BJ Hollars is the author of several books, including two forthcoming in 2015: From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He can be reached through his website www.bjhollars.com
Dear Assay Readers,
The Hempel story to which I refer is indeed, fiction and was taught during a fiction class. Nevertheless, this particular story might be useful in any classroom. And as noted in the post, given the story’s thematic resonance in my own life, I felt compelled to share it. Literature has genres; life does not.
The morning after my mother-in-law died, I reread Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
Lord knows I didn’t want to.
In fact, of all the stories I really didn’t want to read that day, Hempel’s was at the top of the list. A story about a woman on her deathbed could hardly provide the uplifting message I was after; though my syllabus hadn’t left me much say in the matter.
Of course, the story is much more than my previous glossing. For all its talk of death we see life, too, examples of which are observed through the friendship of the dying woman and her not-yet-dying friend. Helpless though she is, the friend (who happens also to be the narrator), battles her own issues with death in an effort to be a comfort.
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” the dying friend says in the story’s opening line. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” The friend does as she is told, offering tidbits and fun facts until at last telling an anecdote involving a chimp empowered with sign language. “Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied?” asks the not-yet-dying friend. She claims there is more to the story, but that telling it would break her dying friend’s heart.
It’s not until Hempel’s story’s final moment—long after the not-yet-dying friend abandons the dying one—that we get the second half of the previously censored chimp story. Apparently the chimp had a baby whom she communicated with via sign language: “Baby drink milk,” the mother chimp signed. “Baby, play ball.” In the story’s brutal last line, we’re told that after her baby died, the mother chimp continued to sign to her newly departed: “Baby come hug, Baby come hug,” though by then, the message could not be received.
Do you understand now why I didn’t want to read the story? How even when I omitted all chimps from the equation, it still hit too close to home? It was fiction, sure, but it hardly read like fiction to me. If anything, its genre merely added to the punch, reflecting reality all the brighter.
I’d last taught the story in the days following my son’s birth, and that, too, had proved difficult. Never before had I seen so many waterworks in a workshop (and trust me, I’ve observed some pretty tough workshops). In that instance, however, I was the key that unlocked the floodgates, and I could barely manage a voice-cracked “Class dismissed” while staring out at my rows of teary-eyed students.
When faced with the story again—this time on the other end of the mortality spectrum—I feel equally unprepared to teach it. Though I won’t have to, I realize halfway through my re-reading. I’ll have a funeral to attend that day, instead.
And so, I wrote my students a blog post to make up for my absence, and I’ve edited it and included below. It’s not perfect, but it spared me the face-to-face and unlocking any more floodgates.
Sure, there are many literary lessons to learn within Hempel’s story, but perhaps the greatest lesson isn’t literary at all. It’s that gut-wrenching reminder that there is truth in everything: sometimes we read it, sometimes we live it, but neither can prepare us for the other.
Well, team, it’s been a rough couple of hours.
My mother-in-law died last evening, and I spent most of the night trying to explain to a three-year-old that he’s not going to see his grandma anymore. If he could read, I might have just given him Hempel’s story–surely there’s a lot of wisdom on life and death in there.
The last time I taught this was in the days following my son’s birth. And now, the next time, is under entirely different circumstances. What I’ve always loved most about reading, generally, is that while the stories don’t change, our interpretation of them is continually in flux. And so, while this particular story offered me something last time around, it offers me something entirely different today.
As we write our literary fiction (and this doesn’t necessarily apply to other genres–sci-fi, etc.), part of the trick is writing stories that seem so true that we can’t help but believe them. After all, how else can we ask readers to care deeply for people we invent? As young writers, we’re often so focused on “creating character”, following “narrative arcs”, and writing a nice “turn of phrase,” that we lose sight of the real, of the minor moments that make up our lives and our stories.
My advice: pay extra close attention to the minor moments; that’s where the truth lives.
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” our narrator’s dying friend says. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” What a wondrous opening! We assume that a woman on her deathbed would want just the opposite, that she would say, “Tell me things I need to know. Make it important stuff or skip it.” But in this instance, what we think isn’t what Hempel gives us; she subverts our expectation, instead.
Just last week I typed (yes, like on a typewriter) a letter to my mother-in-law. But what does one write to one’s dying mother-in-law? How does one stay upbeat and express gratitude and love under such circumstances? I figured she’d want me to write of “important stuff,” but midway through my letter I thought of this story and was reminded that she might want a little of the “useless stuff” as well. And so, I started with the important stuff and thanked her for raising my wife (“I see parts of you in the best parts of her”), but then I moved to the useless stuff (“Thanks again for the bird feeder you got me at Christmas”). Hempel’s story forced me to re-examine real death, and as a result, it impacted my last letter to my mother-in-law.
That’s the power of fiction, and that’s what I’d like you to think about as you consider this story for your post. Which moments hit you the hardest? How did they do it? How does each scene not only matter, but matter more due to its placement alongside other scenes? Even if you were only to track every mention of the lying chimp, you would still get an education. How and why does the narrator bring it up, avoid it, then bring it up again? How does the author plant the seed and allow it to pay off?
Last week in class I assigned an impromptu writing exercise that asked you to begin with the line, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have…”
But we always know, don’t we? That mortality awaits all of us is hardy a secret. So in addition to this blog post (and yes we still have class this week—I’ve got everything worked out!), maybe consider how last week’s impromptu writing exercise might play out in real-life as well. After all, you do know now, so why wait? Maybe type your letter today. You can even borrow my typewriter.
(Just kidding—I would never actually trust you with my typewriter).
Thanks again for your humanity and understanding during this time
P.S. What did I tell my son? I stole the line from the chimp. “Baby, come hug.” He did.