May 17, 2017

Living Near the Edge: Panthea Reid’s Memoir of Love and Loss

Panthea Reid doesn’t mince words in her preface to Body and Soul: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing (Wild River Legacy 2017). Losing her husband John Fischer, who died in 2015, “nearly destroyed” her mind. What added “fury and guilt” to her grief was the idea that “medical incompetence or indifference hastened his decline.” She’s plagued by thoughts of her “naive trust” in the doctors who misdiagnosed his illness and by the fact that she failed to assert herself and “insist on alternate medical care.” 

Readers of Body and Soul may recall Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story (Ecco 2011), in which the author laments having consigned her husband Raymond Smith to “a teeming petri dish of lethal bacteria where within a week he will succumb to a virulent staph infection — a ‘hospital’ infection acquired in the course of his treatment for pneumonia.”

A Widow’s Story is among the memoirs of grieving Reid references in Body and Soul, describing how “Oates’s disbelief and anguish” over the loss of her husband, who died in 2008, “reifies my sense of horror over John’s death. Both deaths were unnecessary, inexplicable.” Among other elements the books have in common along with the focus on “love, loss, and healing” is the fact that both husbands were treated at the Princeton Medical Center. The motive force behind Oates’s narrative, however, is less desperate and driven than Reid’s, although the most obvious point of contrast between the two is in the sexual/spiritual synthesis suggested by Reid’s title and the Felicia Mitchell poem she quotes from in the epigraph (“I don’t think the soul leaves the body; it has to be the other way around …. What if the body leaves the soul to give the soul more room to wander?”). The seed of Body and Soul is in the last sentence of the first chapter: “From his hospital bed a week before he died, John announced to me that it was our fortieth anniversary — not of our official 1976 ceremony, but of the first time our happy bodies coupled together.”

Living Near the Edge

Oates’s description of her marriage is circumspect and low-key, if only by comparison with the extremes in her fiction. As it happens, there are some Oates-level pyrotechnics in Reid’s account of a relationship forged in her struggle to escape a catastrophic marriage: her crazed husband throwing himself off the second-story deck of their house when she mentions divorce, absconding with their son (which prompts a mention of the opening of Oates’s Do With Me What You Will), threatening violence, so that John, Panthea’s lover-saviour, has to borrow a shotgun and enroll in a police gun-training program. You could pitch a cable mini series based on this embattled couple: the “granddaughter of a Southern Methodist preacher” and the “grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants; a former Junior Miss Alabama and a former dirt bike racer; a person who largely missed the Civil Rights struggle and an activist in it.” But however odd a match they may have seemed to others, they “shared a deep devotion to literature and a capacity for adventure.” And, as Reid writes, “We also each had a tendency, for better or worse, to live near the edge.”

Swift and Faulkner

While Ray and Joyce formed a literary partnership around the editing and publishing of The Ontario Review, Panthea and John defined the relationship through their subjects, Jonathan Swift scholar
Fischer finding in Swift’s long poem “Cadenus and Vanessa” reason to believe that a mingling of love and books is “possible and joyous,” while Reid, whose first book was about William Faulkner, finds herself in The Wild Palms, a novel “about two lovers who choose to give up everything to live together,” which reinforces her sense “that romance and passion were completely missing in my poor stunted life.”

Certain details of their courtship — John like “a World War II warrior” on his BMW motorcycle, Panthea nervously holding onto the sidecar “thrilled to see the muscles in his arms tense as he took curves,” being toasted by novelist Walker Percy when they announced their impending marriage — suggest the regional literary scene evoked in the opening paragraph of Reynolds Price’s A Long and Happy Life, Wesley Beavers “leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars,” and “laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him …. Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line.”

Bourbon in Princeton

The moment in Walker Percy’s LSU office when he took a bottle of Early Times from a file drawer, poured the couple “hefty doses of bourbon,” and toasted them, brought back evenings many years later on Mt. Lucas Road with John nursing his bourbon of choice, straight, no ice. We were in the first decade of the millennium, and after residing in Princeton for 25 years, my wife and I were finally keeping company with the sort of neighbors we’d always expected to have in so famously bookish a town: here we were in a living room surrounded by literature, rare volumes of Swift on shelves under the south-facing window, books by and about Panthea’s subjects Faulkner, Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, and Tillie Olsen in built-in bookcases opposite. In our progress through four different neighborhoods, we’d lived next to physicists and mathematicians, political scientists and economists, an African-American bishop, a former mayor, and an ex-ambassador to the Soviet Union, but never writers, editors, or perennial students of literature like ourselves.

Then came the day when the neighbors we’d been looking for actually showed up on our doorstep. There they were, standing in the driveway staring at our house because they were seeing a replica in reverse of the house they had just moved into, described in Body and Soul as “a proper New England professor’s cottage with built-in bookshelves in almost every room.”

Never mind the books. In Princeton, what better blueprint for a friendship than houses in common?

Face to Face

It’s hard to read Body and Soul if you’ve ever been face to face with John Fischer. Our first conversation after taking a “oh it’s just like ours” tour of the house was memorably intense. Everything else — the sound of our wives’ voices, the changing light at the window — was muted, diminished, mellowed out. If I say that John had a Jack Daniels air about him, it’s not to suggest that that he was a heavy drinker, only that his appreciation of bourbon was an aesthetic in itself, like a companionable, less complicated alternative to Swift.

We were talking that first day about the accidental death of Swift’s biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis, a family friend I had known and liked as a child and as a student. John’s mentor in Swift studies happened to be, he told me, Irvin’s arch rival. Moved by a lecture John had given not long before the accident, Ehrenpreis asked him to tell his mentor “not to hate me in his heart.” Spoken at close range by a man as centered and sure as John Fischer, the words had an emotional resonance that made it easy to understand why he had been entrusted with so significant a message. Whenever I want to remember the way John spoke, the sound of his voice, his intense commitment to what he had to say, his measured approach to each statement, the shape and substance he gave his words, I hear him saying “Tell him not to hate me in his heart.”

The Last Project 

One day Panthea showed me the editing project she was planning to complete for John, who had taken it over from a colleague and, so to speak, the true source, Esther Johnson, the subject of Swift’s Journal to Stella, whom he met in 1689 when she was eight, he 22. Because Esther was baffled by the difficult words in various books, Swift compiled an “Explanation of Difficult English Words” for her, which she eventually copied into her own book, a small, neatly bound volume listing alphabetically over 2,000 words with the definitions that Swift had provided.

In Body and Soul Panthea reports that the Word Book she helped bring to completion has been accepted by the University of Delaware Press. Her hope is that the publisher “can produce the book or at least a formal announcement about it in time for celebrations of Swift’s 350th birthday in the summer of 2017.”

“Romance and Passion”

In the chapter in his book Swift’s Poetry that grew out of the essay “about books and love” he dedicated to Panthea, John writes, “because love and reason are different, love cannot be judged by reason …. Love itself can be judged only by our experience of it. And our experience of it tells us that love is good. Indeed, even when we find love painful, we know that it is good because no matter how painful it becomes … we are unwilling to give it up.”

There’s a passage in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms that Panthea must have read more than once when she was leaving a failed marriage to commit to a life of “romance and passion” with John. “Listen,” a woman tells her lover, “it’s got to be all honeymoon, always. Forever and ever, until one of us dies. It can’t be anything else. Either heaven or hell: no comfortable safe peaceful purgatory between you and me …. They say love dies between two people. That’s wrong. It doesn’t die. It just leaves you, goes away, if you are not good enough, worthy enough.”

Panthea Reid will launch Body and Soul at Labyrinth Books on Monday, May 22 at 6 p.m.