LIKE Susan Sontag, my mother died of cancer. Soon after that, my father died. So, just as Sontag’s son, David Rieff, had been orphaned in his early 50s, I was orphaned in my early 40s. We both took up our family trades and inherited, likewise, a version, however modified, of our mothers’ core beliefs. Mine was a “Bells of St. Mary’s” Irish Catholicism. I am more devoutly lapsed but hearken to the language nonetheless, hum some of the old tunes and identify with what James Joyce called its “logical and coherent” absurdities. Rieff describes himself as a “militant atheist,” whereas his mother seemed a more indifferent skeptic, more devotedly rational than anti-theist. He describes her thus:
“My mother loved science, and believed in it (as she believed in reason) with a fierce, unwavering tenacity bordering on religiosity. There was a sense in which reason was her religion. She was also always a servant of what she admired, and I am certain that her admiration for science (as a child, the life of Madame Curie had been the first of her models) and above all for physicians helped her maintain her conviction -- and again, this, too, was probably an extrapolation from childhood -- that somewhere out there was something better than what was at hand, whether the something in question was a new life or a new medical treatment.”
“Swimming in a Sea of Death” is Rieff’s brief record of how high priests of the body and blood sort -- whether oncologists or monsignors -- must so often disappoint. And how they disappointed his mother. In the end, neither science nor medicine, reason nor raw intellect, “avidity” for life nor her lifelong sense that hers was a special case -- nothing could undo her death. Susan Sontag “died as she had lived: unreconciled to mortality.” And there is the sadness at the heart of Rieff’s testimony: that mothers die, as fathers do, regardless of what they or their children believe or disbelieve. It is our humanity that makes us mortal, not our creeds or their antitheses.
All of us swim in the one sea all our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such lifelines and preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art and music and imagination. And in the end, we all go “down, down, down” as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “into the darkness,” although she did not approve and was not resigned. Some lie back, float calmly and then succumb, while others flail about furiously and go under all the same. Some work quietly through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ tidy, too hopeful stages; others “rage, rage” as Dylan Thomas told his father to. But all get to the “dying of the light.” Some see death as a transition while others see it as extinction. Sontag studied in this latter school and tutored her only son in its grim lessons. What is clear from his book -- an expansion of an essay that first appeared in the New York Times Magazine a year after her 2004 death -- is that while she battled cancer, she waged war on mortality. That we get sick was acceptable to her. That we die was not. Pain, suffering, the awful losses her disease exacted, were all endurable so long as her consciousness remained animate:
“For my mother, whose pleasure in her own body -- never secure -- had been irretrievably wrecked by her breast cancer surgery, consciousness was finally all that mattered. I believe that if she had been offered the possibility of an immortality that consisted of nothing but consciousness, that is, of continuing indefinitely to know what was going on, even if it was the science-fiction immortality of the disembodied head, she would have accepted it with relief and gratitude -- perhaps even with appetite.”
Just such an immortality of disembodied consciousness -- “a soul,” some call it -- is the consolation of believers. And while Sontag could imagine it, she could not believe. She remained, according to her son, “inconsolable.” Her son’s decision to remain an accomplice in this “positive denial” of her mortality is one of the vexations that informs his book. He remains, by this testimony, inconsolable too.
And there’s his guilt -- some garden-variety “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” second-guessing that places him firmly in the human race:
“I have preferred to write as little as possible of my relations with my mother in the last decade of her life, but suffice it to say that they were often strained and at times very difficult.”
And this darker, more disturbing sort:
“There are times when I wish I could have died in her place. Survivor’s guilt? Doubtless that is part of the story. But only a part. . . .
“Between someone who is in love with the world -- and how she loved just . . . being! -- and someone who is not, the appropriate outcome, were such a thing on offer, is self-evident. And to say that my mother both enjoyed and made better use of the world than I have ever done or will do is simply a statement of fact.
“This question of how unfair to her it is that she is gone and why I’m still here for a bit longer comes into my head at the most improbable moments.”
Whether her narcissism or his, such sentences sound disordered and out of tune, like sad false notes at odds with the chief gifts of science and medicine, and the answer to prayers -- achieved fairly recently in human history -- whereby more children outlive their parents than vice versa. Rieff quotes an item from his mother’s journal:
“ ‘Death is unbearable unless you can get beyond the “I,” ’ she writes. But she who could do so many things in her life could never do that.”
One hopes he can.
Beyond the story of belief and disbelief, of consolations and despairs, there is a medical critique. Just as prisoners become experts in legal briefs, leukemia patients and their families learn the arcana of medicine and pharmacy. In the end, however, a death in the family is more than a medical or religious or scientific or intellectual event. It is for humans a signature question about being and ceasing to be. The portions of Rieff’s memoir that confront these existential mysteries make the other portions seem like diversions, interesting but not instructive.
One need only read “Regarding the Torture of Others,” Sontag’s essay on the photographs of Abu-Ghraib, written for the New York Times Magazine only months before her death, to know the world is poorer since she has ceased to be. As she was part provocateur, part seductress, hers was the ethical and articulate testimony of a free-range writer and thinker whose great gift was to connect the dots between things that seemed otherwise disconnected: art and war, intellect and emotions, politics and cinema, personal disease and public metaphor.
And one need only read the remarks of Rieff, another free-range intellectual being interviewed days before the outbreak of the war in Iraq in 2003, to know that he is his mother’s son:
“But the terrorist war has a particular difficulty, which is that the temptation to break the rules -- to torture, to execute in a summary way, to assassinate, etc., all the tools of dirty war -- are almost inevitable in a terrorist war, partly because in a terrorist war there is a fundamental erasing of the boundary between war and crime. What’s interesting about war, what’s in a way admirable about the soldiers’ vocation, is that there are rules. I mean, soldiers really can’t do certain things. Do they sometimes disobey those rules? Absolutely. Are those rules always what they should be? Probably not. But a soldier can’t just do anything. Whereas, once you’re fighting people you don’t accept are also enemy combatants; once you make them illegitimate the way the administration has declared our enemies in the terrorist war illegitimate, then anything is possible. And I see a kind of moral disaster.”
His mother did not live to see the “heckuva job” that was done in New Orleans or hear the specious quibbling of attorneys general, congressional leaders, presidential candidates and sitting presidents over whether water-boarding was torture. And more’s the pity. Still, her work in words will outlive her.
Grief work, like birthing, is a common labor, done by geniuses and ignoramuses; and just as mothers suffer their sons into the world, so sons must suffer their mothers back into the earth. The etymology that links womb to tomb puts “grave” and “gravid” on the same page of the lexicon with “gravity” -- for we are surely grounded, certainly bound, we humans, by our weighty subjects, love and mortality among them. It is serious work this book keeps track of, and Susan Sontag would approve.
In the end, David Rieff goes the distance with his mother, taking her body back to Paris to be buried at Montparnasse Cemetery among her kind: artists and thinkers and trophy intellectuals. As a boy, he’d been left with his father’s parents when his father, Philip, went off to his studies in California and his mother went off to hers in Paris:
“If you enter it through the main gate on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, you will find Simone de Beauvoir’s grave almost directly on your right as you head toward my mother’s burial plot. Whatever remains of Samuel Beckett lies under a plain gray granite slab a hundred meters from the black polished slab that covers the bones and whatever else now remains of the embalmed corpse that was once an American writer named Susan Sontag, 1933-2004.”
“I know.” Reader and writer will agree. “But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” *