Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Yesterday I heard on NPR that the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain died Friday at 68 of lung cancer, and my first thought was, “Why didn’t she tell me that she was was sick?!” This was followed quickly with the realization that though I did have a very brief conversation with her in 2005 during the Aspen Summer Words Writers’ Conference, I don’t actually know her. Then I did the next logical thing, which was burst into tears.

Terri Gross played a 2001 interview with her and I cried a bit harder. I’m not sure what it is about her writing that makes readers (some readers; this reader) feel that they not only know her but are good friends, but I suspect it has to do with the honest, unvarnished way she dishes up servings from her life. Hearing her responses on Fresh Air made me feel as if I’d just gotten a phone call from a friend, and so of course that made me cry a little harder.

Other authors I have adored have died, and though I might have a moment of sadness, I generally do not feel compelled to go into a period of mourning or a desire to send the family a floral tribute. But there was something about Nuala that made this feel like MY loss.

Possibly, my reaction is simply because her books are rich and smart and talk about a country that feels like my own home though it is not, and it is sad to know there will be no more of her words. It could be a sadness that so many of her “issues” appear to have gone unresolved. On a personal level, the fact that most of the attendees at Summer Words fell a little in love with her intelligence, wicked wit, and warmth. She did have a way of making you feel you’d known her your whole life, so perhaps that is why I was momentarily annoyed with her for not phoning to say she had terminal lung cancer so I could prepare myself and take her some chicken soup.

I have been drawn again and again to My Dream of You, her novel about a writer at middle age who, while researching a court case during the Famine, discovers more about herself, her country, women of her culture, and humanity than she does about the case’s outcome. The central mystery she tries to solve (aside from the one she is researching), is how a middle aged woman without a husband and, more importantly, without children, defines her purpose. During the Fresh Air interview, she speaks candidly about this, and how what all humans want is some sense of why they were put on this earth. She says to Terri Gross, What am I for?

For most people, the simplest answer (though there may be other answers as well) involves propagating the species, catapulting their own genetics a little further into the future, so in the face of personal annihilation, there is the hope that some little cluster of genes directly connected to them will see the next decade, the next century, etc. And also, there is the day-to-day sense of purpose. If a person has a baby that needs feeding or a five year old who needs reminding not to play in the street or a sixteen year old with a hand out for gas money, there is purpose. It may not be inventing a light bulb (or discovering a cure for the lung cancer), but you have contributed something that should last beyond you. This is a persistent theme in O’Faolain's writing, and even in the interview she gave on RTE just a few weeks before her death she comes back to the issue of what she has NOT done with her life, of who will mourn her, of who will not.

This is, I think, why I briefly considered wearing black today. In a world where women have stronger and more often heard voices than possibly any other time in history, there are not enough voices like this one. I could easily go to a bookstore and find books written by young women wondering about love and what sort of lives they might create for themselves, I can easily find authors who will tell a glamorous Sex and the City version of what it is to be single in their mid-30s. There are more than enough books about what it is to be a mother, both the frustrations and joys at all the different stages. But to find a woman towards the end of middle-age speaking candidly about choices and circumstances she made that affect her daily? It’s hard to come by. And it’s going to be even harder now that one of those few voices have been silenced.