This isn’t about cancer; it’s about Maurice Sendak

This isn’t about cancer; it’s about Maurice Sendak
"I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence."

Sorry to go off topic. Yesterday’s post about death and books about dying got my mind wandering and I stumbled across an interview (written by Emma Brockes) with Maurice Sendak just before he died. It’s published in the November/December issue of the Believer and an excerpt appears in the March Harper’s. So, this post isn’t about cancer; it’s about Maurice Sendak.

Here’s a confession. I love to read aloud parts of articles that I like to my husband. After twenty years of this, I think he’s gotten used to it, but I don’t think he’s ever really liked it. That’s what I’m going to do in this post, and I hope you like it better than he does. All of these are quotations from Sendak.

Thoughts about dying and William Blake:

 I’m just reading a book about Samuel Palmer and the ancients in England in the 1820s. You were so lucky to have William Blake. He’s lying in bed, he’s dying, and all the young men come–the famous engravers and painters–and he’s lying and dying, and suddenly he jumps up and begins to sing! “Angels, angels!” I don’t know what the song was. And he died a happy death. It can be done. [Lifts his eyebrows to two peaks] If you’re William Blake and totally crazy.

 In response to the question, “Are you happy now?”

My friends are all dying. They have to die. I know that. I have to die. But two friends died last week. I was completely broken by it. One was a publisher in Zurich. I loved him and his wife. It’s the loneliness that’s very bad. They’re doing what is natural. If I was doing what was natural I would be gone, like they are. I just miss them, terribly.

 Thoughts about his family:

 …my grandmother…was a very fierce woman. The only grandparent I had. She was the only one who came over [from Europe]. Who was brought over by her idiot daughters, my aunts. And idiot uncles, her sons. They were deficits, all of them. She was the strongest. And she had an aversion to her children–not a very good mother, but a wonderful grandmother. And she could hate them, and I could hate them, too, because Grandma hated them! She had such contempt, and I loved her for it.

 In response to the question, “So where did your curiosity and imagination manifest?

 My brother, who was five years my senior. A wonderful, wonderful brother. And my sister. They stood guard over me. They were like the parents I wanted, and behind them, the parents I really had. I mistreated my parents because I didn’t understand their troubles, and then it gets too late.

 In response to the question, “Did your family know they were crazy?”

No. But they led desperate lives. I remember when my brother was dying, he looked at me, and his eyes were all teary. And he said, “Why were we so unkind to Mama?” And I said, “Don’t do that. We were kids, we didn’t understand. We didn’t know she was crazy.” When I asked my best friend Martin, to have lunch at my house, and my mother walked through the room furiously–she was always furious–he said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “We had to hire somebody.” I would not admit it was my mother. And that shame has lasted all my life. That I didn’t have the nerve to say, “That’s my mother; that’s how she is.”

 The thing I love most about this interview is that Sendak brings together the sadness and bitterness of life with the joy and contentment that it brings. He mixes passion with contempt. He loves books and he loves people; he hates books (especially digital books) and he hates people.

This connects to the book reviews from yesterday because it’s another group of words about coming to the end of life. He doesn’t feel the urge to clean it up and make it sentimental.

Here’s the connection to cancer. The pink ribbons and the stories of triumph. The rebirth that cancer sometimes brings, the way it’s a gift for some people, must be balanced with the way it destroys the world as you know it. We must know as we run for cancer and walk for cancer and cheer for those who are cured, that cancer sometimes leaves pain, hearing loss, mutilation, debilitation, anxiety and fear in its wake. It sometimes takes children from us and young mothers, and middle aged men. We must understand and accept cancer and people who have cancer and their families and friends as complex, sometimes bitter, sometimes triumphant, sometimes at peace, and sometimes fierce.

So, this is about Maurice Sendak; it isn’t about cancer.



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