Travails and Torments

Susan Gubar em sua casa, em Indiana, US.

Susan Gubar at home, in Indiana

As you know, some weeks are busier than others. On this one, for instance, a man, in a few days’ time, was, in rapid succession, glorified, betrayed, abandoned, tortured and killed and, before the end of the week, came back to life, reborn, giving a new and capital meaning to the concept of “Transfiguration.” But this is all just a story. In real life, as everyone knows, things often barely trudge forward.

Indeed. So he died, yet was so attached to his body he took it with him into eternal life. The body, though the source of so many travails, is still the best thing we own, inside and out. It is, after all, responsible for the most amazing sensations that sprout from the mystery of the brain, a gray, ropey jumble that compiles thousands of memories, but, sometimes, although we don’t get how or why, derails the survival train, et voilà, here come illness and mortification.

I must confess, it was hard to get going today on this prosaic, quotidian act of writing my weekly piece, which is mandatory for me, but also pleasurable and regenerative (Alan, by the way, thinks it’s a waste of time and energy). Because lately, I think you’ve noticed, I’ve been on a downward spiral, riddled by thoughts of illness; pun unintended, it’s a killer. Or should I say, it’s killing me?

Would this be a sign of aging, or the dwindling of great expectations and plans?

On the other hand, I was finally fully exonerated by my dermatologist; it was “not malignant” at all. What a relief; I even tried that rejuvenating acid these days. Last resort actions, I know.

Speaking of beauty, this week I saw a movie that really moved me, “Et si on vivait tous ensemble?,” with an aged Geraldine Chaplin, who is, however, seven years younger than her screen friend, the beautiful Jane Fonda — the wet dream of generations of Americans, as you know: Hanoi Jane, renegade traitor, a total bitch, and yet, still a lovely and charming lady.

It’s about five friends clearly, hmm, decomposing, decaying, deteriorating, but still living the illusion of being at the top of the heap — all of them except, as we will shortly see, the above mentioned Jane, in her role as Jeanne, an American scholar living in Paris.

When the group’s only single friend has a heart attack and his son threatens to send him to an old people’s home (let’s call a spade a spade, since we don’t have time for useless euphemisms), the five agree to live together in a country house. To make their adventure possible, they are joined by an oenologist, oops, an ethnologist — an excellent Daniel Brühl who, from dog walker, becomes a nurse and an academic conducting field research on aging.

All characters are absolutely delightful, as in every French movie; I mean, even in the haunting “Amour,” we have to agree all characters were delightful. And, as in almost all French movies, sex is the main theme (and why shouldn’t it be, right?). Jeanne, who hides her diagnosis — which is eventually revealed by the doctor against her will, only to her husband who, luckily for her, forgets everything all the time —, takes long walks in the woods with the young German man, with whom she has deep, intimate conversations: “Old people are sexual, too, you know?” She tells him, placid and truthful, that even though sex with her husband is now a rare event, she still masturbates often, thinking about an old lover who, by no coincidence, is the single friend living with them. Which reminded me (as if I could forget, even for a second) of something that’s been bothering me and isn’t usually talked about in polite company, either: vaginal dryness that comes with age (parenthetically, I honestly never thought this could happen to me, but my gyno assured me it’s normal, prescribed this amazing gel that, once applied, lasts three days and exclaimed “all women have been using it before a weekend at the beach;” however, I guess it’s understandable that, considering how preoccupied I’ve been with illness and disease, I still haven’t experienced that modern miracle of lubrication.)

Indeed. Jeanne’s illness is never spelled out, but I suspect it’s ovarian cancer, my current hypochondriac obsession (although it is very likely just a case of badly healed cystitis or a somewhat dry vagina — not even that much, my doctor says — but that has also been bothering me a lot.) When her time comes, she is bedridden, in excruciating pain and receives redemptive morphine. She is buried in a previously chosen pink coffin to the sound of  clinking flutes, filled with sparkling wine. In this case, though, since it’s France, we can actually call the sparkling wine “champagne,” which unfortunately rhymes with nothing.

I must confess that it’s also how I’d like to deal with the issue: personally, outside of hospice care, without pain, and with plenty of morphine and champagne.

I’m not sure I could go through with it, though. When talking about our own death, choosing our own way to go is as taboo as talking about sex — real sex, not the one that happens in the new media outlets for porn, from explicit pictures and videos to sexting and social networking, if you get what I mean.

In sharp contrast to the movie’s delicate and gentle take on illness, I’m reading on my Kindle the ruthless “Memoir of a Debulked Woman,” by Susan Gubar, chosen by the NY Times as one of the best books of 2013 — or maybe 2012? I can’t remember. Anyway, can anyone tell me why, amidst all I’m going through, of all possible books, this is the one I’m reading? I doubt it. Not even Freud could explain that one, come on. But maybe Susan herself, a distinguished professor, could solve the mystery, which is a good reason to keep on reading: “Perhaps feeling the fear intensely would be cathartic, would cause it to release its grip.”

From what I gather, Susan Gubar, who went through terrible torments since her late cancer diagnosis in 2008, is still alive and well. Oh, I just remembered: last week, I read a piece written by her about ovarian cancer on the Times’ Blog “Well,” which, by the way, never seems to publish any stories about people who are actually, you know, “well.” Eesh. From what I’ve seen, few people managed to read the entire book, not even reviewers seem to have gotten past the first chapter.

Susan and I have in common our Jewish heritage, an idyllic house with walls of glass, a committed husband (although mine isn’t as meek as hers seems to be), and a penchant for parsing everyday happenings. No, that’s not all. I also share with her this desire, the last sentence I read before I put down her book: “that someone would find a way to administer a wee overdose while a slow movement of one of Beethoven’s late quartets is sounding in my ears.”  That’s all.

Have a happy, non-neurotic, Easter. Chocolate might help.  Tchau!


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