Today I finished Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay and thought I'd share something about my experience reading it but I can't think of how to say the things I want to say.
Instead, I chose this image, which I remember seeing on HTML Giant (maybe Jimmy Chen posted about it?). The pens are attached to the ends of tree branches and the ink dots and lines are made by the breeze as it passes through the leaves.
This is how reading the book made me feel: impermanent and permanent, sad and optimistic, outside of myself and sympathetic to a much different suffering than any suffering I have ever known.
I recommend this book. For some reason, I want to recommend it as a gift that should be given to parents of kids in writing programs. I don't know why. Maybe because those parents must wonder what their kids are up to. Why they have chosen this thing. What value there is in going to school for it. What they will do upon earning that graduate degree. I think perhaps there will be some comfort to them as they read about Manguso's disease, how she deals and does not deal with it, how she slips and recovers, how she heals, how she manages to get two degrees!, how she recovers and obviously goes on to publish books that can be purchased on Amazon, how she lives and so honestly shares the story of her sickness, her survival.
But it seems to me an awful suggestion, too, because what parents want to be reminded of the frailty of children, the unknown dangers that might come to claim?
You see, I can't think clearly. This is what the book has done to me.
This is why it should be read.
I will purchase it for my father. He will like the parts about physical therapy because he is a physical therapist. My whole life I have known him as the man who puts people back to work. Not sure if my hometown is a blue-collar town but it used to have a steel mill. My grandfather worked there his whole working life. He was an armature winder. We also had a Ford plant. Not anymore, though. Anyway, people got hurt and went to the doctors and had their surgeries and then came to see my father. It was his job to make sure they could get back to work again as good as new. It was important, he told me, that they could feed their families, send their kids to college. When I was really little (and cute enough I could get away with it) I iced certain patients' knees. One woman crocheted Barbie dresses for me. The stitches were very small and it wasn't yarn she used but something maybe a little thicker than embroidery thread. Another patient who had hurt his hand would do his hand exercises at the hand station. I liked the hand station. A hot vat of wax that after repeated dippings would form a strange hand likeness over the patient's real hand, which, when dried and hardened, the patient would have to break off using his own hand strength. Meanwhile, the warmth of that wax took away the pain for a bit. And there was silly putty, which I was always in trouble over because one of the patients taught me how to stick it to the Sunday comics and so instead of that nice shiny pink putty in its container my father often found a gray putty snowman wearing a gray putty top hat instead. He didn't like pulling that out in front of patients I was not allowed to "visit" with. But then there were the patients I was allowed to visit with, and the guy who hurt his hand was one of them and one of his particular treatments was to put on puppet shows for me. The puppets helped strengthen his fingers. One puppet was always more animated than the other. But the weaker hand had a better puppet. The puppet was Garfield. If he squeezed Garfield's lips together hard enough to depress an air-filled bulb inside his nose, Garfield would honk and his plastic tongue would unroll; basically, Garfield blew loud raspberries at me. And this made me laugh so much I made a lot of other patients laugh until we were all laughing and then Garfield would honk again and more laughter. When I was little like that I thought I would grow up to be a physical therapist. I was wrong, but it's a nice thought to remember now. That's what this book has done for me. It reminds me of my childhood and my forgotten dreams. And I think my father will appreciate this book, too, maybe mostly because it is about a daughter. I think he will like this part especially:
After a week or more with paralyzed feet, my toes needed to be moved right away. I couldn't bear the stillness anymore. It was like a full bladder. When my parents visited me that afternoon, I asked my father to move my toes. He grasped one set of toes in each hand and bent them up and down and all around in a bunch for a few minutes. And either he or my mother did this every day they visited until I was strong enough to sit up and reach my toes myself.
In one of my own memories of being hospitalized, I am recovering from reconstructive jaw surgery and my teeth have hooks on them and attached to those hooks are rubber bands that hold my jaws together. I am groggy and have just opened my eyes, desperate to pee. I am attached to an IV and absolutely adamant that I will not pee in the bedpan. My mother stands under one arm and my father under the IV arm and they get me into the bathroom. When I sit on the toilet I fall off and land on the floor. My father picks me back up. My gown is everywhere but I pee into the toilet and it is the single greatest accomplishment I have ever in all my life achieved. Someone has told my parents something like because my mouth has been wide open throughout those many hours of surgery wherein my upper jaw was sawed off and then screwed into place in a slightly different place than it was before the sawing that my lips would be very chapped and it was very important for them to keep them moisturized. My father treated that jar of Vaseline like it was the only thing keeping me alive. He slathered so much of that shit on my face it dripped onto my hospital gown and I have hated squeezable Chap Stick ever since. Later I went home and it was Christmas and we went to a Christmas party where everyone called me a trooper and I pulled my lower jaw down and down and shoved little bits of meatball through the rubber bands. I maybe finished half a Swedish meatball in like an hour and a half. The rest of the time I had this small syringe with a rubber tube instead of a needle through which I sucked up a syringeful of chocolate or vanilla Ensure that I then squirted into the side of my mouth and not through the rubber bands because of choking concerns. To swallow I had to tilt my head so the liquid ran to the back of my mouth, behind my molars, and onto my tongue and down my throat. My oral surgeon's name was Dr. Blood. Nobody in my family made jokes about that or laughed or even commented on it until however many months later when those bands were finally off and I no longer had two black eyes and my face wasn't so swollen anymore.
I don't know if my father remembers any of these things — I doubt he does — but maybe this book will remind him like it has reminded me that when these things happen to us the only job we really have is to get back on the toilet and piss and honk and laugh and make snowmen out of putty with traces of Cathy or Doonesbury or Marmaduke on their gray bellies.