The Pact

Photo of Moon and Venus by NASA/Bill Dunford

November 4, 2017. Last night, Alex, Ben, and I flew down to say our goodbyes to you. Doug has been here for over a week, and his going back and forth since September has become a part of our marital rhythm. N, of course, has been helpful: she drove up from Alabama a few days ago to be with you and, earlier today, picked us up at our hotel in Atlanta.

We’ve been in your house for a half hour and haven’t seen you yet. The boys have caught up with their father, but now he’s in your room, helping you out of bed. We’re in the kitchen where N is keeping the feeling light while we wait for you.

Y’all like Candy Land? she says and smiles. She cocks her head to the side. Can you believe all these games I found downstairs?

Ben stretches out his arms and yawns. We can play, he says, but I’ll beat everyone.  

Of course, that game’s right at your level, Alex tells him.

Hey, I love Candy Land, N says. And I’m pretty darn good at it. There’s Trouble, too. Y’all like Trouble more? Another smile. (You know how beautiful her smile is.)

Alex and Ben get along with her, always have, but they haven’t seen her in over a decade. Yes, they’re twenty-four already, only a few years younger than she is. She’s grown into a lovely young woman, an artist who works as a nanny, and she’s told me about her boyfriend, how he’s the one. They live together in Alabama. Sometimes you’re hard on her and criticize her for what she might not know, but it’s clear how much you love her. In your eyes, she’s your only child. I can’t remember the last time you called her your stepdaughter.

We sit at the small kitchen table and start to play Trouble, and after a few turns, just as Ben is about to pop the dice inside the plastic bubble, Doug brings you into the kitchen in a wheelchair.

My family’s here, you say, with a burst of energy and a wag of the head. I apologize for how I look. You glance down at the floor.

It’s so good to see you, I tell you, and we all rise from the kitchen table. I hug you, Alex and Ben do, too, and N pecks you on the cheek.

Your eyes are about all that I recognize. They’re big, a silver blue in this room. In another light, the color shifts into the shade of shallow seawater. You used to be fifteen pounds overweight, with a slight belly, and your hair was thick and black. It’s all grey now, and your skin clings to your bones like smoke. You never did bear any resemblance to Ken and Doug. Hard to tell apart, your identical twin brothers. They’re over six feet tall, several inches taller than you, and they’re slim, their hair silken and straight, their eyes green. Being a twin makes for a sticky bond. I see that with Alex and Ben, who, although fraternal, look disarmingly alike.

I turn away from you, thinking I’m too late. I’ve lost the brother-in-law I had in my memory, and I don’t know what to say to who you are now. I race through topics in my head, can’t settle on one. How can anything matter?

I talk about Stockbridge, your home. I’ve only been here twice, I say, for your wedding and when you moved in. So it’s been twenty years or more?

You nod.

The last time I saw you was in Manhattan, I realize, three years ago, for your grandmother’s one hundredth birthday party. You’d see Doug, Ken, and your father often, twice a year, at a resort in Ojai, California. A father/son tradition. You were there this past summer. A few months later, in early October, you were diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.


Shortly after Thanksgiving, I called you, something I rarely did. It was the longest conversation I ever had with you. You were scheduled for chemo and radiation in the first week of January.

A friend of mine was treated the same week he was diagnosed. I would think every day counts. I don’t mean to be critical of your doctors, but—why do you have to wait until January?

There’s a hell of a lot of coordinating going on. One doctor is at the hospital in Stockbridge and another’s at Emory, but my oncologist is top in the field. That’s what I’m told. Have you heard of this medical center in Texas, the MD Anderson Center?


That’s the place in the country for cancer, and my doctor consults with them all the time. He’s recommending I have an esophagectomy. You know what that is?

They cut out the tumor.

Yep, and the part of the esophagus that’s affected by the tumor, sometimes all of the esophagus, and then they connect it to your stomach. But they can’t promise that’ll help, so I’m gonna take my chances with chemo and radiation.

Can’t you be put on a waiting list?

I really think they’re giving me the first opening they have. I guess I could find a doctor, someone the family knows, who has enough pull to get me an earlier appointment, but it doesn’t sit right with me. You should see these cancer centers, Lori. They’re so crowded. It’s unbelievable. These people are so sick.

I can imagine. Have you been able to eat a little more?

I can’t keep anything down. I’m supposed to drink a lot, water especially, but that’s tough, too.

Have you tried using a straw? You can keep a glass of water nearby and sip it often.

That’s a great idea! I’ll do that. That’s a very good idea.

I can come down this week. I want you to know that, and I’ll stay in a hotel nearby, so I’m not in your way, but I can be helpful.

I appreciate that, Lor, but hold off. I’ll let you know when. Not yet. I’ll let you know. I really appreciate you talking this over with me. I’ve got nothing else to do but think about this, and I’m scared shitless. I have a few friends here who are religious, and they’re praying up the kazoo for me. What do you think of that?

Their faith gives them comfort, I suppose. Praying also makes some people feel less alone, especially if they’re facing something difficult. I pray sometimes. I don’t believe in God, not really, but when I’m distressed or worried, praying clears my head.  It’s a petition of sorts, and I guess it helps me prioritize what counts. Anyway, they say it helps to be hopeful, you know, it helps your state of mind.

Listen, sweetheart, I’m going to get off. You’re just a doll to call. Thanks for everything.  

I’ll check in with you very soon. In the meantime, try the straw.

Why didn’t I tell you I had already prayed for you? For several nights in a row, I recited a silly rhyme I’d learned as a child, have no idea from where, maybe from the back of a cereal box or Sunday school. I fired a kid’s plea out into the darkness like a load of buckshot: God, thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Words so familiar that they slipped out like a whistle. Then I added: Please help him get through this. Let the chemo work. Let him go into remission.

After your six-week treatment, the tumor appeared to be gone. Relief floated through our house, and one evening, I lay awake, aware of my good health, and thought about a scene from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, one that has always moved me because of its sacrificial nature. The lovers, Sarah and Maurice, are in bed during an air raid when Maurice steps out of the room. Suddenly the flat is rocked by an explosion, and Sarah goes to look for Maurice. She sees a hand under a door, thinks it’s his, and returns to the room, where she kneels down to pray: I said, I will believe. Let him be alive, and I will believe… But that wasn’t enough. It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up for ever.…And then Maurice opens the door, and she must, well, you see where the story is headed.

I pressed my hands together under the covers, interlocked my fingers—it’s like putting on a costume, this gesture, it builds confidence—and I said, Please God, if you let him go into remission, I won’t try to get my book published. I’ll let it go.

I’m not sure which novel I actually put up for grabs, the old one I hadn’t been able to sell, or the new I’d just finished, but what a paltry petition. I’m embarrassed by this memory, you should know. If I had offered to give up writing, would my prayer have been more noble? Is the love between two people equal to the love between a writer and her writing?

Had I lost my mind?

Yep, I can hear you say, that’s fucking nuts. You’ve got to be kidding me.


In the den, football is on television and a gas fireplace is lit. It’s 78 degrees outside. A blanket, pillow, and sweater are scattered on the tweed couch. Next to a box of tissues and several vials of pills, there’s a stack of newspapers on the coffee table, and on a side table, a glass of water with a straw.

When you first moved here with N’s mother, into this five-bedroom house, you hired an interior designer to decorate, and the living room reminds me of an Ethan Allen showroom from the 1990s. After the divorce, you didn’t downsize. You never cook, evidenced by the absence of spices, boxes of tea or cookies, oils and vinegars, and paper napkins from the quaint napkin holder on the counter.

I hope we’re not making you miss your game, I say.

Don’t worry. There are games on all day.

Alex and Ben comment on a play from yesterday’s game, which makes you smile. You can tell them apart, I think, because you grew up with twin brothers. You’ve always been fond of my sons, and they feel the same about you. You make them laugh, and you’ve been generous with them; you often show your affection with gifts.

You ask Doug for your painkillers. He gives you what you need, helps you to the couch, and covers you with a blanket. You only want N, Doug, and Ken around you. With the exception of the occasional shower or necessary supplies provided by a hospice nurse, you’ve refused the help of any other professional aide as well as the company of your friends. You weren’t even sure about having me and the boys visit, but you also didn’t stop us.

Look how Doug has changed. Your brother is not, by nature, a caregiver or caretaker, not by any measure. I make just about all his meals, do his laundry, clean up after him, while he looks after our finances—now that’s a throwback to our parents’ time, another kind of crazy if I let myself consider it for long—but in every other way he and I are on equal footing. And we’re rarely apart. Since he has been here, he has been living on take-out. He runs out to fetch you a milkshake, a cinnamon bun, whatever you think you can keep down, and he even lights your cigarette for you, not in his mouth, as a smoker would, but in yours. Although he believes smoking is the last thing you should be doing, he carries out your wishes.

Your illness has quieted him, and he is not a quiet man. When he’s with you, we try to talk on the phone every night. Once, he told me, you got up in the middle of the night and fell. You called out for him, and after he helped you up, you couldn’t wait to get to the bathroom, and peed. You then said you had to lie down, which you did, on the carpet. You fell asleep. He covered you up, and, from then on, he slept on the den couch, closer to you.

Whenever he can, he spends his time on your fifteen-year-old-old computer, combing through the odds of the football games, and then calls the bookie that you have known since you were eighteen. Doug’s bets are never big; it’s the hedging of bets that excites him, much like playing the stock market. After rehab, you weren’t supposed to gamble, and you didn’t for some time, but then you began asking Doug to put in your bets for you. As much as you loved watching sports and gambling on them, I think you loved even more talking to Doug about the games. The thrill of possibly winning was sweetened if the two of you were somehow in it together.

There’s no doubt you adore both your brothers. You’ve always admired their athleticism. You’re accepting of their closeness—how one minute they can act as if they hate each other and in the next be laughing—but, I imagine, you’ve been jealous of their bond from time to time, which isn’t to say I think of you as having been lonely all these years.

You made it clear for some time that you wouldn’t marry again. Your first wife left you because of your drug use, and N’s mother left you because you had slept with someone. After two failed marriages, you’re sensitive to the layers of emotions that build up between spouses. You’re aware of how close Doug and I are, how much we talk and rely on each other.


So here I am in your home, feelinguseless. I feel like a fool. I might as well be dressed in a jester’s costume, mute, with bells and ribbons dangling from my fingers and toes. I feel as if I don’t really know you, or what I know about your life in Stockbridge seems insufficient, a mere outline: For almost twenty years you were a drug supervisor at a rehab clinic, but you haven’t worked in the past eighteen months. You loved what you did, were good at it, but you gave bus fare to a few clients, which is against the rules, and you were fired. You have friends down here, lots of them, and a few took you to your doctor appointments before your brothers became involved. I know you love the development where you live, Eagle’s Landing, and you used to play golf and tennis at the country club with your buddies.

When I first met you, I was thirty-one, six years younger than you, and I knew you smoked pot, maybe did some coke. I’d heard you were a reckless teenager —my kind of rebel—the boy who had sex in the bathroom with his girlfriend. I liked your taste in music: the Stones; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Bowie. Your brothers were not like you; they were athletic stars who studied hard.

You lived on your maternal grandmother’s property, a family compound, in essence, in the house where you and your brothers, when you were all in your twenties, used to spend so much time. The house, due to your neglect, was beginning to fall apart. Doug and I, when we were first dating, would come out on weekends to spend a night with you and then visityour grandmother who lived next door. You rarely saw her, and I soon learned how adept you were at hiding. You’d retreat into your room for hours. You’d get up in the morning and drive to your favorite bakery to bring back fresh coffee and a meltaway for us.

You had a cocker spaniel you took everywhere. A dog-lover, an animal-lover in general, you were obsessed with the antivivisectionist, Hans Ruesch, well-known in certain activist circles. You called him in Switzerland, donated money to his cause, and bought hundreds of his books with the intention of giving them away to your friends, but the boxes remained in your house. When you found out I shared your love for animals, you gave me several books and told me, with a feverish excitement, about all the senseless experiments that were conducted under the guise of medical research. At the time, you were working as an insurance salesman, a job you didn’t care about.

That year, you lost a lot of weight and often seemed wired. Once, at a family gathering, you jumped up during dinner and excused yourself, after which your grandmother, who was not at all open minded, said she thought you were as high as a kite.

Ever since you were a teenager, you had struggled with drugs. Doug and Ken, at times, looked down on your absence of willpower. They intellectually understood you weren’t to blame but had trouble empathizing with the damage you inflicted on yourself and others. Your father finally forced you to seek help. Your mother—you were her first-born, her favorite, no second-guessing there—had told him to stop giving you any money. Although they were divorced, they worked together to save you. So when you called your father one day to ask for enough money to buy a sandwich, he said no, unless you promised to admit yourself into a clinic.

1996—you were forty-two. The clinic was in Atlanta. It was expensive and you stayed for many months, longer than anyone expected. After so many therapy sessions, you learned a lot about yourself, but even in rehab, you broke the rules by having a relationship with another patient, N’s mother. After you and she were married, you chose to live near Atlanta and found a job helping addicts recover, many of them without money or family, nothing like the clinic you’d gone to, and I remember thinking you had found your mission.

You gained weight, and, as a new husband and father, you became a louder, stronger presence in the family. You had your moments when you could be grating, when you felt the need to captain the hour. You’d choose the restaurant, order for everyone, steer the conversation, get irritated when one of your nephews interrupted you, but you were also smart and informed. You were a Democrat, unlike your mother, with whom you could argue without reservation. You were passionate about reform but had left behind anyone or anything associated with your days of getting high, including Ruesch and his books.

As for how you treated me, whenever I moved ahead in my writing—beginning a new project, getting my work published—you were happy for me, at times delighted, although I’m not sure you ever read anything I wrote.

N had a nickname for you: she added “bear” to the end of your name, as if you had no choice but to stomp through a room and knock this person out of the way while trying to protect another.

Some in the immediate family saw you as damaging; others saw you as kind and generous. You didn’t care what anyone thought of you. I happened to like who you were—I think, I hope, you’ve always known that.


We’re still playing Trouble, and now I have things I want to say to the you I do know: I love how sweet you’ve been to my sons, how you care about politics, how you enjoy reading novels, how you’re a Luddite at heart and still use a flip phone, how you don’t back down… And I’ve failed, that’s what I also want to tell you. After our long conversation, I failed to call you as I’d promised, and I’m ashamed of myself. Is that why, when it was clear that the cancer had spread, you pushed me away? I’m shy, try to be truthful, and when I can’t be truthful, I tend to be silent. When I realized you were surrendering to your illness at the end of the summer, I couldn’t lie and say I understood. Instead, I researched clinical trials around the country and came across the name of the wife of one of your father’s close friends, a radiologist at Sloan Kettering. I asked Doug if he thought she would be willing to inquire about one of the hospital’s trials for esophageal/gastric cancer I’d read about.

At first, you were interested. That’s the last time you talked to me with some ease. You were amazed that this friend was able to get an appointment with the head doctor of the trial in just two weeks. The plan was for Ken to fly up with you and for both of you to stay in a hotel close to the hospital. You were already taking plenty of pain killers; you were losing more and more weight, and your despair was thick.

One morning, you called and I answered. You told me to tell Doug that you hadn’t heard from the admitting person at Sloan Kettering and then you hung up on me. I understood your anger wasn’t directed at me, but I was shaken by it. Another time, I was talking to Doug while you and Ken were on a conference call, and I heard you say, If Lori would just stop talking, I’d hear you better. I took that as you wanted me to step away and leave you to your brothers. But I didn’t want to leave. Soon enough, before the day of the appointment, Ken informed Doug that he wouldn’t be taking you to New York. You were too sick. Who were we fooling?

Did that decision come as a relief to you?

Within a month, your stomach began filling up with fluid, and a simple aspiration revealed that your cancer cell count had skyrocketed.


Even before the possibility of a clinical trial came up, you had rejected almost all of your doctors’ recommendations. You didn’t want surgery, and when you clearly needed nourishment, you didn’t want a feeding tube, and when it was almost impossible to find a vein, you didn’t want a port for chemo. You seemed scared of every new intrusion. I was surprised. When you were healthy, you never struck me as fearful. After all, you’d overcome your addiction and worked in a field where you encouraged others not to give up.

Perhaps the idea of a trial, of stepping into the unknown alone—with the required good dose of faith—was too unsavory for you. Better to numb yourself. That old habit. At some point, you told Ken about a stash of painkillers you’d hidden in the ceiling of the basement. He found hundreds sealed in a bag. No one asked you why the pills were there.

Alone with N, I ask her how you might have acquired so many pills. There’s this friend—she guesses—who has a prescription and lives in another state and probably needs the money.


We stay with you until around five. That’s it. You’re tired, and we’re leaving the next day. We invite N to join us for dinner in Buckhead, not too far from our hotel, and Doug will stay with you.

You ask N to fetch your wallet. Take them out tonight, you tell her.

Alex and Ben hug you, and you tell them they’re great young men and how proud of them you are. My sons are close to each other, and the idea that their father is about to lose a brother, as well as that they are about to lose you, is weighing on them. They smile, wish you luck on a bet you made, and back away.

I move closer to you and say, Is there anything we can get you?


I’m happy Doug is here with you.

You shake your head and say, You can’t have him. If he isn’t here, I’m gone.

I know that, I say. I’m hurt by your harsh tone and want to tell you I’ve only encouraged Doug to be with you. Instead, I say, I really am glad he’s here.

You look away for a second and then your eyes are on me again. Thanks for coming, Lor. It means a lot.

I kiss you on the forehead. There’s the faint odor of cigarette smoke. I love you, I whisper.

Outside, I find Alex in the street, on the phone, walking in circles, and Ben and N in the car. Doug steps out to say goodbye, and I bury my face in his chest and cry. His arms tighten around me, and my body relaxes.


Days later, back at home, N texts me: G thought you were one of us helping him today. He was like, That’s it, Lori. Referring to how we were moving him on the couch.


November 14, around ten at night. You die in the den, by the fireplace, in a hospital bed that hospice brought in after we left. Your brothers and N are beside you.

Doug and I fly down a month later for your memorial service at your club. We stay at your house. In your bedroom, I look through your books. I knew you read a lot but didn’t think our tastes aligned, yet I find a novel I admire, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, a novella I’ve been wanting to read, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and books by authors I’ve yet to know, Graham Swift and Jo Ann Beard. I take the books.

Ken arrives the next day, as does N, and while your brothers are out doing errands and tending to estate matters, she and I sit on the floor of the living room to sort through your boxes.

One box is stuffed with mimeographed sheets from several recovery programs and transitional houses in Atlanta. There are business cards, too, one from a police sergeant, one from an aviation safety inspector for the FAA. There’s a pile of letters and cards.

One greeting card is inscribed with Thanks a bunch! dated November 2015, from your mother’s caregiver to whom you lent $15,000 so her daughter, who lives in Ukraine, could put down a deposit on a house there. The caregiver paid you back some of the money and, after you died, forgot about the rest.

There’s a letter from the principal of a law firm, thanking you for putting his brother in the position to reclaim his life.

There’s one letter after another:

    • Thank you for making me feel like I “BLOOMED” because you “got me.”
    • Thank you for being the angel on top of all my TREES and may God Bless You Abundantly for all the joy you’ve brought my way…
    •  Your generous and loving spirit…is a gift from God. The laughter, with a hint of sarcasm, will never be matched… You remind me of King Darius.
    •  I heard that Jewish people are hard-headed and think they are special, guess what? We think you ARE special!!!       

My back is starting to hurt from sitting so long on the floor. I’m about to get up when I come across an agreement for a vehicle loan made out to your close friend, A, who has multiple sclerosis. You had bought a used van so you could lease it to A. I read that, in the event of A’s death, the van will be returned to you, and, in the event of your death, the note will become null and void with the effect of being paid in full.


That afternoon, we all drive over to A’s house. He looks about ten years younger than you. He’s black, with a serene face, dressed in sweats, and confined to a wheelchair. You worked together at your old job until he became too sick to continue. We meet his mother, brother, and an aide. A’s insurance doesn’t cover weekend help. Every Sunday, you’d go grocery shopping for the family, pick up lunch, come over to watch a game, and then pay the aide for the weekend. A’s mother shows us where you used to sit on the couch. They were the best of friends, the best, she says. Like brothers, A’s brother says. I stare at the spot on the couch.

A tells us how much he will miss your visits and how sorry he is that he can’t make the memorial service. He doesn’t say much more. N then gives him a photograph of you, a headshot, and he thanks her. His mother props it on the fireplace mantel, under an old black-and-white family portrait that spans three generations.


How often do I see you? Too often. But how long can that last? I summon an image of you, probably from a photo I’ve looked at recently, and place it in the setting of my choice, and then I watch you move. When excited, you could wriggle your body like a puppy, a brief and gleeful dance. I see you mostly around food. You’d plan a flight around a buffet brunch and get a kick out of watching your brothers stuff themselves. I hear your voice, a forceful voice. Steak, medium-rare. I want to see some blood. And crispy onion rings, very crispy. Fries, the steak fries, and load ‘em up! And I want a Diet Coke, with lemon. Just bring it all at once. Don’t hold back. I hear you leaving a message on our phone machine. Instead of saying goodbye, you say very fast: I’m out. I see you as you’re stung by a bee on a shuffleboard court while we’re on vacation in West Virginia. You tell me you don’t react well to bee stings, and I give you Benadryl. You’re so appreciative as if I’ve given you so much more. I see your joy after Ken has picked you up at the airport and suddenly stops the car, pretending to have a flat, and pops open the trunk where Doug is hiding. I see you at Disney World wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, and in a banquet room, giving your wedding speech: It’s not that I need my bride, it’s that she completes me. You’re in a tuxedo, wearing a red rose boutonniere, handsome, trim, healthy, sober, and, for the moment, complete.


Why is it so important that I make sense of everything I’ve learned about you? Your silence about your work. Your quiet generosity. Your insistence on having Doug, Ken, and N do everything for you during the most painful stages. Think about it: You would have never taken care of any one of them on your own. You would have insisted on hiring a nurse, citing the need for safety and comfort, both of which you weren’t qualified to provide.

Zadie Smith writes about her father’s death, “The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.”  


At the memorial service, everyone’s mingling. The room is spacious and paneled in oak, and there’s a wraparound patio, a golf course beyond it. Many stand up to tell their stories about you. One man, a member of your tennis team, says that you recently treated several of your good friends to a luxurious golf resort. You’d think the guy was high the way he gave away his money, he says.

Later, a young woman in her twenties speaks. I met her earlier in the evening, and Doug has spent some time with her in the past few weeks. She’s studying to become a nurse. She introduces herself as the daughter of your long-time housekeeper, a woman with whom, at one point, you had a relationship, until she wanted to marry you. The daughter, dark haired, brown eyed, has a wide smile. She calls you a father figure and says she doesn’t know what she’ll do without your weekly talks. You’ve left this young woman a a substantial amount of money in your will, enough to cover most of her graduate school expenses.

Next, a clean-cut man, in his thirties, stands up. He’s poised yet nervous. He says he knows you through bugs—he’s your pest control technician—and he tells about a feral cat who had kittens in your attic and how you were concerned the cats might be harmed. Every time I came over, we talked, he tells the room. He knew about my children and my home life, and he had a great sense of humor.

This young man is also in your will.


After the memorial service, past eleven. The nurse-to-be and the pest technician join us for a late-night snack at one of the few places that’s still open, Waffle House. The restaurant is small—a counter, a few tables—and bright and empty. After listening to so many stories, we’re all punchy and laughing quite a bit. We’re comfortable around one another, talking nonstop, when the waiter shuffles over. Doug and Ken tell him we’ve just left your service and that it’s been a long day. Suddenly we’re all famished. We order far too much. Fried eggs, hash browns, buttered toasts, pancakes, coffee, milk, juice. After the food comes, the waiter lingers by our table. He’s been promoted to manager, he says, but tonight he was back in the kitchen, cooking for us, and he’s waiting to hear how we like it. 

In this suburb, where fast food chains abound, a landscape I first assessed as soulless, I’m beginning to understand why you loved living here. I’ve been missing the point for too long. You were focused on who lived here, on their stories. You didn’t distance yourself from the people you helped. You sat with them, ate with them, listened to them, joked around with them, and, because you understood that no one is ever that far from distress, you gave what you could to them. They deserved a chance, even a leg up. They were you. 


Some time ago, I woke up at dawn to go to the bathroom and found myself staring at a bright star out the window. I realized it was the planet Venus. I’d identified it as Venus before, yet its presence had never moved me, but, in that moment, it was luminous. Many months later, it still is. Why tell you this? To illustrate how I’ve felt while grieving for you. You’ve been gone for a year, and when I talk about you, you continue to appear new to me. I resist sentimentality and don’t discount your shortcomings, but I praise the wide reach of your embrace. You transformed your strong feeling for others into action. How many times have I wanted to do just that and couldn’t?

Start small, I tell myself. It’s working, too. I’ve been able to express my gratitude, admiration, whatever surge of feeling it might be, to a few people whom I don’t know all that well but who have made a difference in my day-to-day living. I’ve managed to show, in one way or another, that they matter to me, and my interest has surprised them. A gift, a note, an effort to be helpful—a call for action—little endeavors, perhaps, but, for me, such steps have never been easy. I think of this as a pact between you and me.

How does that sound to you?


Photo at the top of the page credit: NASA/Bill Dunford (Bright Venus seen near the crescent Moon on July 15, 2018).


Guadagnino’s Ivory Tower: Setting, Intellectualism, and Desire in Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name could have easily drowned in its own pretension.

Italy. Lombardy. Summer. The 1980s. Bright bathing suits and plenty of Italian Europop. Luca Guadagnino’s film takes up residence in an idle northern Italian 17th-century villa and tells the story of Elio Perlman, a precocious seventeen-year-old who spends his days transposing music, reading, and hanging out with other young summer residents. His primary responsibilities include partaking in the social engagements that his highly-educated parents ask him to attend and occasionally entertaining guests with his killer piano abilities. The family employs a cook and maid, Mafalda, and a groundskeeper, Anchise. Oliver, “the usurper,” enters their isolated, ethereal world. He is a 24-year-old graduate student spending the summer as Mr. Perlman’s live-in assistant. Together, Oliver and Elio read endlessly, engage in hyperintellectual banter near various bodies of water (they dredge up an ancient statue from one of them), and eat plenty of fresh fruit. They lead lives of leisure far-removed from the vast majority of modern audiences.

The scholarly, luxurious world of the Perlman’s villa almost guarantees Guadagnino’s inability to engage with the intersection of race, class, gender-identity, and non-normative sexual identity (with the notable exception of Elio and Oliver’s shared Jewish identity). There are certainly grounds for arguing that the queer love story illustrated in Call Me by Your Name only provides representation for the upper echelons of society and should therefore not be viewed as the coming-of-age queer story of our time. There is also an argument to be made that, because the film is more palatable for easily-shaken audiences—those who may write off a film that challenges them on more than one front (in the way that Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight engages with race, class, and notions of masculinity)—Elio and Oliver’s story more effectively sways these viewers’ understandings of queer relationships. These are questions that must be asked of queer cinema, but we are not asking those today.

Instead, we ask how Guadagnino’s erudite protagonists and ethereal setting contribute to the central thrust of the film—Elio’s process of acknowledging his own desires, articulating them to another person, and having those desires be fulfilled. The political rumblings beneath the surface of “somewhere in northern Italy” become more and more apparent throughout the film and mirror Elio’s internal conflict in understanding his sexuality. Furthermore, Elio’s verbal limitations during his interactions with Oliver challenge the notion that Elio is the incredible linguist that the film sets him up to be. These tensions in setting and language heighten viewers’ understanding of Elio’s sexual awakening.

“Somewhere in northern Italy,” 1983.

There seems to be no better place for Elio to learn about his sexuality than Italy, which has always occupied a liminal identity. Former center of the Roman Empire but a country struggling with its Constitution and party strife in the 1980s in its first forty years as a nation after WWII. Seat of the Vatican and Catholicism, yet also known for its beauty, sultry romance, and passion – the same passion that constitutionally let honor killings off easy until the early 1980s. Until 1981, if someone killed their spouse and their lover caught in the act of an affair, jurisdiction could be more lenient because of a perceived sense of honor that needed to be upheld.

Similarly, though Italy may feel open and free as Oliver and Elio dance and kiss in the streets of Bergamo near the end of the film, the next day they share a hug at the train station, unable to kiss in public. Italy lags behind Europe in terms of gay rights, and acts of homophobic and transphobic hate crime remain common. Italy is ripe with contradictions and dualities, providing Elio with a space in which to explore his sexual identity beyond a binary understanding of love: he finds pleasure with both Oliver and Marzia and allows himself to explore both relationships.

Throughout the film, Italians on TV and at the table discuss Bettino Craxi and the Historic Compromise, an important shift in government coalitions in the 1970s between the Christian Democracy and Italian Communist Party, a shift that people disagree about and fight over its importance years after it occurred. A shift spearheaded by Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democracy, that led to his kidnapping and murder in May 1978. The 80s brought the pentapartito—a coalition of five parties—the beginnings of the EU, and important focus to economic development. Individualism called for more free-market and less state, and Italy became an important economic player on the world stage.

And yet, Italians in town don’t have anywhere to be: they drive tractors and do manual labor, drink coffee, and go out with no sense of urgency or needing to accomplish anything in particular. Everybody just exists. Instead of being the movers and shakers, Italians around Elio think and debate. The 80s were a time of change in Italy, yet the background of Elio’s summer is stagnant, in suspension with its lazy bike rides and quiet mornings in the town square. Change may have been happening a short trip away in Milan, but in the countryside people luxuriate in the thick of summer.

When Elio and Oliver visit a woman’s house for a glass of water, a framed poster of Mussolini hangs above the threshold. The classics surround everyone as well, dredged up from Lake Garda, observed in slides in Elio’s father’s study, in conversations between Elio and Oliver. In inhabiting Italy, people occupy an identity influenced by the glory, honor, and disgrace of the nation’s history. Italians operate within the gray areas, accepting blurry definitions of state, self, and identity. That people inhabit a space of political in-between underscores Elio’s process of asking himself what his feelings towards Oliver are as they begin to surface. If Elio sees people dwelling in liminality in other arenas, why not allow himself to think about his own definition of sexuality as well? His own sexual awakening—exploring love with Oliver, Marzia (and the oft-cited peach) simultaneously—comes to mirror Italy’s own nuanced understanding of self.

The tensions arising from setting become even more personal as the film progresses. As Elio and Oliver become closer, the realities of summer ending become even more apparent. Perhaps the most devastating disruption to the ethereal setting is the eventuality of Oliver’s departure.

“Is it better to speak or to die?”

Spoiler alert: Elio (thankfully) does not die. He does speak, though. As he and Oliver encircle the World War I monument for the Battle of Piave, Elio circuitously professes his interest in Oliver. Until the statue scene, like the knight who debates professing his love for the princess, Elio is unable to express his feelings for Oliver. That Elio is fluent in so many languages renders his own speechlessness with Oliver more poignant. His intricate knowledge of the external (history, literature, music, art, language, etc.) has not quite aligned with an understanding of his internal state. Part of the journey of Call Me by Your Name is witnessing Elio transpose his external knowledge—the stuff that he is familiar with—into a language of love that acknowledges the internal rumblings he feels as soon as the usurper, Oliver, enters his world.

Elio uses music, history, art, and literature, as jumping-off points to express his interest in Oliver. Because he is more familiar with the language of intellectualism, engaging in intellectual discourse with Oliver seems most natural. Furthermore, it allows Elio to minimize the vulnerability that comes with directly discussing his feelings with Oliver. Early in the film, when Oliver asks Elio to play a song on the guitar, Elio is emboldened to hike up his jean shorts and tell Oliver to follow him. He proceeds to play the same song in a range of styles: young Bach’s version, Liszt’s alteration of Bach’s version, Busoni’s alteration of Liszt’s version. Elio’s performance is an attempt to impress Oliver, which it seems to do. The scene ends with Oliver folding himself into the couch, in awe of the young musician. The piano scene is one of Elio’s first attempts to grab Oliver’s attention through a familiar medium—music. Although Elio grabs Oliver’s attention, he hasn’t yet clarified his interest in Oliver (to himself or to Oliver). The chaotic range of emotions, which the various versions of the song convey, reflects Elio’s confusion with his own identity. Does Elio feel more of the jolting Busoni version of the song toward Oliver? Or perhaps the mellower Bach version. The scene is indicative of Elio’s ability to replicate the external but inability to listen to himself and share his own version of Bach’s melody with Oliver.


Before he communicates his desire to Oliver, Elio must acknowledge that those desires exist within himself. Guadagnino expertly tracks Elio’s slow recognition (made possible by Timothée Chalamet’s commanding performance) in the film’s iconic dance scene. Elio watches Oliver kiss Chiara as they dance.  He overhears his friends’ typical teenage reactions to a dance floor make out; the conversation is almost comically adolescent in the way it unfolds. One of the boys says that he wants to be in Oliver’s shoes. Another boy cheers on his efforts. Elio tries his best to not engage in the conversation. One of the women says, “Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes?” An example of James Ivory’s masterful writing, the question maintains the conversation’s heteronormativity while allowing Elio to have his own, quiet answer to that question through Guadagnino’s visual storytelling. Midway through the question, Guadagnino cuts to a medium shot of Elio, who very much wants to be in Chiara’s shoes. As Elio shifts his eyes and smokes his cigarette, he continues watching Oliver on the dance floor. Elio leans into the camera, which creates an intimate close-up. His confusion, let-down, and realization of his feelings for Oliver have never been clearer. As he shifts in his seat, the camera fails to maintain focus, reflective of Elio’s internal chaos—his biting realization that his admiration for Oliver is not quite normal.

It takes a nudge from parents to push him to speak. The Perlman family curls up on the couch on one of the few rainy days in the film to read a 16th century French romance novel (that is written in German but translated into English, courtesy of Elio’s mother) about a knight who fails to profess his love to a princess. Elio, in one of his more vulnerable moments in the film, tells his parents “I’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that” to which his father supportively responds, “I doubt that.” His parents introduce a particularly relevant novel to their son. They perceive that something is going on with him – whether they know that it specifically has to do with Elio’s feelings toward Oliver is unclear. Either way, his parents exhibit an understanding of Elio’s need to intellectualize his own feelings in order to enter into them; they create a new language, one that merges a shared language of intellectualism with musings on unspoken love. The story becomes an entry point for Elio to understand that it may, in fact, be better to speak, and his parents’ support gives him the courage to consider doing that.


Seemingly inspired by story time with his parents, Elio makes tentative moves to share his feelings with Oliver when he brings up the French love story with Oliver as they lounge by the pool. The princess and knight’s story becomes an allegory for whether Elio will tell Oliver of his interest in him beyond friendship. Elio sits yards away from Oliver, who is perched on the pool ledge with his back facing Elio. The camera starts from Elio’s point of view to remind viewers of his limited ability to read Oliver’s reactions during the conversation. In a conversation already ridden in subtext, Guadagnino’s blocking of the characters heightens the sense that neither character has a clear understanding of where the other is coming from. Guadagnino cuts to a close-up of Oliver during the conversation. In a film with very few close-ups, this one stands out. The framing mirrors the close-up of Elio during the dance scene (in the dance scene, Elio occupies the left side of the frame and in the pool scene, Oliver occupies the right). In both instances, the shallow depth of field ensures all eyes are on the subject and his processing of the scene. In the same way we begin to understand Elio’s attraction to Oliver in the dance scene, the close-up of Oliver at the pool is the first clear evidence that he seems deeply affected by what Elio has to say. In other words, Oliver seems in on the subtext, and viewers begin to understand that more clearly, even though Elio’s positioning makes it so that he can’t be as certain.

When Elio reveals that the knight “fudges” telling the princess about his love for her, Oliver jokingly says, “Figures, he’s French.” The subtext continues—Elio is (part) French. Does Oliver think that because of that, Elio lacks confidence to share his feelings? Within that single joke, there are layers and layers of complexity removed from an actual discussion of their feelings for one another: they are talking about fictional characters (and not themselves); Elio himself is ambiguously French; and to top it off, the idea is delivered in a joke, which is inherently difficult to understand as either serious or lighthearted. The limitations of allegorical conversations are clear: when speaking in allegory, Elio cannot be sure whether Oliver is on the exact same page as him.

Simultaneously, their pool conversation highlights the benefits of speaking allegorically. Communicating through the lens of a fictional story allows Elio to not be as vulnerable with Oliver, which provides a layer of protection in case the feelings are not mutual. Furthermore, if the opposite is true and Oliver seems to engage with Elio on the subtext, then Elio has permission to be more honest about his feelings. From Elio’s point of view during the pool scene, Oliver’s level of engagement lies somewhere in between, as it often does with subtext. Whether Oliver is engaging in the subtext or not, the main sentiment that Elio can derive from Oliver’s response to the story is that Oliver would prefer speaking over fudging. Oliver, an American, mocks the French for not having the confidence to share their feelings. Elio gleans a bit of knowledge about Oliver in a conversation that is seemingly purely academic. As a result, he is better able to gauge how Oliver may respond to a more explicit discussion of his interest, although there is certainly still a chance that Oliver made his remark about the knight without Elio in mind.

The boys bike to Piave. Elio moves into the realm of the more explicit as they explore the town. Although the language Elio uses to explain his desire is still quite enigmatic, it is in this scene that Oliver understands. As in previous scenes, Elio’s entry into the conversation as they encircle the fountain is made possible by a discussion of his academic knowledge: Elio clarifies the history of Piave’s World War I monument. When Oliver rhetorically asks, “Is there anything you don’t know?” Elio says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” When Oliver asks him to clarify, Elio slyly responds, “You know what things.” Oliver, who is walking on the far side of the fountain, physically crosses through Elio, who is in the foreground of the shot. Guadagnino indicates a shift in their understanding of one another. Instead of operating in a world of subtext and ambiguity, their relationship has entered into the realm of honesty and openness. They meet at the other side of the fountain, a physical unification that symbolizes their unification of understanding.

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

After they unite in their understanding of one another in Piave, Elio and Oliver create a new language to express their desires—one of openness, self-discovery, and dancing. The film’s titular scene may bewilder viewers, but it is tailor-made for Elio and Oliver to be intimate with each other. Together, they experience the chaotic excitement of a new relationship, all the while knowing that the end of summer looms.

Call Me by Your Name is wrapped up in heady discourse—“Somewhere in Northern Italy” could just as easily be “Inside the Ivory Tower.” Yet the Italian backdrop asks us to uproot our understanding of place, to dwell in contradictions and duality, to give ourselves over to Elio’s processing of himself in a liminal space. In understanding how the languages, the novels, the World War I statues that populate Elio’s summer actually embody tools he needs to become familiar with his own desire, we learn that their purpose is not to rarefy his world and mystify us. They exist to empower Elio, a seventeen-year-old who has to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t allow him to easily understand homosexual desire. In the end, Elio’s erudite understanding of the world challenges us to engage, to learn how to understand this depiction of queer desire, and to learn to welcome other stories of queer romance onto the screen.


Source of photo at top of page:

Ritual of Renewal

“Dear Girlfriends, it’s time for our annual new year’s celebration. Once again, please bring something written, by you or others, to share with the group. It will be so wonderful to hear the various voices and subjects you select.”

The email invitation calls us together to mark two occasions that occur when the calendar flips to the first day of January: a birthday for the world and for our friend, now 75. Each year, we come together a week or two after the big ball drops and the fireworks flash. At our age, we’ve mastered the art of delayed gratification. And so much more.

Each of us is the “birthday girl’s” friend or family member. Some have known each other a lifetime and see each other often. Others see each other just this once, or rarely outside of this yearly gathering. No matter. Each of us belongs there because we cherish the company, share the values, and savor the spirit of our hostess. We enjoy a place in her life and she in ours. We’re a collection of unique individuals who happen to be in the close circle of one special woman with a warm heart, eclectic interests, an inquiring mind, and an exuberant enjoyment of life. A woman entwined with her family, engaged in her community, dedicated to civic leadership.

An outsider looking in may see a random assortment of old ladies. We are not. We’re a special blend of women, like the makings of aged bourbon—maturing separately, mellowed and nutty with a hint of spice, and finishing expansively. Before we arrived at this stage of life, between periods of calm and contentment, we weathered dry spells, turbulence, and sudden storms. Some of us are native to this land, this region; others grew and ripened in distant terrain, in distinctly different climates.

Each of us has lived several lives. Some married; some didn’t. Some outlived or outgrew one or more mates; some bore children, raised other’s children, welcomed grandchildren. All understand that there is no one path. All have known joy and heartache in the relationships that defined our lives. We look back on decision points knowing that life is a mix of choice and chance, and what we thought were decisions arrived at freely were made while under the influence—of parents, spouses, propriety, or passing predilections.

Looking around in the understated elegance of our friend’s home, it’s clear that our company is accustomed to material comfort, although many among us came through and remember leaner times. Today, we dress tastefully, each as it suits us. Unlike our mothers and theirs, we wear pants—even jeans—and enhance our outfits with artful ceramic, gold, or silver jewelry selected more to please ourselves than to impress others. Some add flair to ordinary wear: jeans tucked into wine-red, flat-heeled boots topped with a plaid shirt. One, eyes framed by bold designer glasses, adds a stunning handcrafted pendant to a bulky bright green sweater. Our hair? Tinted or grey but blow and go, suiting the spontaneity and freedom of our fluid, light-to-heavily scheduled lives.

We’re new, revised editions of who we used to be, growing and changing as we go. Credits and credentials from past pursuits—initials after our names, plaques on our walls—say little about us today. Now, we’re free and eager to learn, not some canned curriculum but whatever we want, wherever we go, and whoa—we’re humble. There is so much to learn about this life! 

After breaking bread over homemade tomato soup, tasty cheese and crackers, luscious berries, and more in the open living-dining room—ten at the long rectangular dining table, several more in the bay-windowed front room—we turned our attention to our hostess, standing at the corner of the L-shaped space. “Let’s share our readings now,” she said. “I’ll go first.”

“I wrote this a long time ago. It’s called, ‘My Mother’s Hands.’”

“Oh I remember it,” I said, “I’ve thought about it often.”

“You read it at your 70th,” someone said and others echoed.  

It struck me then how remarkable it was—that in our fast-moving and mobile society, despite changes in my life and around me, I’d been present in this same company at that 70th birthday celebration and every year since. For me, that day five years ago was the first time I’d been included. For others, it was a long-loved ritual. Now, I saw so many of the same faces turned toward our friend again. Were they reflecting, as I was, that friendship, like life, becomes richer, more nuanced, and much more rewarding over time? Were they noticing the absence of some faces? And were they appreciating, as I was, being present once again?

What else had changed? Our hostess’s grandson, a newborn sensation last year, toddled through our midst in constant motion, reminding us of our own children and grandchildren at that age—a joyful time of empowerment and discovery much like this late stage of life in which we find ourselves. Our hostess’s daughter-in-law, the toddler’s mother, read an affirmation she’d composed for the occasion. In simple, sincere prose, she captured our friend’s special qualities, honored their relationship, and revealed her own depth of character. And more had changed. This year, a new thread ran through our reflections. “I am better off healed than I ever was unbroken.” The reader noted how that thought, attributed to author Beth Moore, resonated for her personally and for our country. A covey of concurring comments fluttered up. Yes, we could relate. Although tormented by political turmoil, we took heart from and recommitted to the resistance, determined to shape a culture that would finally, fully liberate our daughters and granddaughters.

The readings we shared revealed the threads that weave us into a friendship quilt. As one after another world-wise woman rose to speak, whose voices did we hear? Our own, as well as inspirational messages from mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zin, from Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, selected by leaders striving to do good and effective work in the world; and from poet Mary Oliver, a personal favorite, offering these instructions for living a life: “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.”

I just did.