As the Novel Turns
Life is like a good novel, and were we to live without and end to the structure, our lives would flatten like characters in a poor novel. Little would matter; little would have effect or meaning. No one would care enough to love or recommend us as pleasures or enjoyments, and our children and grandchildren would not listen to or tell stories of our passing; no one would re-read or re-visit us, and the process of mourning us would not allowing people to select the highlights the memories to keep and treasure, and pass along.
The structure of our lives—what to focus on, when to economize, when to expound, where to stretch out and where to shorten–which for the living is an on-going process–is essential to our stories. We are not, or should not want to live, grey flannel suit novels or novels of product endorsement and consumptive celebritization. We should form our structure by accretion, by long views in a shortening world. Life is not all this happened and then that and then that. Life is layered like a pearl, a set of accretions around a substantial core of character and values that sometimes irritates our here-and-now glands. We understand it—and pass its meanings on—by understanding and telling how these things happened when I crawled on four legs, walked on two, and managed on three. We add embellishment, we leave out, but we make our lives and their shape. Otherwise, there is nothing that is worth the telling to leave behind and no one to tell it. When they tell it, they know the whole, the way a reader does when he finishes a great novel. It is why we should re-read, because the end informs the passing though structured moments of the novel. It is why we archive “This I Believe,” so that we may re-hear, re-think, and re-evaluate the stories told.
I believed these things and, after I died three years ago and was miraculously revived and saved, I learned something more important. Sure, the end is always with us. Death is always there. But dying is actually easy. It’s the living that requires energy and attention, focus and structure and meaning and value, and it’s the living with someone’s dying that is hardest. For three weeks after the nurses told my wife to prepare my children and I managed to survive, I tore at my i.v. tubes and whispered, “Let’s go. If we hurry we can get out of here.” My son toyed with me, asking me to spell “community” to which I replied, “That’s easy. F-I-D-G-E-Y,” leaning back into my hospital pillows and smiling with smug accomplishment. My daughter worried and said little other than she loved me.
Months later I began to see that their pain was embedded in the family structure we built and told—which, for a mixblood Nez Perce, is essential. Then I realized how it was my job to alleviate the pain and redirect that fear. After three years, it has begun to bear fruit.
I now know that if life is led as well as possible, it’s dying that’s easy and the living morally and well that’s hard. Like writing a novel: you work and work and work until the end appears out of what has come before. If it’s good, it never goes away, but only after the goodness is achieved may anyone evaluate the good and bad that it was.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.