Death and the Writer, Part 2 DOA - Umberto Tosi

Death came calling not long after my last Authors Electric blog post on February 3 in which I remembered a recently departed friend and colleague. Prophetically, I had entitled the post "Death and the Writer, Within a month I was hospitalized with congestive heart failure and other critical problems from which it was touch and go. Doctors brought me back thanks to the wizardry of modern medical technology.

But no silver bullet, magical pill or micro-surgical technique could reverse the change this episode brought to my state of mind. Overnight, A sickly kid who became a 10K daily runner and adult adventurer who hardly ever caught colds, I went from seeing myself as a robust, healthy chap to a wheezing heap of ailments and conditions, whose every step required maximum effort. Overnight, my body seemed to give way to the multiple insults of age, each of which requires medical tending. It makes one realize one's luck to be alive with each breath, easy or hard.

Avoidance doesn't work. The writing must look at death, not only in fiction, but in life. Health problems got to down to some serious estate planning, for example, not that I have a trove of assets to leave my progeny. Being an independent publisher as well as a writer complicates matters. Not that I leave streams of royalties now, but a writer must always think of the future. Many books that barely sold a copy during the author's lifetimes, have become best sellers and beyond. Witness F. Scott Fitzgerald, or a contemporary example in Stieg Larsson, the Swedish, activist journalist - author of the Millennium Trilogy - who died intestate in 2004, having never even published his now famous "Girl With The Golden Tattoo" mystery adventure series. The posthumous success of these volumes led to a nasty legal battle among his common-law wife - who first submitted his books to publishers -- and his surviving children, complicated by revenues from film adaptations. 

I would not predict any such squabbles among my progeny, but I wanted to provide some peace of mine.I set up a trust to hold my copyrights, which seemed simple, but proved complicated. My children were happy with it - although I suspect not wanting to think about the implications. I bequeathed my copyrights and sidestepped the complex problems of transferring KDP and other indie publishing accounts that I use to print and distribute my works, but have no stake in them. All this was becoming a bit to literal to contemplate. Nobody likes the subject. Someone, perhaps in our esteemed circle of independently publishing authors could write a guide to the twists and turns of setting up an indie-pub estate without expensive lawyers.

Dostoyevsky 1863
For the past year, I had been saying, half in jest, that I wanted to live long enough to see gangster-fascist Donald Trump's run out of the White House. That happened - although he nearly started a civil war resisting the will of the voters. I'm grateful. I'm also grateful to have witnessed some personal and family milestones reached. One was seeing my youngest daughter, Zoë, formally be awarded her doctorate in cognitive science after a decade of hard work, plus gain a scientific research position with one of the world's leading research labs in the San Francisco Bay Area. I relished celebrating her achievement with her three elder sisters, in whose accomplishments and character I take equal pride.

Another was that by the end of 2020, I finished writing my latest opus, a 1950s noir Hollywood mystery sendup I've entitled "The Phantom Eye," and starting on the sequel.

But, hey, wait a minute! I didn't mean that having past these mileposts I literally would be content to go gentle into that good night! Far from it. Nevertheless, as February ended, fate seemed to lower the boom. Like it or lump it, I was going to have to take my chances, and that's what I did, still gradually emerging from the woods.

Clever devils on today's leading edge: My doctors -  used fibre-optics to locate my problems and install a pair of stents to open up a main coronary artery, procedures that would have been impossible, or at least have required risky open-heart surgery a generation ago. Nevertheless, being nearly 84 years old, it was a serious matter, from which I will be in gradual recovery over the coming months. 

Their techno-virtuosity did not come off smooth as hospital soap, however. A minor but faultily made incision in my neck opened and set me to bleeding like a stuck pig on blood thinners (which I was) and it took most of a night of nightmarish pressure clamps to keep me sealed up most of the following night until the thinners could be adjusted. You're never out of danger. This was a much scarier experience than anything else.

I've always been slightly paranoid about doctors and medicine.When I was five, a family doctor misdiagnosed me with stomach flu. I kept getting worse, but he would not consider any alternatives - him being a distinguished head of Boston General Hospital at the time. A friend of my mother visited our house and offered to take a look. She had been studying music with my mother, but was an osteopath. She would have been a physician today, but women were mostly barred from medical schools in the 1930s and 40s.

I was not only misdiagnosed, she said, but suffering from acute appendicitis, she said, about to burst if they did not hospitalize me pronto. It did burst and I nearly died of peritonitis. It was 1942 and antibiotics were a new thing. What little there was had been allocated to the battle zones for wounded soldiers, not civilian use in Boston, Mass.  

Fortunately, Boston Children's Hospital scored on some Sulfonamides which was used to save my life. I was in a coma for three days, they say. This became my story - my legend. The miracle boy who never got sick again -- too much for my tiny shoulders. Even today, I trust women doctors over men, a prejudice, I admit. My regular physician is a woman

Thurman inset at Howard

I remember hallucinating a giant black cat that stitched me as I regained consciousness. This time, in 2021, didn't have any out-of-body experiences either as a child or as an adult. Nor did I see white lights, angels or any other heavenly (or hellish) messengers. But then, such microsurgeries don't usually require putting a patient under. 

It did get me seriously thinking about my own mortality, however - something about which I've been either neglectful for one who thinks of himself as a serious person, or abysmally in denial, considering my - knock wood - relatively healthy lifestyle over many years. None of it -- all the years of running, more years of walking, organic foods, low-carb, low-this-and-that, well-supplemented lifestyle kept the grim reaper from my door. Gee, I'm not special after all. 

Three of my four daughters avow personal belief in God - as true, good-works Christians not just affiliated believers. The fourth, is more like me, rationalist, although she testifies to having travelled mystical paths far more than myself at her age (or my age for that matter.) 

I don't believe that what I "believe" makes much difference to an omnipotent God, or in the general scheme of things. Whether Jesus was the Son of God or - as a popular theory goes - simply a charismatic, wise carpenter who integrated wisdom from a pilgrimage eastward into the lands of Zoroaster and Buddha, I am compelled by Jesus' philosophy - as expressed in Matthew, for example - not because it will fill up my gas tank to heaven, but because looking out at all the alternatives in this horrible-blessed world, it's the only way to be -- as one of my heroes, San Francisco's Howard Thurman so wisely pointed out in his slim, brilliant treatise, "Jesus and the Disinherited."  

Jesus philosophy was a survival guide for the downtrodden among whom he lived as an oppressed Jew of his time, not among the powerful, Thurman, whose teaching greatly influenced the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reasoned, You may not have the power to choose what others dish out - what comes at you. But you can choose your response - that which is nobler, kinder, ,humane, perhaps transcendent, and goes with the grain of yourself, or not - that which uplifts or demeans further. By choosing, you show that others have a choice too, no matter what they say.

I'm aware that this "faith optional" state of mind is 180 degrees opposite the majority religious view. It's the polar opposite of where Dostoyevsky arrived in his greatest novels after returning from Siberia. Without faith in God, he seems to say, human beings will inevitably fail at attempts at goodness and at making their world a better place. Possibly, but I find that one cannot with all sincerity concoct belief in a Biblical God with any greater genuineness that pretending to believe in a Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.

God is out there or in here, despite this, the faithful assert, perhaps rightly, however, and I can't deny their truth either. 

Whether or not I'm an atheist depends or where I happen to be standing. I don't feel I have a friend in Jesus in any conscious way. But when the orchestra plays the opening chords to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony - or the curtain goes up on those operas and pieces I hold dear, I don't believe. I don't have to believe, because I feel divine presence in myself and everything around me. 

Nobody played any music at the hospital as I hovered on the edge. So either my impressions have only been electronically induced illusions, or it wasn't quite my time yet. 

Thurman showed us how Jesus' teachings guide us towards the best - and only possible choices in the end. "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive," Thurman advised.

Of course, trying to figure the Great Mystery out is forever fruitless, whether one leads a life of holiness or sin, cynicism or saintliness. Futility rarely thwarts the writer, however. We are compelled to seek and bring back relics of the holy grail by our muses nonetheless.  

Of course, there's always the persistent prospect that none of our beliefs, fantasises, myths, poetics and science gets us beyond nothing: That there is nothing. No thing. Yet, in Tibetan Buddhist nothing is NO-THING. Same as quantum physics, no thing creates thing....things. 

We know we're doomed, like poisoned Edmund O'Brien in the 1949 film noir classic, D.O.A. seeking to solve the mystery of his murderer before his time runs out.

It was a gift to return home to the arms of my loved one, and the loving greetings of family from the COVID afar.  This with a mixture of sadness and guilt at the sorry that my crisis put all of them through -- showing on their lovely, sad, tearful, smiling faves.. Separation is the worst of it.

We'll all not only be gone, but mostly forgotten in a pitifully short time, with many more of us than walk the earth now. We did we come from and where do we go, we know not. 

I'm listening to a vintage, restored recording of a young George Gershwin himself playing his Prelude #2, a melancholy lyrical meditation that says all that cannot be said about this genius who died so young, like Schubert and Mozart, at 38, but did leave us all that made them - and us - come alive.  It ain't necessarily so, but if there is anything tangible beyond this mortal coil, I feel I'm going to the place from where that music emanates eternally. If I come back, either make it as a better storyteller, or a piano player - even at a dive bar will do - and not a cicada.

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Giving eggs-is-tential thanks!

Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com)



Comments

Marsha Coupé said…
((( B R A V O ))) Umberto. Delighted you are here to sing in another spring; to write; enjoy your children; cuddle with your best beloved; listen to opera and revel in all the things you love most. Huge Hugs and Love 🧡
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Umberto -you've made me think - quite a feat for the committed denier I am.
A deeply humane post and heart-warming too as you share wisdom drawn from your recent experiences. Rock on!
Jan Needle said…
That's wonderful. Umberto - thanks. Nothing at all to add in terms of wisdom and compassion, except perhaps don't write off cicadas! They've given me a lot of pleasure over the years.
bronwengriff said…
Only just read this Umberto. We should all consider our mortality but often we don't want to think of it. Brave words. Hope you have many more yet on this earth.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Umberto. As a fellow wrinkly (or whatever the appropriately incorrect terminology is), I’m grateful for but in awe of your honest, touching, uplifting analysis of the status which awaits us all and yet which still seems to surprise us when it arrives. I’ve had my moments but never had to endure the extremes you describe and from which you’ve obviously emerged (thank God, Howard Thurman or whoever) undiminished. My own heart moment was back in 2012 and I’m inexpressibly grateful to the unfortunate pig who ‘donated’ the valve that’s still helping to shift plasma, platelets and the rest around my system.
When one gets into the 80s, all the persons one used to so confidently be seem to become fugitive, inaccessible, and it’s hard to find a suitable (acceptable? accurate?) one to take their place – so it seems inevitable that emptiness and frustration become the norm, but your curiosity, your enthusiasms, your insights and your informed eloquence have a power that transcends such limitations. They’re also a refreshing contrast to the sickening absurdities of this world’s too numerous Trumps. Vive la Résistance!
(And I even forgive you the awful ‘eggs is-tential’ pun.)
Peter Leyland said…
You have assembled an amazing piece of memoir, Umberto. I often wonder how I would be when faced with my own mortality. I don't think I could write about it so calmly and with so much insight into self as you have done here. What will survive of us is love, or something like that, Philip Larkin said in a poem. Love for what we are - you have showed us this in your blog. Thanks
Thanks Umberto - it's generous of you to share this. I hope you'll be writing these posts and other work for a lit longer.
Aliciasammons said…
Perspective musings on the awesome mysteries of life— mysteries that a giftted writer like Umberto fleshes out in all its frightful wonder: “ Of course, trying to figure the Great Mystery out is forever fruitless, whether one leads a life of holiness or sin, cynicism or saintliness. Futility rarely thwarts the writer, however. We are compelled to seek and bring back relics of the holy grail by our muses nonetheless. ” Bravo
Griselda Heppel said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Griselda Heppel said…
Marvellous post, Umberto. Thoughtful, kind, humane, non-judgemental, allowing for the existence of more mysteries in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your own philosophy. A certain well-known (in the UK anyway) academic and evangelical humanist could learn a thing or two about tolerance from you. (She's in my mind because she loves sending out snide, patronising, myth-debunking tweets around major Christian festivals just to annoy Christians. I'm sure she does the same for other religions too. Sure she does.)

More important is the joyous news that you have come through your brush with whatever-eternity-is and are well again. Hurrah!

And thanks for the introduction to Howard Thurman. I had never heard of him before and he is clearly a great man.

Keep well! Your wonderful daughters and wife need you and so do we.

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,
Happy you are still here amongst us. May we have the pleasure and wisdom of your words for many more days yet.

xo
eden
Ruth Leigh said…
Well, Umberto, first of all I'm delighted that you are still with us. What a treasure trove of fabulousness you are! And thank you for weaving in such a gentle, kind and tolerant view of your beliefs. As a Christian myself, I get terribly tired of people ranting about how wrong I am about everything, and as Griselda says, choosing important times in the Christian calendar to do it. Life is full of beauty and you write about it so well. You seem to have been spared several times through your life and how wonderful to read of the value you have given and received from that long life.

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