Why I Write For a Living

The cold these days is the kind that makes me pull my shoulders up as soon as I walk outside. It’s the kind that reminds me I’m getting a little older – when I was a kid, winter was my favorite season, with or without the snow. Now, as soon as the Christmas decorations are packed away, I’m ready for spring, for some sign of life to break through all those dead leaves and tangled, naked branches.

I drive through the cold listening to the audio book of The Brothers Karamazov, the heat cranked up. I drive on winding roads and long country straightaways. I drive slowly around the large elderly complex, park, then walk under the red canopy that leads through sliding glass doors into an ornate foyer. The smell reminds me of my grandma.

* * * * *

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamzov

* * * * *

“Hi, I’m here to visit Emma,” I tell the two white-haired women sitting behind the low desk.

“Oh, she’s not the one they took to the hospital this morning, is she?” one asks the other.

“No, no, that was someone else,” she replies, writing a few things on a small pass while I fill out the guest book.

Shawn Smucker. Emma Williams. Room D108. 10:30am.

“Do you know where you’re going, honey?” the second woman asks with a kind smile.

“Yes, thanks,” I say, returning the smile, then walking slowly through the massive retirement complex.

The carpets are heavy, as are the thick curtains. Everything moves slowly there: the people, the air, time. I walk behind a man pushing a walker. He leaves two long lines behind him where the wheels drag. He’s taped two playing cards to the back legs of the walker, face down, so that it slides easier. I stop by the elevator and wait.

* * * * *

Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

* * * * *

Up on the third floor I make my way down the narrow hallway. The ceiling feels low after all those high foyers and two-story lobbies. I stop by a door and notice the wreath has been taken down. I knock louder than I would usually knock on a door. When Emma doesn’t come right away, when I don’t hear her stirring in the apartment, I wonder if maybe the second woman was right. Maybe Emma was the one taken to the hospital.

But then I hear the phone ring inside, and she answers it after one ring. I wait until she is no longer talking, then I knock again, practically pounding. I hear her walker, then she opens the door.

She is 94 years old, sharp as a tack, but slowing down physically. I can tell it annoys her. I can tell she will not go down without a fight.

We spend two hours together. She does most of the talking, and because I know the recorder is doing its job, and because her apartment is very warm, and because I didn’t get to bed until about midnight the night before, I have to fight to stay awake for a short stretch in the middle. But I still make a few notes, write down a few follow-up questions. She tells me about the days following the death of her first husband, when she was 39 with three children. She tells me how she had $22,500 in life insurance money. She tells me how she lived on $400 a month.

Sometimes, when I sit down and listen to these life stories, it can make me feel very insignificant. Very small in the big scheme of things. Her husband died 56 years ago, and now, besides her and her three children, he is mostly forgotten. In another fifty years he will practically vanish from memory.

It makes you take a deep breath. It makes you think about things.

“Well, that’s two hours,” I say. “That was a good two hours. You’ve given me a lot to work with.”

“Yes,” she says, nodding slowly. “I guess that was a good two hours.”

“See you next Wednesday?” I ask. “Same time?”

She nods.

“See you next Wednesday.”

* * * * *

This is my last message to you: in sorrow, seek happiness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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