Unfinished Stories

Nancy’s husband sent a picture two days before she died. In that one, she wore a white sleeveless nightgown. Her grown sons leaned over either side of her, a hospice tray with a cup of applesauce in the foreground. She was sleeping. Perhaps she’d slipped into the mercy of a coma.

Nancy Johnson Pinard was her name. Is her name. She was a novelist. I know she also had many other roles–aren’t we all many things to many people? She would have finished all her works in progress if she possibly could have.

Her first grandson was born three weeks ago.

The people killed on the west side of New York this week were living stories they and no one who loves them will get to finish. Each of those lives has its singular details, poignant, tender, unbearable. I think of them, all those unique details, and of the unfillable gaps that open like black holes when we lose people we love and need.

“We thought we’d have years together,” Ron said to me, making a quarter turn to look at his wife in her coffin. We were in the chapel of the funeral home. I had the feeling he wanted me to look at her, too. I couldn’t. I didn’t, and I hope it wasn’t hurtful to him. I didn’t think she’d want me to. Ron and I hadn’t met in person before, though he “knew” me in the same way I did him.

The novel she was working on was about Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, an accomplished physicist, and the mother of his two sons. Their daughter, Lieserl, disappeared from history when she was about two. It’s unknown what happened to her, why her story never continued. There’s no record that she died.

I want to know what happened to Lieserl, or more accurately, what scenario Nancy would use, based on all she’d learned, to create a plausible outcome. I was reading and editing the novel for her, chapter by chapter, the same way she’d read and edited my books. Her Einstein novel is still untitled, between half and two thirds written. I was a good reader for her. She was a brilliant editor for me. She could line edit a weather report and sharpen it. We could tell each other what was wasn’t on the page yet and suggest a fix.

When she said that all she could eat was Ramen noodles, I edited that to homemade soup. Change that at least, I said, even though by then I knew, because she’d told me, she couldn’t change anything that mattered.

It wasn’t acid reflux. Prilosec doesn’t help pancreatic cancer.

Shadow Dancing, her first novel was titled, and the second was Butterfly Soup. Then The Confession of Emma Darwin, which hadn’t found a publisher yet. And the work in progress, the unfinished story of Mileva, Albert and Lieserl Einstein. It was her finest work. I know the grace of transcendent writing when I read it, and that of a story that lifts and carries you downstream on its back. Mileva’s story is all that and more. Years of research was woven in, the mysteries of physics and Serbian superstition, the desperation of human love and what we do in our attempts to earn its return. The relentless drive to do work that has meaning.

Maybe that’s some of why we write novels. As Nancy always said, it’s not for the money. There’d be much easier things to do for money. Wash windows on a skyscraper, say, harnessed to your work by the tenuous ropes of your faith. At least you could see, then, when you’d cleared away the muck and let in the bright clarity of daylight. You’d know something for sure about what you’d accomplished.

Nancy had dark hair and eyes. Her sons look like her. The oncologist told her she could live two to three years with chemo. At the time, she told me her family was ecstatic, grateful for that much. It was less than six months.

In the memorial folder put out at the funeral home, “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost was printed on the inside left. But really, Nancy took a familiar route, the novelist’s, following a map she’d studied, memorized and trusted, until late, after the diagnosis, when she sent me the last chapter she’d worked on. After that, she couldn’t type any more, she said. Her hands shook too much, maybe from the chemo. She didn’t offer a hypothesis.

She loved her mini dachsund unreasonably. The dog used to sit on her lap while she wrote. Starting in May, instead of virtually every day, I heard from her less and less. Her texts—done by voice—were sometimes garbled. In August she said, “I can’t write yet.” She never could again. In September she said she could read by listening to audio short stories. The last text I have from her is October 12. She died on the thirtieth.

I have a new sense of urgency in my work, like tripping over the feet of strangers while you gather yourself up and hasten from your seat on the train to get off, carrying the precious cargo of your soul. Will the automatic doors shut just as you are walking through? Will you be able to step onto the platform safe, intact, or will you stumble and fall into the crevice between the train and the tracks where no one can get to you, no one can know what you were trying to finish because no one else knows the story you carried in your heart?

Here’s the poem I’d offer for Nancy, and for the unfinished stories others mourn today. It’s by Raymond Carver, a novelist and poet who also died of cancer.


I want to get up early one more morning,

Before sunrise. Before the birds, even.

I want to throw cold water on my face

And be at my work table

When the sky lightens and smoke

Begins to rise from the chimneys

Of other houses.

I want to see the waves break

On this rocky beach, not just hear them

Break as I did all night in my sleep.

I want to see again the ships

That pass through the Strait from every

Seafaring country in the world—

Old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,

And the swift new cargo vessels

Painted every color under the sun

That cut the water as they pass.

I want to keep an eye out for them.

And for the little boat that plies

The water between the ships

And the pilot station near the lighthouse.

I want to see them take a man off the ship

And put another up on board.

I want to spend the day watching this happen

And reach my own conclusions.

I hate to seem greedy—I have so much

to be thankful for already

But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.

And go to my place with some coffee and wait.

Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.


22 Responses to Unfinished Stories

  1. Dear Lynn,
    Oh my goodness, this is such a sad, poignant article…I never knew the person you wrote about but my heart goes out to you and her family. The picture that was shown of Nancy was such a lovely one…she could have been a friend of mine. I am so sorry for your/her family’s loss. Please accept my very sincere sympathy. I know you will miss her.

  2. Heartbreaking, Lynne. Beautiful description of getting off the train… I have a friend my age fighting breast cancer and I can’t help but feel the same way.

    • Oh, Kim, I so hope your friend will be all right. It’s frightening to contemplate; I understand. Thanks so much for reading and sharing.

  3. What a beautifully written tribute to your friend and to those with unfinished stories to tell. To say I’m sorry for the loss of your friend seems so inadequate for the sorrow I feel after reading this. Thank you for sharing just a bit Ms. Pinard’s story.

    • I hope that novel gets completed, too, Bonnie, although the end of the story is a mystery to me. I wonder if she’d decided on it. Sometimes endings only become clear as we write (and live?) them. And I’m really glad you like the Raymond Carver poem. I love that, too. Thank you so much for your comment.

  4. Having survived a Los Angeles City Rapid Transit bus, I indeed say a prayer of thanks every single morning when I awaken, whether before the dawn, or after. So Ray, wherever you are, I can relate. Lynne, I’ll see your Carver and raise you Shakespeare, (paraphrased for gender):

    Your grief should not be equal to her worth, because then your sorrow would never end.

    Thank you for your beautiful memoir, Lynne. I hope you’ll put it into a book some day.

    (And will anyone be able to finish the Einstein project?)

    • Thank you, as always, Preston, for a kind and thoughtful response. I don’t know if her family has any plans to do anything with her unfinished or yet-unpublished work. I think her illness progressed more rapidly than they were initially led to expect and she didn’t have the opportunity to make plans for it, to be honest. If I find anything out later, I’ll post an update. Thanks again.

  5. It is so hard to find ‘reason” for a premature death of such a talented woman. I am so sorry for you, her family and the unfinished novel. It is a slippery slope we all tread and why is it we need continual reminders that none of us is getting out of here alive? I guess we would just remain depressed and disfuntional if we considered our own deaths freqently. I am glad you had such quality time sharing the written word with such a talented woman. If only….

  6. Oh, Lynne. This is such a beautiful elegy for both your editor/writer friend and for humanity in general. Not simply because we are writers and wonder whether we’ll have the energy, health and clarity every day to get up and sit at a computer, allowing the words to flow from our fingers, spewing pellmell from our minds — once we allow ourselves to relax and let the ideas out. In your words is an acknowledgment of our lack of control. We will all succumb to something or someone, eventually. And it’s frightening to consider.
    Every day I worry about so many people. What waits around the corner to steal the breath of those we love? I’ve got a friend recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There is hope but there is also knowledge, all too much knowledge of the disease.
    Keep her close in your memories. Keep her alive there. I hope you can possibly find a way to finish her work.

    • Thank you, Emily. I appreciate your thoughtfulness so much. It is frightening to consider the lack of control we really have in spite of our best efforts, how tenuous our hold on the life and lives so previous to us. About Nancy’s work: she’d done an astonishing amount of research, including traveling to Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe to visit the Einstein sites and learn. She’d also studied and learned about Albert’s theories as well as Mileva’s–and that of their contemporaries. And she was able to weave those ideas into the story in understandable English, whereas I seriously think that my college physics professor passed me out of the class so he’d never have to lay eyes on me again. And in gratitude, I made sure he didn’t.

  7. Wow Lynne! Your words captured me in the first sentence. I am so sorry for your loss. You will surely miss Nancy, not only as a friend, but as a skilled editor. I love your writing Lynne. Blessings on you!

    • I’m glad you found it true, Vickie. I know you will be among those who will miss her terribly. Thank you for your good words.

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