A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early August, 1977


Monday, August 1, 1977

Noon. Im not used to living through a terrible time. It seems like terrible times have always been remembered and not experienced. Last night Mom and Dad came home from Miami, and they were both very depressed.

Nothing can be done for Grandpa Nat. Hes being kept alive, but in the doctors words, hes no longer a living, viable entity. Dad came up to my room where I was in bed with my cold. He started to cry several times as he told me about his father.

At first, last Wednesday, Dad felt hopeful because Grandpa Nat seemed to recognize him. He appeared to be making some sense. He asked Wheres my daughter? He said I hate you to the nurses as he struggled with them. He wanted ice cream.

But day by day, Grandpa Nat seemed to show no improvement. The doctors discovered that his brain was badly damaged in the moments following the stroke.

He was dead for too long about four minutes when the Rescue Squad brought his heartbeat back, and he lost the use of much of his brain. Now hes like a caged animal, bearing no relation to the man we knew. Mom said he looks like a monkey now: he scratches and growls and it takes four nurses to hold him down.

Yesterday the doctors told Dad that it would probably be best to let Grandpa Nat die with dignity: take away the intravenous, stop giving him antibiotics for the pneumonia that hes developing, and just let the man die naturally.

Dad wanted to wait a few days to see if theres any hope, but there doesnt appear to be. Grandma Sylvia is a mess, of course, and Aunt Sydelle cant handle her; they fight constantly. Dad felt he had to come back to New York to get some of his business accomplished, but hes in terrible shape.

He was so close to his father, closer than he was to anyone else. They saw each other constantly, worked together, fought, worried together. Mom tells Dad that the person in the bed is not his father, and hes really not.

Im sure Grandpa Nat would want to die. I hope it wont be much longer. Hes in no pain and isnt aware of whats going on, and thats a blessing.

Earlier that day, Grandpa Nat and Mom were taking a walk, and he stopped and turned to her and said, I love you. Mom cries now when she thinks about it: Ill never forgive myself for not saying I love you, too.

This morning Mom asked me if I would write a eulogy when the time comes. She said the rabbis in Miami dont know Grandpa Nat and they couldnt talk about him the way I could. I dont know if I could speak the words, but maybe I could.

The cold I have is just a physical symptom of my anguish: I feel awful, weak, totally debilitated. Ive got to rest and regain my strength so I can help. It didnt hit me until last night, but Ive been totally devastated by this. I keep thinking of those Dylan Thomas poems: Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and After the First Death, There Is No Other.

Last night my dreams were horrible: each one was about a death or a funeral. I suppose its my brains way of helping me cope. I cant believe Grandpa Nat will be dead soon. He was such a nice, hard-working, generous, excitable man. I dont know how life will be without him.

Just now, Dad told me that his mother called to say Grandpa Nat actually was a little better today. They took him off the intravenous and he ate some lunch and didnt throw himself so much.

But I cant believe that hell survive; I cant let myself believe it because the letdown would be so bad. Can one get used to living this way?

Tuesday, August 2, 1977

6 PM. It all seems very unreal these days. I just wish this ordeal would end already. Grandpa Nat does not seem to be responding, and its been two weeks since he had the stroke.

It kills me to see Dad so upset. Its bad enough that he has to deal with the aggravation of splitting up the business with Max, but being here, thinking of his father, praying, despairing, crying I dont know how much more he can take.

Everyones showing a low profile and trying to help out as much as possible and not add more grief to the situation. My father has had such a bad year; the whole family has.

First Uncle Monty died a year ago, then the business went under, there was all that indecision and discussion this winter about moving to Florida. Everything seems so bleak, its hard not to be pessimistic.

Writing seems beyond my capabilities now. Im glad I didnt have to stay in bed today, that I could go downtown and sign for my unemployment check, that I could go shopping for Mom.

I even rode the bike for a few minutes this afternoon. But those moments of forgetfulness are like oases in a Sahara of despair. I wish I could accept things, but so far, I just cant.

Theres no one I really can talk to. My sinuses are killing me. Im sure this cold stems partly from an unconscious need to cry. But I cant cry naturally, so in the middle of the night I stick Q-tips up my nostrils to force sneezes and my eyes water and that relieves the pressure in my head for a little while.

Every time the phone rings, my heart beats fast. I feel more sympathy for the young victims of Son of Sam than I ever would before all this. I pump vitamins and milk and soybeans into my mouth, hoping to keep from getting sicker.

I was half-counting on Exotic Beauties Press doing a collection of my stories, but now it looks out of the question. Tessa Marquis wrote me saying the usual things: theyre strapped financially, distribution is a problem, etc.

Harvey says hes been doing nothing all summer and hes decided that he cant write except under pressure in a classroom situation which means hes not a writer. I dont care much about the project anymore.

And Bettys job didnt work out; it was very unpleasant at that office, and her co-worker, a fiftyish woman started getting very friendly until Betty finally realized that the woman wanted a physical relationship, and that repelled her and she didnt come in again.

Camus said the best way to make yourself useful in a difficult time is to do your job well. I tried to write a eulogy for Grandpa Nat, but no one else could read it but me, its so personal and I dont think I could stand up at his funeral, with his body in a coffin in front of me, without getting hysterical.

Ive never really known death Ive been lucky but I dont know how to deal with it. My head is pounding. Maybe thats how I deal with it.

Thursday, August 4, 1977

3 PM. I feel pain and almost nothing else. I dont even know if this is my life anymore, it seems so different from what Ive known. Physically Im a wreck.

I shut the lights, drew the shades, got into bed, and started crying as best I could. I was so sick with grief that I began tearing the hair out of my head, trying to let the grief overwhelm me.

I think thats the only thing I can do now: trust my feelings and that Ill come out of it somehow if I only go with what it is I am feeling. This despair wont kill me, I know, but at times its so overwhelming Im afraid it might. Or maybe Im afraid that Ill survive.

Im angry too; I recognize that. Im angry at Grandpa Nat for getting sick and making the rest of us suffer so. It now appears that hes not going to die immediately. The doctors now say he might not have had a stroke at all, just heart failure and the brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen.

Oh God, I cant believe this is happening. Its something that happens only to other people.

Someone stole our milk from the box again today. When I went to buy cottage cheese, I took it home and found it was sour. More buildings were evacuated as bomb threats came in. Everything in this city is breaking down.

New York always was hellish in August, but this year is the worst I can remember. Everyones nerves are raw. From the sagging economy to the energy shortage, it seems that good times are gone forever.

I cant see the joke in these things anymore, and so Im becoming bitter and stagnant. I cough, I sneeze, I blow my nose, I rest. Its too humid to stay outside, and they say the air is unhealthy.

The soap operas go on, interrupted by news bulletins. Maybe if I can get out of New York, things will be better. Maybe if I can go to Bread Loaf . . .

I got a letter from The New Yorker today, not a form rejection but a personal note asking me to keep trying. But I dont feel very pragmatic anymore. I thought of writing a story about Grandpa Nat telling Mom that he loved her and her not being able to tell it back to him, but I havent the energy. I cant even read a book about Dostoevsky.

I dont know what kind of dinner guest Ill be at the Judsons tonight, but Ill go. My head, stomach, chest, throat and sinuses all hurt, and my breath is foul, and I sweat all day. If I dont go out of my mind, it will be a near-miracle.

I just have to close my eyes to everything and let it all work me over until theres nothing more that can hurt me. Did I expect my life would be one continual progression? Im in a hole here, and I know it.

At least the rain has gone. Perhaps things will be better in a week; if theyre not, I dont know what state Ill be in. I dont know if my fears of having another breakdown are real or if theyre just showmanship.

I finished with the dentist today; he said to take care of my gums, so Ive begun using dental floss.

Friday, August 5, 1977

4 PM. I have almost no energy now. Ive been lying in bed for a couple of hours, unable to muster the strength to do much of anything. But

This morning I wrote a story, Twenty Questions, and thats a good sign. My creativity is functioning again, even if only on a minimal level. Perhaps I sapped energy writing the story, but it was worth it.

Last evening Avis called just as I was about to leave for Libbys house, and I told her Id meet her there. Helmut let us in with his key. They had a nice trip and showed me their mosquito bites to prove it.

On Sunday theyll take the train to Charlottesville, where theyll stay with Ellen and Wade for a week, and then the next week the four of them will stay in a rented beachhouse on Cape Hatteras.

Libby had been planning for a quiet dinner for just the two of us in her room, so she was surprised to see Avis and Helmut there. But the food stretched to feed four, all of us helping Libby prepare the meal: zucchini and onions, and creamed mushroom on toast.

And Wayne and Libbys mother are like my second family. Mrs. Judson was the one person I felt I could really open up to about Grandpa Nat. If I ever get any money in this life, Id like to do something nice for Judsons to repay them in some way for what theyve done for me.

Helmut, Avis, Libby and I sat on the stoop for several hours. I didnt smoke a joint with them because I didnt want them to catch my cold. Helmut and I discussed politics and everything else, and Ive never had such good conversations. We all had a very pleasant, very mellow time.

Back at home, I received a call from Harvey, who told me hes been in touch with Laurie, whos back from California, and with Ron, and theyve agreed to set up a meeting next week. No real work on the anthology will be done until the fall, when they have their second-year MFA workshops, but at least we should get something moving soon.

Today I woke up late and wrote the story before breakfast; perhaps thats what drained me so. When Gary called, as usual, he was very sympathetic about Grandpa Nat.

Alice phoned from work, and she was very nice to me, too. Friends are wonderful. There are so many people whove stuck by me in these bad times, and I shouldnt forget that.

Alice is totally disgusted with Kenny; now she thinks hell never get moving on the score of the show. He talked big at the beginning, but Alice was more enthusiastic and ready to go than Kenny had bargained for, and now shes the one pushing him to produce.

If he doesnt move soon, shes going to tell him to forget about it. Hes full of excuses, Alice said, and I cant work with someone who gets discouraged so easily.

Its been raining and lightning and thundering all afternoon. Tomorrow, if my strength is up, Ill go to the beach with Helmut and Avis. The cold has settled in my chest and is causing this damnable lethargy.

Sunday, August 7, 1977

10 PM. I know Ive licked my depression because Ive written two seven-page stories today. One, A Hard Woman, was a straight-laced character sketch (using a fairly old-fashioned device to set the scenes); the other, When the Values Go Up, Up, Up, was zany, probably too immature and satirical.

I think fiction writers can no longer pretend we live in a Newtonian universe where cause leads to effect. No, things just happen today. The other three Great Jews (besides Einstein) gave us this:

Follow Jesus of Nazareth and live a good life and you will be rewarded with the Kingdom of Heaven; follow Karl Marx and live the socialist life and we will all be equal and happy on earth; follow Sigmund Freud and unearth your past life and things will get better.

But Christianity, communism and psychoanalysis have all been discredited by now. Einsteins special theory of relativity hasnt been: things seem to happen at random, for no apparent reason.

I spoke to Avis, Helmut, Libby and Mason in turn today as Avis called from Penn Station on their way to Charlottesville. I hope Ill see them on the day before Avis and Helmut leave for Europe.

Avis and Helmut have made my summer, whatever else happens. Im going to miss them terribly.

Last night I had a long conversation with Alice. Shes decided to write a book. June convinced her that they both have power as editors at Seventeen and that they should use it.

Alice had lunch with the juvenile editor at Bantam the other day and will be meeting with others soon. Alice is also anxious to leave Seventeen for greener fields and will be having lunch with Aaron Schindler, the big cheese at Family Circle, to see if hes got anything (or knows of anything) for her.

Alice has totally given up on her show-writing partner Kenny; she cant wait for him to get moving on the play, so that whole thing is over. Alice likes writing lyrics, though, and wants to do a musical with someone.

Stephanie, Joshs 30-year-old girlfriend (shes got a 10-year-old daughter and a husband who lives with her best friend, a Norwegian goddess I want to fuck), is in love with him, and he doesnt like that.

Today Josh paid me what was for him a high compliment: he said in a way I was more of a rebel than he was. I would never settle for a straight job on a magazine or advertising.

I show no signs of upward mobility; I live with my parents and subsist in New York on my five dollars a day. But I wouldnt trade this life for $200 a week and a Manhattan apartment. Three hundred dollars a week? Maybe. No, not really.

All I really need is the freedom to write. And I have that, largely due to the understanding of my parents. Its only recently that Ive begun to realize how incredibly supportive they are, and how much I owe them.

I got a letter from this guy, another Steve, whose ad in the Voice I answered. He sounds really nice: 24, 59, 135 pounds, into Germany, the ocean, writing. I tried calling him several times today but got no answer.

Wednesday, August 10, 1977

5 PM. A strange day. Ive just come back from making the funeral arrangements for Great-Uncle Abe, who died this afternoon in the hospital. I went with Grandpa Herb and Great-Uncle Irving, driving them in Grandpas car to Far Rockaway, to the Riverside chapel.

I wanted to make sure they didnt rip off Grandpa Herb, wholl be the one responsible for the bill. So I told the funeral director we didnt need a limousine or other frills. He seemed to be annoyed with me for taking charge, and with Uncle Irving for backing me up.

To my mind, theres no point in spending so much money on a funeral. But still, when they added up all the items, it came to $1,300 and they want Grandpa Herb to give them a $1,000 check tomorrow.

It was eerie to go down in the elevator, the man, Grandpa Herb, Uncle Irving and I, into this room where all the caskets were. Some were plush and magnificent and cost $1,000.

Grandpa Herb told the funeral director, Well, its his young kids money, and we dont want to take it away from them, and Uncle Irving said

We filled out all the forms: giving Uncle Abes next of kin, his parents name (I knew Bubbe Itas maiden name because of my research on the Katzman genealogy).

Uncle Abe belonged to the Knights of Pythias, and they have a plot for him out in New Montefiore Cemetery, in Suffolk (near where Uncle Monty was buried last year).

Back at the apartment in Rockaway, Grandma Ethel was very upset; it was she whom the hospital called to tell the news to. Abes sisters Aunt Tillie and Aunt Minnie were crying, but not as much as Grandma Ethel.

Luckily Michael had planned to come back to Brooklyn tonight; he doesnt have a phone where he goes to school in Jersey. Eddie is at work, or he was then.

Abe suffered so. He got sick eight years ago, then his wife died suddenly; these last three years were pure hell for him. Tomorrow at noon is the funeral.

Grandma Sylvia says sometimes Grandpa Nat makes sense when he talks to her, and other times he doesnt. He waved to her when she left today and then went back to watching TV.

I feel crushed by the weight of all this pain, but unlike the way I felt a week ago, I dont feel like giving up. I was looking forward to meeting that guy Steve tomorrow and now thats impossible. Probably Ill never get to meet him now.

Today was so humid and cloudy. Last night I dreamed Marc and Deanna got married and had a baby. Mom says that dream may come true: Marcs talking about marriage if he can set himself up financially if Dads deal with Jimmy ever comes off.

I think Marc and Deanna just may just be able to have a good marriage. Shes utterly nave, if not dumb, but a sweeter person one could not imagine. Deanna could become someone like Grandma Ethel, with almost a saintly personality.

Of course, saintly people are prone to headaches, upset stomachs and high blood pressure because they never can express their anger.

Today I did a self-interview, a half-serious parody of literary interviews. Its a style the whole question-and-answer mode that I find easy to make fun of and work with. Its just flexing literary muscles rather than literature.

Thursday, August 11, 1977

10 PM. Its times like this when I feel most acutely the inadequacy of the diary form, and even the inadequacy of words. There are many sense-impressions of today, and I cant possible write them all.

How can I describe and make coherent, make sense of, the events of today and last night: the meeting at Rons house, driving home with Laurie and Harvey, todays funeral and the people there and all that happened, the

Its all too much and too various to be described.

Well, let me try to describe the funeral. I picked up Michael and his girlfriend at Meryls house in Far Rockaway; Eddie followed us in a car with his friends as we drove to the chapel. Eddie looks like Michael: ruddy, mustached, but thinner, quieter.

Uncle Jack and Aunt Betty were there already, and soon the others came. Chuck got grey and heavier; hes a doctor now, I think. His wife introduced me to their two children, Scott and Jody; her oldest son wasnt there.

The great-aunts Betty and Minnie and Tillie and Grandma Ethel were crying a little, but nobody got very emotional. Outside of Uncle Abes four siblings and their families, there were only a few others at the funeral: Grandma Ethels brother Uncle Paul and Aunt Rose; Aunt Bettys sister and brother-in-law; a couple of friends of the boys; Irene Krasner.

In the chapel, I sat next to Marc, who was sort of appalled at the very simple I guess I should say cheap casket I picked out for Uncle Abe. But Mom said simplicity was in tune with Orthodox Judaism.

We had a six-car funeral procession along the Southern State to the cemetery. Michael and Meryl rode with me, and we talked about the arrest of David Berkowitz, a 24-year-old Yonkers postman, a psycho who was the .44-caliber killer. (Tonight I was surprised to find the story so played up on the national TV and even in the foreign press.)

The cemetery services were one, two, three after the rabbi finally found the right funeral, that is. We all drove back to Rockaway to Grandma Ethels home to have some food.

Grandpa Herb had sprayed the mirrors with some cleanser, but although they lit the Yahrzeit candles, I dont think any of them will really sit shiva, having been raised by my atheist great-grandfather.

The Sarrett family members are all a little off; even Grandpa Herb, as wonderful as he is (he gave me $15 for your trip) can say things that will make your hair stand on end.

But Im sure Jack was just doing that so he could get away with saying the most outrageous things. For example, Jack yelled at me, Who gave you permission to butter that toast? and I just chuckled, but people like Arlyne think that hes senile and out of his mind.

Eddie sat on the terrace, very quiet. I guess he was thinking about his father. Abe was the gentlest man I ever knew, and Ill always remember him fondly. He was Bubbe Itas favorite child.

Well, at least all his suffering is over (He would come right out and say it: I have cancer, Tillie marveled) and hes buried next to his Annette, the Nettie of the poems in his wallet.

I left Grandma Ethels at 6:30 PM. Vermont and Bread Loaf seem quite far away right now, but Ill be there very soon. Theres so much I have to think about.

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