the melanoma in his right eye. He’d picked me up for a swim. As soon as I got in the car I noticed the strained look on his face. I thought his sciatica might have kept him up. It had been acting up lately. As we pulled away he said, “I’m afraid I’ve had some rather distressing news.” He explained how he’d gone to the movies two days before to see the latest Star Trek film. At some point while watching the film he became aware of a strange, burning shape, like a glowing coal, in the upper corner of his vision. As the dark screen brightened, the glowing coal disappeared, but soon it was back, along with flashes like camera bulbs going off.
“At first I thought I was having a visual migraine,” he explained, “only it affected just one eye, which is odd, since migraine auras originate in the brain and typically effect vision symmetrically.”
The visual distortions persisted through the movie and afterward, when he got home. He phoned his opthamologist, who, it turned out, was away on vacation. Another doctor was covering for him. The doctor, who saw him the next day, found a growth close to the retina. It might be a tumor, the doctor said, or a blood clot from a hemorrhage, though the color was more indicative of a tumor. If a tumor, it might be a melanoma. If a melanoma, then—worst case—it might have already metastasized to the liver, as eye melanomas are known to do when they grow to a certain size.
“If it has metastasized?” I asked. “What then?”
“That would be a death sentence,” said Oliver.
He said it matter-of-factly. I remembered the story he told me of Bishops Latimer and Ridley being burned as heretics at the stake. Play the man, Master Ridley.
We had our swim. Afterward, as we walked back to the car (he with a cane now; since breaking his leg in the mountain fall recounted in A Leg to Stand On, he’d not been very steady on his feet), he spoke of how the news had changed his perspective on things, how it had forced him to consider his achievements, to ask himself whether, were he to die in a few weeks or months, his would have been a worthy, satisfying life. His friend Stephen Jay Gould came up in the ensuing discussion, so did Susan Sontag, Hume, Gibbons, Freud, and others who’d lived life to the fullest and faced death bravely, and even (in Hume’s case) with great good cheer. Then there were less positive examples, like the polymath physicist John von Neumann, who’d been an atheist until he learned that he had eighteen months to live, when, to the dismay of his fellow atheists, he became a Catholic and lived out his last months in fear of hellfire and damnation.
“I don’t see that happening to you,” I said.
“Nor do I,” said Oliver.
In his office he reads to me from a slim vellum notebook: the diary that he’s kept since learning of his eye tumor, recounting that moment in the movie theater. The notes sound like notes from one of his case studies, only now the patient is himself. He describes blind spots drifting like clouds over the newsprint in the Sunday Times, and how the day will soon come when he’ll have to say goodbye to bright colors and stereoscopic vision (Goodbye to All That, the title of Robert Graves’s autobiography, keeps recurring to him). He smiles while reading, amused as ever by his own words and observations, despite their being occasioned by a life-threatening illness, his own. He approaches his own mortality with the same spirit—sympathetic, curious, with wry, deadpan humor—as he approaches his patients’ symptoms: with empathy and interest rather than detachment; sympathy, but not pity; concern, but not alarm; clarity, without coldness. Like good poetry, his notebook is the record of emotions recollected in tranquility.
The growth is malignant. Worse, it’s right next to the optic nerve. Radiation treatment will be risky. The good news: the tumor is small enough that it probably hasn’t metastasized yet. He orders his priorities: life, sight, eye. He’s already decided against enucleation—a gruesomely scientific word for having one’s eye removed. Radiation offers the best prognosis.
“Either way, I’ll probably lose all sight in that eye and with it my beloved stereoscopic vision. Still,” Oliver says, “if it saves my life, the loss will be worth it.”
I ask him what he plans to do for the holidays. He says he’s not sure. Usually he goes to DC to visit a friend and his family. On one hand, the distraction may do him good, he says. On the other, he doesn’t want to have to be merry around strangers.
(Every so often, though, the clinical detachment dissolves. Oliver’s beleaguered eyes lose their focus. Gravity draws down the edges of his lips. Under his gray beard his jaw tenses: he steps out of his clinical observer’s role into the body of a man diagnosed with cancer. The poet/scientist disappears; the helpless patient takes his place. He needs the detachment offered by language, by analysis, by thoughts and words sweeping over a page, the alchemist turning despair and terror into words.)
“Let’s have a walk, shall we?” he says.
We bundle up and head out in search of lunch. The Japanese restaurant is closed. We go to the Bus Stop Café. It’s afternoon. Oliver orders a buttered bagel and coffee. I ask for a glass of Chianti. Tomorrow Oliver goes for his liver test (one reason he abstains from wine himself, though he doesn’t much care for wine anyway: too sour; at home he even puts sugar in it, or mixes it with Jell-O). If the test results are negative, it will mean that the cancer hasn’t metastasized; if not, there will have to be other tests to determine for sure if the cancer has spread or not. One way or the other, he’ll know the worst.
At noon the next day he phones. No metastases.
In 2009, having accepted the first of several visiting positions in pursuit of a new academic career, I left New York City. That pursuit led me here, to Georgia, to my house on a lake.
Whenever possible, on my visits north, Oliver and I would swim together. Otherwise, at least every other weekend, typically after my morning swims, I’d phone him, my Speedo still dripping, to rub in his face the fact that I lived on a lake (as he had once) and try to entice him to visit. During one call, after we spoke of other things, he shared his bad news: after a long remission the melanoma had metastasized to his liver. Some treatments might extend his life for a few months, but there was no cure.
“This is it,” he said.
Outside of his assistant Kate and others in his “inner circle,” he hadn’t told anyone. He would make the news public in writing, probably in a New York Times essay. He didn’t seem all that scared or sad or even concerned. His words carried more resolve than anything.
He shared with me his determination to use well whatever time he had left. “I’ll spend it with my friends, swim and take walks, read and play the piano, laugh and have fun.”
But the main thing he wanted to do was to write.
“You sound resolved,” I said.
“My cancer is resolved. Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Well, Oliver,” I said, “it’s probably no comfort, but dying is just about the only thing you haven’t done yet in your life.”
Snort. “Very good.”
I’d carried my cellphone out onto the deck, where I could look out at the lake as we spoke. Afterward I stood there, holding it, crying.
I remember my last visit with him. We and his partner, Billy, swam together in the back yard pool of his home in Rhinebeck. The pool was just big enough for the three of us to swim back and forth abreast of each other. Billy and I had a push-up contest. Then we sat there, the three of us, lounging under a pergola in our wet bathing suits.
Our last swim.
Two weeks later, back in Georgia, I awoke to an e-mail from Kate saying that Oliver had died that morning at two o’clock. He died peacefully in his sleep within days of putting the finishing touches on his last essay.
December. My last lake swim of the season. The water temperature has dipped below 60 degrees. At first it’s painfully cold, but after a few dozen strokes I feel as comfortable as if the water were twenty degrees warmer. I do my usual swim to the dock four houses away and back, two hundred strokes each way, thinking, as always, of Oliver.
Whenever I swim now, for as long as I keep swimming, I’ll think of him. I’ll swim for us both.
Peter Selgin’s Drowning Lessons won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for fiction. He has written a novel, two craft books, and several children’s books. His memoir-in-essays, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was shortlisted for the William Saroyan Prize. His latest memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming in April 2016. He teaches at Georgia College.