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.