NON-FICTION: In Sickness and Health by Judith Kalman

Love is just love, as much as we’d like to believe in its magic. My love for Craig had the legs of an arranged marriage, yet I had nothing but faith in its magical properties. He wasn’t the man my parents would have chosen—Jewish first off, a vector primed for success. Not this unfledged youth who had repudiated his family and was little as yet in the eyes of the world. I arranged the match of my own doing, listing his attributes and strengths as if to convince a younger, more headstrong romantic self. This did not prove me any less rash than had I tumbled into mind-swiped passion. Only the young leap with so much certainty based on as little know how. I believed I’d make it work, understanding ahead of those who start out in love before floundering on the shoals of extended proximity, that it would take effort. I was a fervent believer. In myself foremost, the restorative power of my positive affections. And in the man Craig would as a result not transmute into but revert back to, the person he was born to be—as if such a one exists—before the wrong kind of love had marred him. But love is just love. We feel it. We give it. It doesn’t undo the past. It is not an agent of epigenetic reversal such as we dream today of picking up at the pharmacy in some fortunate future. In 1975, we hadn’t coined the term, let alone the notion of environmental factors that can effectively switch on latent expressions in our genes. We still trusted in the theories of psychoanalysis. I believed we could change ourselves through love and self-scrutiny. Perhaps it’s too harsh to say my marriage became the laboratory. Perhaps I tax my youth too heavily. What about good intentions, steadfastness? Two children raised in health and accomplishment? What about love?

My story like most everyone’s starts with my parents. When I first tried writing about theirs, Craig reacted swiftly. Why them, what made me think anyone would be interested in the experiences of two unremarkable people? An intelligent man in his mid-twenties, old enough to have known better. Many years later, fighting to regain his life after debilitating mental illness, he changed his mind and indirectly became their stories’ chief promulgator by serving as my literary agent. I think he’d say the same thing now about being turned into a subject. He’d hate it. I see the long, sharply squared-off face, the eyes permanently downturned from too often pleading against his pain. I hear his biting dismissal of the stupid idea: Why would I think anyone would be interested in such a sorry case?

We have but the one life though it’s not the only one we might have had. My parents’ tragic histories shaped mine. Who am I but for those historic circumstances, and how might I discharge that debt? Was there ever any question but that I’d find my way to Craig? Perhaps what he’d hate is what he always knew. He would never be fully the subject any more than I had fully belonged to him. Why is love not sufficient? Why should there be oneness? In truth, we weren’t separate enough. When Craig’s jaw yawned open to the psychotropic drugs that dragged on the muscles holding up his long torso, shame suffused the cells in my skin as though I myself had folded over in defeat: I reflected in him, he reflected in me, neither of us singly whole. Here on the page no one else’s story can overtake me.

If I am who I am, become nothing more in the eyes of the world than when I started, an outcome of stasis poised on the head of a pin, no more apt to fall than to fly, it is because of two unremarkable people’s remarkable losses. I define myself by my father’s one hundred and twenty murdered family members, foremost his six year-old daughter whose name I bear and whose unlived destiny I’ve left unfulfilled. On my mother’s side pile the sisters and their children, her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and their offspring whom she refused to ritually memorialize heaped as they were among the mounds of naked limbs and trunks unyielding in the done-ness of their anonymous deaths. “Agency,” I’m reminded by my Canadian friends is a state of mind and to be cultivated. But what sway personal agency against this overwhelming evidence to the contrary? I have balanced all my life between belief in the power to create oneself anew and a sense of futility, not-quite failing to launch.

Craig on the other hand resolved to be self-made. He ran away from home at age seventeen. We don’t know what propelled him. He never said, because he didn’t himself know or he would not divulge. During our twenty-five years together he stuck to his story about taking off just like that and refusing further contact. He said he didn’t know why at that moment, or what may have prompted him. But he did grab his father’s duffel bag with all his father’s referee’s paraphernalia still in it, and threw a few of his own belongings on top of them. The arbitral underpinning at the core of Craig’s identity? He had an unerring sense of fairness and for what was right. What might he have seen? What might he have done to make the flight from the sylvan suburbs into the city’s affordable squalor his only recourse? I can never turn Craig inside out to reveal what lay within, only state what I observed and what he told me. In this way I’m forced to honour his memory. I, on the other hand, spew my innards. Within lies a semblance of story. How do I cobble together Craig’s?

I met the seventeen year-old soon-to-be-runaway at an alternative college program in its first year of operation. The school was small, experimental along the principles of humanistic education. It attracted alternative types among both students and faculty. One could expect something either “off” or counterculturist about those in attendance. By all appearances, Craig fell into the former category, I the latter, but if one looked below the surface one would have found elements of both in each student. We were lucky that an alternative program happened to hove into view just when we needed it. Judging by what he described of his background in sports, which would have had nothing in common with the program’s aims of self-directed, interdisciplinary, wholistic learning, it was safe to assume that Craig was there for a refit. His parents had urged him to go to the national military academy. The words Royal and Military drew a collective gasp during an assembly at the start of the year. It was 1973, and the average length of hair among the boys sitting on the mosaic floor of the manor house that had formerly lodged an order of monks was below the shoulder. The whole school community drew around the lost sheep to bring him into the fold.

We recognized one another through a story he wrote called “And You Want to be the Best.” Sports culture was outside my ken, but the suburbs weren’t. I grew up in one on the opposite side of the Island of Montreal. When you’re young, enamoured of your specialness, who doesn’t hope for a crown? For Craig, not being best was to fail; there was no in between. Coming second would always be as ugly as kissing your sister, a legacy he’d never shake even after he’d traded his cleats for notebooks, novels, manuscripts, and later textbooks. He was driven and inspired by competition. Before we had children, I answered to the call of literature and personal inquiry. His writing may not have been the best, not even better than mine, but it showed talent and, as we used to say then without cynicism, it rang true.

In the telling of our life together, what, amid the myriad of shared events and abounding images and memories elbowing each other out of the frame does one decide to focus on? Which of the minutiae that filled our moments for twenty-five years feels realer than the rest? No, truer than the rest. Was not each lived moment real and true? All this sifting through the sands of our small life leaves me holding nothing. When Craig was suffering towards the end of his illness, I held our two sons in my arms. They leaned on me. They cleaved to me as I to them. My arms were full. They have grown into their own lives. Now when I try to grasp something of those twenty-five years, it’s as though our marriage has spread with Craig’s ashes in the lake, the raw interior sea, in which we cast him. Diffused, ever more distant. Does one just grab, then, the random flotsam and jetsam that surface within reach?

Picture the seven-member Chambers family squeezed into a near-wreck of a car of the sixties or early seventies, driving the minimally ten-hour trip between Montreal and the farm on the Bruce Peninsula where Craig’s mother had been raised. There would have been no air conditioning. How many times would they have had to stop to peel themselves from the vinyl seats when one of them had to pee? Did the kids shout for joy when the interminable stop-and start ended? Did they pile out of the steaming sedan in desperate relief? I imagine even the youngest took one look at his Grandmother Chisolm’s visage and buttoned it. The girls cast furtive glances from the barn to their grandfather’s ironic welcoming grin and shrank back into the sticky seat. Even their mom Frances patted her hair self-consciously while picturing the flaws in her appearance, before swinging her peddle-pusher clad legs onto the dirt drive. Only Geoffrey bounded out, extending his hand in perennial good faith to his father-in-law’s habitual rebuff.

“Grandfather,” Craig being eldest stuck his neck out as usual, “Can we go to the beach before dinner?” It is all the children have thought about during the long drive. Seven miles of raked brown sand that tapered so gradually into deep waters, every one of them however little could splash, paddle, and jump in the waves in blessed release.

As small as a life is, and as short as Craig’s was, there’s no nutshell version. He came fully formed into my world as a seventeen year-old boy bent on making himself anew, but his stories were elegies to the friends he’d left behind, and to the great love who was his mother. Whatever she’d done, however warped her affection, it was real nonetheless and his big heart, his vast capacity for empathy must have owed something to it. He banished his family from his life for six years, until I wore down his resistance to meet with them again. We returned to Montreal from graduate school for the Christmas break, staying with my parents as usual. On that long held-off day, we caught the commuter train from Central Station, and his father picked us up at their stop, the man Craig had described as emotionally remote, inaccessible. As much as Craig might have protected his mother from knowledge of herself, so he spurned his father, perhaps for doing nothing, for pretending nothing was amiss. But the man who came towards us in an unseasonal downpour, unmindful of the rain that drenched him as soon as he leapt from the car, a man so obviously dissolving as he took his tall, bony boy into his embrace was not the man I recognized from Craig’s accounts. He exuded warmth and affability, and as we sat in the living room of their mid-century bungalow, it was Frances who spoke in terse, truncated sentences, her smile when she thought to, delayed as though she’d had to read it its lines. There must have been love in that family, or none of the five children could have grown up to raise children of their own, as they did, by all appearances having plenty to offer. And yet, the big Yet. One of the five, the first born and nearest to his mother’s heart because he arrived after a series of failed pregnancies and before she succumbed to what motherhood would bring out in her, had run off with no intention of going back. Around the dinner table, the four other siblings, the girls especially in their odd cotton, almost Mennonite-style dresses, looked up shyly but knowingly from their plates, to snatch glimpses of their lost brother and his unlikely girl friend.

Craig and I had moved in together during the second year of my undergraduate program in Montreal. A honeymoon year one might have expected. We were both in psychotherapy. Somehow Craig must have gotten himself to his therapist in the months he was confined to bed with mononucleosis, strep, and the deciding punch that kept him there. I was at school most days. We each saw our doctors once a week. I remember mine nodding his head while regarding me with clear, kind eyes, when I declared the topic of Craig off-limits. Muddying the waters, I called it. I didn’t want anyone else’s two-cents muddying the waters of my seeing for myself how or if our relationship worked out. The only time he showed chagrin was when after three years I declared I’d been accepted into graduate school in another city and so would have to end the therapy. Did he think I was ready to terminate? What did it matter what he thought, he said a little testily, as I had already made up my mind without him? I’d considered the decision to move away from Montreal a sign in itself of readiness. For what? To act alone? Separate from the proxy parental prop? Individuate? A testament to his grace and self-management, he didn’t explode. How could my therapy possibly be finished when we hadn’t even begun to explore my mulish commitment to a depressed boy for whom I had yet to feel a sexual spark! These words he kept to himself though they must have filled his mouth close to choking. A therapist may perceive and intuit, but psychotherapy is ultimately limited by what the client brings to the table. Blind faith got me through that year; I did the same for Craig.

At graduate school we lived in a Hobbit’s flat not ten minutes from the university, a luxury after commuting all my life around a big city. All we had to do was walk down our street, beneath the roar and rumble of the international bridge, and we were on campus. Craig had lost a school year to mono, so had yet to finish his undergraduate degree, while I was on a free ticket, the first time I could study without having to do part-time work as well. No gas station or stockroom clerking, no waitressing or emptying bedpans in a nursing home. The gained hours felt like a magnanimous gift. Lest I developed too high a sense of myself, the Hobbit’s hovel set me right. A friend came down for a weekend from Toronto to help us scour years of grease off the kitchen walls. The mossy carpet had to be steam cleaned three times before we got rid of its stale musk. The flat came furnished, a mixed blessing requiring more scrub, bleach, and polish to make our own. The landlords were a couple, but we knew the woman more since she dropped by monthly to collect the rent from each of the four tenants of the subdivided house. She couldn’t get over how we’d transformed the dive with art prints and throws. “Real cute,” she’d say. “My stuff looks real cute in here,” all her doing. Next door and upstairs, the faces kept changing.

Craig ate without protest anything I served up however frugal and to put it kindly, innovative. One evening as we raised our forks over a funky stew of chicken livers, the front door shut, and heavy, purposeful steps strode through the living room. She materialized within moments, tall, big-boned, a face that looked ploughed. The landlady, bearing a square handbag on her crooked arm in a parody of gentility. She cast a proprietary gaze over the scene, amused to have caught us off guard, launching without salutation into a warning against giving out her number, “like you been doing,” to people inquiring about the flat next door if they were, “you know, them.” She didn’t say Black, but instead “not us, nice kids like you.” I remembered the man who had knocked on our door that week to inquire about the rental.

Craig’s chair scraped the floor. “That’s illegal,” he said. At six feet he didn’t stand much taller than the landlord.

“This is my house. I guess I can do what I want with it,” she claimed.

“Not if you discriminate, which is against the law.”

Clean walls were quickly swept aside, along with vacuumed carpets and waxed woodwork, and rent received promptly in cash.

“I can throw you out on the street, you know. You and your smelly slop. You think you’re special, but you’re just dirty renters like the rest.”

Craig didn’t touch her. A sheep dog snapping at her borders, he herded her door-wards. “Out,” he said, “out of our home. Don’t you dare disturb our supper.”

I might have laughed under different circumstances. “People like that,” I tried to the find words. “People like that—that. She could have been any of the ones who killed my parent’s families.” Craig had kicked the viper out while I sat paralyzed. It gave me hope for our future. “Supper,” I said, finally giving way to hilarity. “Craig, imagine if we called the police to lodge a complaint about disturbing our supper.”

We did have to call one day when scuffling and raised voices, the thud of something falling came from the flat next door. Through the window we saw both landlords, husband and wife, tussling with the tenant in the doorway of his flat. “Liar! Thief!” He was a recent arrival I barely recognized, slumped between his accusers, perhaps under the influence or the weather. At any rate, he was no match for them. Craig rushed outside.

“You better let the guy go. You can’t remove him by force. I told you before. It’s against the law.”

“Go yourself you stupid boy. You get out of our way. This here thief don’t pay up. You want to catch it too?”

I pulled at Craig’s arm. He was buzzing, literally vibrating as he shook me off. “Go in, Dana,” he pointed at our door. “Now. Call 911 right now!”

“Stupid. Stupid. I’ll show you, Stupid,” the woman, obviously the more feral of the two, screamed. But she let go of the drooping carcass who came to life with sufficient alacrity to bolt back inside.

Thereafter we kept the Axis Powers at bay by sending the rent by mail well before it was due at the end of each month. But I remained in the grip of a tableau I couldn’t shake: Craig trembling as he faced the three-headed monster. I’d stood behind him, his waist-length hair a shield in which each unerringly straight strand arrowed down his back. Long, well-formed fingers had curled unnaturally into clubs issuing from the barrels of his ever-present flannel shirt. Voluminous bell-bottomed jeans with their trodden hems caught wind of the rage in his knees. He was so affronted through and through, his hair, his shirt, his jeans, all so nearly known to me, had fused into a standard of war. Not a single atom in him had hesitated. It wasn’t fear that shook him uncontrollably. That was the puzzle. The way the ultra-sensitive Craig hurled himself into the fray without a thought. Shaking while molten lava poured off his core. Who was this?

After living with Craig for a quarter of a century, and hearing him tell me, some days for hours on end, what he was feeling, I cannot say I know what it was to have been Craig, or how he withstood an almost relentless form of suffering. Cycles of ups and down that we came to identify as latently bi-polar were proven by hindsight to have been there from the start, from before I ever met him. The boy on the ride mower in the cemetery, fired from his first summer job for being stoned. “I never even tried the stuff,” he told me. Had the proximity of death made him dissociate? For Craig, death was never a hypothetical shoved to a back burner of the mind. Hobbling through our first apartment on a phantom cane, his birthday an anathema. Eighteen year-old crock, geezer, one decrepit step closer to oblivion. Latently bi-polar his doctors later claimed, although Craig was never really ‘up’. ‘High’ for him was even keel for most. We might have continued lurching from a kind of strength to strength despite the recurrent collapses, for hadn’t Craig always crashed and then rebounded? His debilitating anxiety had not succeeded in holding him back. We had every reason to expect he’d climb the last rung from vice-president to CEO as he had from the very bottom of the ladder. I had watched him ascend on legs that as a boy had given out on him. “How so?” I’d asked after an Antonioni movie in which—during his parents’ nasty divorce—a little boy had woken up without power in his limbs. “Just like me,” Craig said afterwards “What? Hysterical paralysis?” “If that’s what you want to call it.” “Not what I want, what it was in the movie. Wow. It actually happened to you?” “Dunno,” and a shrug. He had no intention of poking that beast with a stick. I knew quite a bit about Craig and guessed more. Guess is the operative term.

Finishing graduate school for me was like stepping off the flat edge of the known world. I could no more envisage life beyond it, than I could going on to do a doctorate. Stymied, I wore pajamas all day, read La Morte d’Artur while Craig left town for a teaching practicum. I wrote a story casting Craig’s flight from his family as an Arthurian quest. He figured in most of my work, usually prone with an arm over his eyes. He, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to be employed, which is how we ended up within a year in a northern Alberta town where he’d landed a position as a high school teacher-librarian. Teaching jobs in the early eighties were hard to come by and only those willing to go afield had a chance of finding employment.

In most good marriages, disappointments can be managed. We all fail each other at times. Though it’s inevitable, the shock when it happens leaves one appalled. Sometimes I think it’s easier to get over such body blows. The recurrent disappointments prove more corrosive. I failed Craig in two ways. He tried hard, but we didn’t share a language in bed. The fact that he tried harder than I did was one of his lasting resentments. The other was his having to carry the financial load. Perhaps he felt misled. I had been ambitious at school and a high achiever. How did this not translate into the world of work? When either of us put a foot through a rotten floorboard, you could bet the board had been weakened by one of these issues. We’d patch it over, but were sure to tread too hard on the spots sooner or later. What Craig and I had was as good a marriage as one can have given our incompatibilities. We both valued living in peace, were neither of us given to fights. We placed our children’s well-being as top priority. We didn’t either of us squander money or have unreasonable material expectations. We loved the same books and movies and cared about writing. We shared a political understanding. Why then do I say we weren’t compatible? On some vaguer, more innate level that played out in the bedroom and the moth-balled parts of my being there was dissonance. Craig could read me like a grade school primer, but I didn’t feel fully recognized. It’s entirely possible this limitation was born of his illness, but I don’t buy it. There was something doggedly willful about the way he would not credit any part of me that didn’t touch on him or on ours. The disappointments in our marriage were chronic rather than episodic. We papered them over with common interests.

The view back from the initially distant future shows how long it takes some of us to grow up. The birth of a child, and death or enfeeblement of a cherished parent trigger great leaps forward whatever age they may arrive at. But the death of a spouse only diminishes. The death of a spouse brings one as close to one’s mortality as perhaps the death of a twin. At forty-six years of age it felt as though I’d been stripped of the next thirty years of my life, rushed into retirement. This, although our sons were just ten and sixteen, although to my eyes now I was relatively young.

After Craig died, I joined a therapeutic ‘grief group’ for a few sessions. You do what you think you should to ‘move forward’ from an experience that is inherently unassimilable, indigestible. We think we can ‘process’ any hard stone ingested by the spirit and break it down in our systems with the aid of a digestive agent such as psychotherapy, but some experiences are not subject to absorption. In the group of eight people who had lost spouses in the preceding weeks or months, there was a woman a year into her mourning who had not moved a step beyond the shock of initial loss. She had been on a waiting list for a liver transplant, cared for in her dire condition by her husband. The week she was finally scheduled for the operation, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She cancelled the transplant, stayed glued to his side during his frighteningly brief period of dying. She joined the group while recovering from the transplant, and was still in it a year later. She hadn’t paid a single bill, opened a single piece of mail, settled his estate, or cancelled his subscriptions since his death. He sat in his usual armchair with her daily. She poured his tea every morning, set a plate for him at each meal. He was there. She saw him, smelled him, felt his presence. Her mind told her he was dead, but her senses denied it. The group leader suggested that I might benefit from helping this woman with some of her outstanding paperwork. We didn’t live far from one another, and I seemed advanced in my handling of Craig’s demise. I had presented my state of mourning as having had a jump on it, as one might do preliminary readings over the summer for a course starting in September. I had been mourning the ‘end’ of Craig for months before he died while the disease ground away his ability to function in the world. I had been mourning the loss of my helpmeet and partner in life, the father of my children, the exceptional professional man, and kind, decent individual Craig had once had the capacity of being, the man he was. I thought I had a head start on my mourning. But you can’t prepare for the finality of death. It is utterly incomprehensible, un-absorbable. You don’t ‘get over’ it. At best you form a containing seal around it like a tree does around a spike or axe blade lodged in its trunk. Within days I had the first in a period of panic attacks.

For fifteen years after my husband took his life at the turn of the millennium, I wrote about our marriage. The book morphed through so many variations I lost track of stories like the forgotten names in an address book. The problem was a notion of commonality. I saw us as a normal couple living a typical middle class life, who happened to contend with the anomalies created by Craig’s illness in a kind of side-bar to our main business of getting ahead and raising our kids. My aim from the start was to show that we were a ‘normal’ family who had to cope with something that didn’t necessarily detract from that state so much as attach to it. This may be the reason I ran into trouble. The thing, book, half-animate creative venture fought back, refusing to live the lie.

The fragments of our marriage I’ve held on to are the parts we never got right, bruises one can’t help fingering, disfigurements that hurt to look at directly. Harder to hold in the heart is his dearness, a light radiating like his smile from behind the darkest of clouds, transcendent and ephemeral. He took his own, his real story with him. What’s left of it has become mine. My story now as everything I turn my pen to, rooted in a child raised by Holocaust survivors, the child who had to find a way to atone for the horrors that led to her birth, and who took too long to get there.

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Judith Kalman

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Judith Kalman is a Canadian writer whose collection of linked short stories, The County of Birches, was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1998 and St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. in 1999. It was a co-winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and a finalist for the U.S. National Jewish Book Award. Several stories in the collection received individual awards. “Not for Me a Crown of Thorns” appeared in the 1998 Journey Prize Anthology. “Flight” won the Tilden Canadian Literary Award, a National Magazine Award and the President’s Medal for overall best magazine publication and was broadcast on CBC’s Between the Covers. Other stories from the collection have been anthologized in The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women and Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, as well as in other anthologies.

Most recently, her personal essay “Testifying” was published by Another Chicago Magazine, which submitted it for consideration for the Pushcart Prize.

If you enjoyed In Sickness and in Health leave a comment and let Judith know.
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