Saturday, July 23, 2011

Is This The Way To The Hemingway House?

Key West's #1 Tourist Attraction: The Ernest Hemingway Home  
It’s Hemingway Days again in Key West and you just can’t avoid thinking about Hemingway and what his celebrity has brought to our island city. Whenever we go out on our front porch we are asked by tourists for directions to Key West's number one tourist attraction. In fact, it’s just around the corner, but the appearance of locals, who might know the way to Hemingway's, is apparently irresistible and one or another in every passing pair or party pauses to ask “is this the way to the Hemingway House?”  Maybe they expect the appearance of something more spectacular, something like a Vanderbilt Mansion looming majestically above the modest tin roofs of the neighborhood’s wooden houses. The Hemingway House is surrounded by a red brick wall, its gates locked tight every day at 5 p.m. unless someone rents the grounds for a party or a wedding or something like that. I always tell tourists to look for the red brick wall.  Just about anytime you walk past the Hemingway House there is a crowd of people there, waiting to get in, or posing for photos, or jumping up for a peek over the wall after 5 p.m.   
Ernest and Pauline around the time of their marriage
    The late Jeanne Porter, who grew up on Whitehead Street, played with Hemingway's sons when she was a little girl.  One day she told us this story: The boys kept several raccoons in cages outside in the yard. The animals were named after movie stars. One day it was discovered that a raccoon named Greta Garbo had killed and was eating her cage mate, Harold Lloyd. Although disturbing Papa Hemingway when he was in his writing studio was strictly taboo, the children’s horrified screams brought him to the scene. When he saw what was happening he went into the house and returned with a shotgun. Then, in full view of the children, he wordlessly shot off the head of Greta Garbo and returned to his studio. Jeanne said they thought perhaps Papa suspected that Greta Garbo had rabies. But the episode shook her badly, so badly that she remembered it quite clearly 60 years later.
"That writer with the bullfights." The Hemingways in Pamploma, 1928
    I was in the eighth grade when I read The Old Man and the Sea and wrote an essay that made me very proud indeed. It may have been the first time I realized that a story can be much more than just a story, that a whole can be way bigger than the sum of its parts. I wanted to be a writer and understanding Hemingway’s brevity was a wonderful lesson. Many years later, when my son read The Old Man and the Sea, as a junior in college majoring in English, he was so swept away by the tale he said he wanted to get a tattoo honoring Hemingway. I told him he should maybe know a little bit more about the writer before tattooing himself for life with the image of Hemingway.  
Ernest and Pauline, Key West, 1930's
    Hemingway came to Key West with his second wife, Pauline, in search of a quiet place to write, it is said. Pauline was from Piggott, Arkansas. The house in which she grew up is also preserved as a museum, and in touring it you learn that Pauline grew up with many advantages. Her family had money. And connections. That’s how Pauline got a job with Vogue Magazine in Paris, where Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley were living, supported by Hadley’s modest inheritance. In spite of her strict Catholic upbringing, Pauline found herself hopelessly in love with Hemingway and soon became the second Mrs. Hemingway. Financially she was far better off than Hadley.  Her uncle, founder of the Richard Hudnut cosmetic brand, bought his niece and her writer husband the house in Key West as a wedding present in 1931. It cost him $8,000. It was the first house Hemingway owned. He was 32 years old.
    He did not live for long in the Key West house. In 1936, at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, he met the woman who was to become his third wife, a renowned journalist with a thirst for adventure. He divorced Pauline and married Martha Gellhorn, who writes, in her memoirs, that the great Hemingway was not much of a lover. In fact, she wrote, she was certain that in spite of his macho reputation, the only women he’d ever bedded were the four women he married.
    “I want to write a blog about why I think Hemingway was a lousy lay,” I told an artist friend the other day.
    “Of course he was,” my friend said. “He hated women.”
    So that’s the general take on Hemingway’s machismo around here. 
Peeking over the wall
    In the television series The Sopranos, young Christopher Montelsanti wants to be a writer. As he struggles over his computer, bemoaning the agony of creating enough pages to add up to something publishable, wise guy Paulie Walnuts warns him about the frustration of writing: “That writer, with the bullfights!” he says. “ He blew his own f’ing head off.”
    People touring the Hemingway House often ask the guides to show them the room where Hemingway shot himself. It happened in Idaho, not Key West. Hemingway was 61 years old, and had just complained to a close friend that as a writer, he could not retire (in fact, a rather cheering thought for me). Writers have to write and produce, no matter their age, he said. And Hemingway could write no more. It made him crazy enough to kill himself. 
Spencer Tracy and Hemingway during the filming The Old Man And the Sea, Cuba 1957. Tracy was nominated for the best actor Oscar. He lost to David Niven's performance in Separate Tables.
    The Old Man and the Sea will show at the Tropic Theater tonight. Tickets are $50 as it is a fundraiser for the local suicide hot line. The film is about a Cuban fisherman down on his luck when he hooks a giant fish that pulls him way out to sea. Hemingway was at the top of his game when he wrote Old Man, his finest work, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hemingway’s story is much bigger, but every bit as sad as the old Cuban fisherman’s. Hemingway hooked a big fish, too, the big fish of fame, and that fish pulled him far out into the sea of insanity, from which he could not return.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Coma, Part 2

My all-time favorite photo of Jen
Waking from a coma is a slow and dramatically difficult struggle. When a patient stays longer than four months in a coma, medical people start looking at the grim statistics; only 15% of them will come out again. They stop looking for the miracle of a recovery. For Jennifer, nearly five months passed before she began to signal her reawakening by frantically wiggling her left big toe.
(seated) Stacy and Jen with Sophie, top: June and Valerie

    We were alone in her hospital room the first time I saw Jennifer awake. It was a few days after her birthday. She was sleeping peacefully, and then, her eyes moved beneath their lids. “You’re dreaming,” I said. “You’re snoring a little bit, too.” And then her eyes opened and she looked directly at me.  I was so stunned I nearly fainted. I knew she’d been showing signs of consciousness, but I was not prepared for the shock of the moment when she opened her eyes and gazed into mine; they were brightly green, focused, curious. They were Jennifer’s eyes. Imagine how you might feel if a loved one had died and then, awakened from that sleep to look deeply into your eyes and your soul. What would you say? What would you do? Chills zipped up and down my arms and legs. I cried. And then she cried.
    “No, don’t cry because we’re alive and we all love you so! You’re getting better. You’re going to be all right,” I assured her in a mad jumble of works. Then I laughed, while I cried. I took her hand in mine and she squeezed it and smiled, a half smile on the left side of her mouth. It felt like she was showing off.
    “Hey, look at my hair!” She lifted her eyes to my head to examine the full mop of hair on my head. I’d been chemo bald and chemo beaten when her brain exploded, back in September. To her, I must have looked like a different person. But she seemed to recognize me. And surely, I recognized her.
Baby Sophie and Mama Jen
    Jennifer’s home now, with full-time nursing care. She’s busy with therapy and learning to do all the things people do to manage being alive. After a brain trauma the healthy brain cells learn to take over the work of the injured or destroyed brain cells. This is a miracle of nature, and no one knows how it works or how to make it work any faster or better than it does on its own. Does it matter that Jennifer is an extremely intelligent person? Maybe. Does it matter that she was in prime physical condition when it happened? Yes, surely her good health contributed to her survival.  How long will the healing take? Years, probably. But there is progress, and it’s quite remarkable. A month ago, for example, Jen could hold her neck erect, her head up, for seconds. Now she does this for minutes. She turns her head in any direction she wants. She uses sign language because she has a tracheotomy and cannot yet talk. However, she mouths words, and loves to sing along to her favorite music.
Jen with the Bunnies, Tessa and Sophie
    From my reading about recovery from brain trauma I know that every accomplishment, no matter how minute, is particularly exhausting for Jennifer. That includes receiving visitors. And so Jen pushes herself when she can, and rests often. Recovery continues, day by day.
    “Inch by inch, it’s all a cinch,” I tell her, repeating something she often told me. She smiles. She remembers.
    Yesterday I visited Jen and her wonderful nurse told me she wished she’d known Jennifer before her accident. She wanted to know more about Jen’s personality, what sort of a person she is. And so, with Jennifer nodding to confirm the finer points of my personality portrait, I told her nurse these things about Jen:
Somebody's birthday. Jen, June, Stacy, Whitney
Jen loved burgers at the (sadly defunct) Deli on Truman
    She doesn’t like strong perfume. She is allergic to eggs. She loves make-up, lipstick and clothes with just a bit of ruffle. She prefers her hair short and low maintenance. She eats like a bird. She is tall and regally trim and has always been so, built like her grandmother. She used to drink Coca-Cola, I always kept some in my house for her, but then she decided it was not good for her and quit. She is a minimalist and likes her home simple and serene. She is a poet and a writer. She is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in New York. She grew up in New Jersey. She is a certified lifeguard. She loves to swim. She is Catholic; she prays; she goes to confession. She has two daughters, beautiful and bright and well-raised as Jen takes the job of motherhood very seriously. She is the kind of mother who gives a toddler a leaf of fragrant basil to keep her entertained while Jen cooks dinner. Six years ago she went to a monastery in Kentucky and prayed, in total silence, for a week. When an ambulance drives by she pulls off to the side of the street and says a prayer for the person being transported. She loves gardening. She loves cooking. She loves coffee. She loves apple pie. And she loves me. I know. Yesterday, she mouthed the words and told me so.



Need a little cry? Cry to the good stuff. This always works for me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Coma, Part 1

June and Jen. Before cancer. Before coma. Spring, 2006. 
“Something terrible has happened to Jenny,” Michael said, bounding up the stairs, the ancient steps creaking beneath him. We were in Nova Scotia, on a mission to scatter my mother’s ashes in the places she’d loved growing up there. We were recovering from Mother’s death after a long and difficult illness, and from my four-month long bout of chemotherapy—two dramas that weirdly zenithed at the same time. We were stunned and weary from the rough summer. The day was overcast. I was in bed, staring out the window, gathering together the strength to face another day.
    “Something terrible has happened to Jenny,” Michael said, plopping down on the bed beside me and opening his computer. My heart slowed in that horrible thudding way it does when you hear terrible news. My mind darted desperately about, imaging what might have happened to Jennifer. I’d received an email from her a day earlier. She’d written happily, and funnily, about applying to a graduate program in creative writing. Her health was sterling, from regular swims and walks with her dog, Stella. A car wreck? No. I remembered that her husband Joe had insisted on Jennifer driving an industrial strength SUV. I thought of Jenny’s daughters, Sophie and Tessa, “the bunnies” she calls them. But it was Jenny. He said Jenny. And then he read aloud from an email from Key West in which we learned that Jennifer had collapsed at her home as a result of what appeared to be a brain bleed. She’d been flown to Miami. She was in a coma.
    It’s a silly term, best friend. But Jen and I are each others' best friend. Her daughters call us “BFFs”, best friends forever, I think that means. Recently someone asked us, “how are you two related?” Jennifer thought for a minute and answered, “We’re related . . . but not by blood.” When Jennifer took me to my chemo and radiation treatments, people thought she was my daughter. And she could be, as she is nearly twenty years younger than I.  I love her as if she were my daughter. She calls me “Mama” and I often sign off my emails to her as “your fairy godmother.” She’d even promised to take care of me when I am old.
    “That old woman there?” she’d say, laughingly imaging a time in the future. “That used to be June Keith.”
    And we’d laugh, because we always laugh. We share a sense of the absurd, of the sweet insanity of life on this earth. Jennifer knows my weaknesses and my strengths; I like to think I know hers, too. True friendship, they say, is loving another in spite of what you know about them. It’s a true friendship. 
    One day I introduced Jennifer, a uniquely intelligent person, to Joe, a man I sensed to be of the same beautiful brilliance. They fell in love. They married. They moved to a house in new town. Things changed.
    “I’m glad you two are so happy,” I teased them, “but I’ve lost my best friend!”
    It is unclear just what happened to Jennifer’s brain on that day, just as the brain’s myriad functions are largely a mystery. She was preparing dinner when she announced that she was having the worst headache of her life. She collapsed. Fortunately Joe was at home—what if he hadn’t been there when she lost consciousness? But he was there. Against all odds, Jennifer made it to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami. She survived two surgeries that night. And then, a coma.
    A person in a coma appears to be dead, but for the gentle in and out of the breath. Nothing moves. It is a state of suspended animation, a profoundly disturbing thing to witness. As she lay there, her serene beauty utterly still, I thought of a thousand conversations we’d had, the many what-if’s we’d explored together. One thing we’d never considered was this. Never anything like this.
    As the months went by, and Jennifer’s coma continued, friends urged me to come to terms with the idea of her being gone.
    “But she moves her eyes,” I said.
    “Only reflex,” people said.
    “She yawns,” I said.
    “Reflex,” I was told.
    Joe never gave up, and being a physician, a psychiatrist, he knew as well or better than any of us the gravity of the situation.  But Joe believed in Jennifer’s power to recover. If she’d given up, he said, she would have died at the beginning. She wanted to live, he told us. She was fighting to live. It might take a very long time, he said, but she would heal. She would be back, he promised.
    For months I cried at the thought of her. People wanted to know how she was. I had nothing to tell them, but that we hoped she’d regain consciousness soon. Michael and I cried together, and he always said “she was such a great mother,” and I’d admonish him to rephrase that to “she IS such a great mother.”
    We ached for Jenny’s daughters, beautiful babies we’d known since the days of their births. The bunnies.
    “They must know something we don’t,” the bunnies’ father told me one day. “They are confident she’ll get better and come home.”
    I read everything I could about comas. Everything. I learned that when a coma lasts for longer than four months, it is most likely to be permanent. Doctors and nurses I know well gently urged me to face the fact that Jennifer was gone. And so, as Jennifer’s birthday approached, I began the process of grieving the loss of her.
    And then, she woke up.
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