Life, and Death: a memoir

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a lunch, our two kids were sitting beside us. It’s now thirty-plus years later, but I will never forget standing there because I was reeling, yet confident that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship–whatever that was–to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a sign that literary success lay just down the road.

Perhaps if I had been both more sure and more vocal about my faith, I would have heard that news as the voice of the Lord, telling me, by way of acceptance, to go into all the world and be a writer. I’ve never been that style of believer: “the Lord told me not to take that job,” “the Lord told me I had to write that book,” or, standing there beside the dinner table, “the Lord told me to go to Bread Loaf.” Maybe–just maybe–because I didn’t translate the scholarship offer that way, I heard that voice as the revelation of another god altogether. What I knew was that I was suddenly on a writing roll. I had just published a book, my first book; now, less than a year later, Bread Loaf Writers Conference beckoned with a handful of cash.

Perhaps I was chasing after different gods right then; maybe I still am. That question, another legacy of my faith, is rooted in my never being altogether sure of such things as motives or outcomes especially when they’re my own, which is surely not to say I’m the descendent of that gloomy Young Goodman Brown. Really, I don’t envy other believer’s blessed convictions. The Lord may well talk to them in ways he doesn’t talk to me. I’m not being silly or self-righteous, and Lord knows I’m too old to lie. All I know is, if it hadn’t been for that scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone to Bread Loaf that summer. What strings God pulled, if in fact he had his fingers in the decision at all, is beyond my ken.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the conference–early, because I was a waiter–I met a woman, my age, married with two children, who told me with a gorgeous smile that she was an aspiring poet. Her name was Deborah Digges, and she’d also be a waiter; that’s what paired us. Someone from the conference picked us up, and together we took the hour-long drive into the mountains in the back seat of a Middlebury College car.

It must have been Deborah who first introduced into our conversation that she was as Dutch- American as I was because I wouldn’t have recognized her birthright by her name. We shared pics of our respective families, and somewhere that conversation opened into heritage, perhaps my own distinguishable Dutch name. Her parents were Dutch, she said. Holland, Michigan was part of the story, but she’d grown up in a suburb of St. Louis, her father a doctor.

Knowing she was Dutch-American brought something of a blessing for me. We shared religious heritage. We joked about it. But meeting her–the first of the Bread Loafers–was comforting: we were both Dutch, we had families back home, two children we’d miss–and we were both waiters. Soon enough, the conference made clear what a waiter was. We were designated to wait on tables at the dining hall, the requisite training having brought us in a day early. We were told where to place the knives and forks and spoons and napkins, lessons no one had ever taught me before.

But I had more to learn at Bread Loaf because the place served guests unlike any I’d ever known in the rural Midwest, in Oostburg or Sioux Center. I’d never been around so many blue-blooded Easterners with pedigrees from Yale, Brown, Harvard, and so many New Yorkers. I never felt quite so Flatbush, without even knowing what the word meant; and, for a time, at least, I thought my own parochialism imminently visible, the old man in American Gothic, even though I didn’t own bibs or wear them. At least for a while I had this new friend, Deborah. Together with another dozen aspiring writers, we waited on tables, forming a delightful gang among America’s glowing literati.

§

But it wasn’t long and friendships turned into something more; adventuresome folks started wandering into each other’s affections, quite publically. Then beds. I’d never been in the neighborhood of flat out public adultery; and soon enough, this new friend of mine with the Dutch Reformed heritage was swept off her feet by an older poet with a gallant mane, a head of hair to die for. I shouldn’t point fingers–I really don’t know who bedded whom, and it’s fair to say that in their liaison there were likely no victims. I don’t know that my friend Deborah was powerless, and it certainly seemed clear that her passions were unquestionably fierce.

But I thought of her as an innocent back then; after all, our paths seemed so clearly approximate that I couldn’t have presumed that her hooking up with the famous poet was not her first tumble. A memoir she wrote just a few years later tells the tales; she was hardly as innocent as I thought her to be in those first few days at Bread Loaf.

The atmosphere up on the mountain was electrifying. I roomed with another poet, a Vietnam vet from LA, who ritually set his buzzing alarm early because, as waiters, we were required to be at the dining hall early for breakfast. Each morning he’d slam down that alarm, pull himself up out of that bed across from mine, and say, “It’s showtime, Schaap.”

We were wired, every one of us. Aspiration was as palpable as respiration. We all wanted endorsement, wanted favor, even a smile from the aristocracy–John Gardner, Tim O’Brien, Stanley Plumly, Linda Pasten–and some did anything to get it. Having been there, I understand that impulse in a way I never would have had I not been a part of that crowd. Besides, it was in me–I too had my own dreams, and they felt so close.

Once, out with the waiters, we walked to a pond not all that far away from the conference grounds, where a young woman whose name I’ve long forgotten shed every bit of her clothing without a thought and took a buck-naked dip in the cold mountain water. Once upon a time at an anti-war protest in Washington D.C., I’d seen a whole gallery of nakedness in the wading pools, but I never knew anyone who would simply strip down so unabashedly and jump in simply because that water was, like the mountain, there. I wouldn’t have told a soul back home that I was, for two weeks, so intimately a part of that flavor of life. And, to be honest–call me a sinner–I rather liked it. Some of it, at least.

§

One night the John Gardner reading was the evening’s highlight. Not long before, he’d written On Moral Fiction, and it was clear that some of his colleagues at the top of the Bread Loaf hierarchy were not particularly taken with that book. Or him.

No matter. He read a story later published in The Atlantic, “Come on Back,” the story of a sad, smalltown bachelor who loved music more than life and found it difficult to get along with locals who didn’t share his exquisite sensibilities, even though many were kin. When he eventually takes his own life, his friends and family, the Welsh folk from whom Gardner himself had descended, simply didn’t know what to say; the paucity of their conversation at his wake made clear that no one knew exactly how to understand the man’s life–or death. But the silence of those good Welsh folks rather mysteriously turns into song, an old Welsh hymn, and that’s the way Gardner’s magical story ends.

As he read, I found myself seated in one of the steel chairs around that coffin, even though I wasn’t the singer and I wasn’t the family. There I was in the room with them as they broke into song, their only way of acknowledging the mystery of his life. What they sang could just as well have been “Old Hundredth.”

Gardner was standing by himself after that reading, no friend to many of those in attendance for the stark way he’d laid out principle in On Moral Fiction. But I had loved the story so much that I put away my own reluctance, walked over, and told him in what he’d read I’d found myself so much more clearly than I did in so much of the frenetic atmosphere of the conference.

“Just want to thank you for that story,” I told him, or something to that effect. “That could have been home.”

“Where are you from?” Gardner asked me. “Iowa,” I said. “My background is Dutch, Dutch Calvinist.”

“You and I,” he said, smoking his pipe, “are the lucky ones.”

That was another blessing, and I have no second thoughts about calling it exactly that.

§

On the only Sunday morning, I walked out into a meadow, away from people, where I found an Adirondack chair and sat for an hour. There was no Sunday worship anywhere, but the Sabbatarian in me made it clear that I needed to do something for worship–not for God’s sake but for my own. So I went out alone and tried to imagine what the soft arm of my son–just three years old–would feel like in my fingers if I were back home. I concentrated on that touch, at the same time I recited, over and over again, the poem I knew best, the 23rd Psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, was a meditation I’ve never forgotten, maybe the only true meditation I’ve ever done, a few verses from Psalm 23, a hybrid mantra.

Toward the end of our stay, another friend, also a waiter, a man who had also shown me a snapshot of his young family, another poet, simply decided that when opportunity presented itself, he wanted to act. He too climbed into bed with another conferee. I don’t even remember his name, but what I remember was that when the waiters had their reading one night, he read from his work without once looking down at a text, all of his work memorized.

We’d been friends from the beginning, so I asked him about his unfaithfulness. “I don’t get it,” I said to him. “Why?”

A writer had to experience absolutely everything he could in order to be the best he can, he said. A writer has to know, to know by having lived.

I didn’t laugh, and I still don’t. I was, after all, something of an innocent, even though I’d never considered myself such before. And I wondered, really, if he wasn’t right, in a way. Should he ever want to write about how being unfaithful feels, he had a better shot at authority than some small-town, Iowa simpleton.

§

When the conference ended, when we boarded a plane to leave, oddly enough I ran into Deborah Digges as the two of us stood on the stairway to our commuter jet. We hadn’t spoken much in the last week; she’d been otherwise occupied. We hadn’t sat together at the gate either, but when we got on board I was just behind her. I don’t know if she had thought of me the way I did of her, as someone who understood her better, perhaps, than others; but when that line balked for a minute, she looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which would have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. But right then, as we boarded, I knew her pain, even though I knew nothing about her relationship to the husband she’d seemingly forgotten.

If I said anything to her at all at that moment, it’s gone. We found our seats. I didn’t sit beside her.

I had a window seat, I remember, and probably because I’d been reading some Elizabeth Ku bler-Ross, I remember thinking about what she says somewhere in On Death and Dying, how children have trouble distinguishing between a wish and a deed and how, therefore, they can feel guilt about someone close to them dying, if along the road somewhere they’d secretly wished that person to be no longer part of their lives.

What if the wish became a deed, I asked myself. What if, as Emerson says somewhere, all our wishes are really prayers? What happens if this little plane goes down, the Vermont mountains disappearing as we slipped up and away from the runway? What if, for Deborah’s sake, the plane crashes?

Not in my life before or since have I done such a thorough assessment of my own life, my own living. I remember thinking that, should I die, my own two children–just five and three–would do just fine, not really even knowing much about their father. My wife would grieve–it would be awful for her; but our community of believers would take care of her, and she’d be young enough to find some other man to care for my children and for her.

And what about me? I’d miss my kids’ growing up, I told myself. I’d miss their being teenagers and young adults; I’d miss marriages, and the calendar of life’s rituals. I found that sad.

And what else?

Very little, I thought.

I would have loved someday to write a novel. I would have loved to write more, to teach more, to do those things that brought me joy. I would have missed love of all kinds probably. I would have missed life’s joys, although I knew little, back then, of its woes.

And what of God? Somehow, I wasn’t in the least bit afraid. I’ve never been, but I’d never really thought about it like I did on a plane marked eerily for a crash. I’d never really stood as close as I could to some splendid imaginary and the divine throne in my mind, and not repeated to myself with as deep a conviction that God loved me. Perhaps the assurance I felt in my soul that day, high above New England, is a gift from my father, who never really doubted his own faith either. Perhaps, like Thoreau, I really was never aware of having quarreled with God. We’d always simply got along.

But I knew very well why Deborah Digges had said what she did. Not only would her sweetheart be winging some other direction, but her husband’s love was going to be altered by what she’d willingly brought on herself. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, honestly, even though I knew my parents and my grandparents and most of my people would have seen her behavior as shameful, evil, likely to bring great condemnation. He who sups with the devil had best use a long spoon.

I swear I didn’t simply write up her confession as the sum-game of her deliberate, illicit sin with a celebrated poet, probably capable of wondrous sweet nothings. Him, I admit, I hated. Probably still do, even though eventually she married him. And divorced. It’s all in her memoirs.

Perhaps the reason I’ve never forgotten all of that is that what she told me on those steps into the cabin prompted in my own soul thoughtful tallying I haven’t done since, perhaps because I haven’t had to. I know where I stand, and do so, in part, because of an assessment I once made on a plane somehow marked for disaster.

§

But I wouldn’t be spilling all of this it weren’t for the fact some time ago Garrison Keillor decided to choose a poem by Ms. Deborah Digges for the Writer’s Almanac. It was a Sabbath morning.

That Sunday morning, beneath the poem lay the story of my once-upon-a-time waiter friend. It was April, 2009, when she left her office at Tufts University and, all by herself, walked up another stairway, this one bringing her to the upper deck at the football stadium. She walked up those stairs alone, and died alone, when she jumped from the top row to her death.

I’m not artist enough to truly appreciate the symmetry–those steps and that fall to earth; but I’m human enough to be obsessed with the mystery of a life I knew only by way of the thinnest of threads, a life I’ve tried to understand. Ms. Digges leaves behind those two grown sons whose towheads I remember from the picture she showed me in the back seat of a college vehicle thirty years ago.

And two memoirs, one of them, Fugitive Spring, about her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of a Dutch Reformed couple who couldn’t find a Reformed or Christian Reformed church in suburban Missouri and thus became Southern Baptist; and the other, The Stardust Lounge: Stories From a Boy’s Adolescence, the story of her abiding love for a son whose adolescence was so horrifying a nightmare that it ended her marriage to the man she’d danced with at Bread Loaf.

And four books of poetry, enough to make the New York Times story of her death refer to her as “a renowned poet and memoirist” and then add this: “whose work often sprang from private adversity.”

Since that Sunday, my library now includes almost everything she wrote, poems and memoirs I’ve poured over to see if I could discover what almost always is a mystery–hugely unbearable despair.

Maybe it’s here in “Trapeze,” the title poem from her last collection, the poem published in Writer’s Almanac, an imagist’s diary of imagined perceptions that suggest she envied her third husband, a man, some say, she loved more than the others, a man she married in 2000 and who died of cancer in 2003, a man whose priceless place in her life is clearly documented in the second of her memoirs. If “Trapeze” is not a death wish, it is–or so it seems to me–a celebration of the joy of dying: “…O, the dying are such acrobats,” she says, “…sailing like a pendulum between eternity and evening.” And then, “Don’t call them back, don’t call them in for supper.” (Entire poem at writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/02/06.)

Perhaps she envied her third husband’s departure. Perhaps she felt so alone in her grief that life became a burden. Perhaps she’d read Anne Sexton too long or often, or Sylvia Plath. Perhaps, like Van Gogh, her precious perceptions about life made her unfit for this world; perhaps, as Aristotle said, madness and genius somehow go hand-in-hand. Perhaps, no one knows what’s finally in one’s soul, and no one should–one’s own holy of holies.

I’m no eulogist. I didn’t know her as well as legions of her students must have. I have only a few memories of a beautiful and talented young writer who fell into some wildly passionate romance high up on a Vermont mountain, and then desired, like nothing else, for the plane she took home to crash somewhere along the way.

I knew her only as a woman whose last words, on a stairway to a plane, are words I’ve never forgotten and never will, words that carry mystery that abides in heart and soul, mystery I will never understand.

The two of us have grandparents, long gone, who probably wouldn’t see the life story of Deborah Digges as any kind of mystery. They would shake their heads sadly, but have their own clearly bespoken understanding of her great fall.

Sometimes I wish I were as certain as our grandparents likely were. I think life might have seemed easier back then and even now. I can make a case for her sin, but not for her damnation.

I am not so certain as those grandparents. I just can’t be. I know my sin.

And maybe that’s why I’m writing this now, because I know mine.

James Calvin Schaap will be teaching his last group of students this year, after 33 years at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. His most recent books include Rehoboth, a collection of family stories from the Navajo reservation; and Honest to God and Sixty at Sixty, meditations on the psalms.