J. M. Coet­zee


The New York Review of Books - - Contents - J. M. Coet­zee

Dear Norma,

I am writ­ing from San Juan, from the one and only ho­tel here. I vis­ited Mother this af­ter­noon—a half-hour drive along a tor­tu­ous road. Her con­di­tion is as bad as I had feared, and worse. She can­not walk with­out her stick, and even then she is very slow. She has not been able to climb the stairs since re­turn­ing from the hos­pi­tal. She sleeps on the sofa in the liv­ing room. She tried to have her bed shifted down­stairs, but the men said it had been built in situ, could not be moved with­out be­ing taken to pieces first. (Didn’t Pene­lope have a bed like that—Homer’s Pene­lope?)

Her books and pa­pers are all up­stairs—no space for them down­stairs. She frets, says she wants to get back to her desk, but can’t.

There is a man named Pablo who helps in the garden. I asked who does the shop­ping. She says she lives on bread and cheese plus what the garden pro­vides, doesn’t need more. Nev­er­the­less, I said, couldn’t she get one of the women from the vil­lage to come in and cook and clean? She wouldn’t hear of it—she doesn’t have re­la­tions with the vil­lage, she says. What about Pablo? I said—Isn’t Pablo part of the vil­lage? Pablo is my re­spon­si­bil­ity, she said. Pablo does not be­long to the vil­lage.

Pablo sleeps in the kitchen, as far as I can see. He is not all here, or not all there, or what­ever the eu­phemism is. I mean, I think he is an id­iot, a sim­ple­ton. I didn’t raise the chief sub­ject— wanted to, but didn’t have the courage. I’ll do so when I see her to­mor­row. I can’t say I am hope­ful. She has been cool to me. She has a shrewd idea, I sus­pect, of why I have come.

Sleep well. Give my love to the chil­dren. John

“Mother, can we dis­cuss your liv­ing ar­range­ments? Can we talk about the fu­ture?”

His mother, seated in her stern old arm­chair, built no doubt by the same car­pen­ter who built the im­mov­able bed, says not a word.

“You must know that He­len and I worry about you. You have had one bad fall, and it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore you have an­other. You aren’t get­ting any younger, and liv­ing by your­self in a house with steep stairs in a vil­lage where you are not on good terms with your neigh­bors—frankly, it doesn’t seem a vi­able ex­is­tence, not any­more.”

“I don’t live by my­self,” his mother says. “Pablo is with me. I have Pablo to rely on.”

“I agree, Pablo lives with you. But can you re­ally rely on Pablo in an emer­gency? Was Pablo any help to you last time? If you hadn’t been able to tele­phone the hos­pi­tal, where would you be to­day?”

Even as the words leave his mouth, he knows he has made a mis­take. “Where would I be?” says his mother. “You seem to know the an­swer, so why ask me? Un­der the earth, be­ing de­voured

by worms, I pre­sume. Is that what I am sup­posed to say?”

“Mother, please be rea­son­able. He­len has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing and has lo­cated two places not far from where she lives where you would be well looked af­ter and where she and I be­lieve you would feel at home. Will you al­low me to tell you about them?”

“Two places. By places do you mean in­sti­tu­tions? In­sti­tu­tions where I will feel at home?”

“Mother, you can call them what you will, you can sneer at He­len and sneer at me, but that doesn’t al­ter the facts—the facts of life. You have al­ready had one se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent, of which you are suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences. Your con­di­tion is not go­ing to get bet­ter. On the con­trary, it is all too likely to get worse. Have you thought what it will be like to be bedrid­den in this god­for­saken vil­lage with only Pablo to see to your needs? Have you thought what it will be like for He­len and me, know­ing that you are in need of care, yet un­able to care for you? Be­cause we can’t come fly­ing thou­sands of kilo­me­ters every week­end, can we?”

“I don’t ex­pect you to.”

“You don’t ex­pect us to, but that is what we will have to do, that is what one does if one loves some­one. So please do me a fa­vor and lis­ten qui­etly while I set the al­ter­na­tive be­fore you. To­mor­row or the next day or the day af­ter that, you and I will leave this place and drive to Nice, to He­len. Be­fore we leave I will help you pack up ev­ery­thing that is im­por­tant to you, ev­ery­thing

you want to hold on to. We will pack it all in boxes ready to be shipped once you are settled.

“From Nice He­len and I will take you to see the two homes I men­tioned, the one in An­tibes, the other just out­side Grasse. You can have a look at them and see how you feel. We will put no pres­sure on you, none at all. If you like nei­ther, so be it, you can stay with He­len while we look else­where, there is plenty of time.

“We just want you to be happy, happy and safe, that is the goal of it all. We want to be sure that if there is some mishap, there will be some­one at hand, and you will be taken care of.

“I know you don’t like in­sti­tu­tions, Mother. Nor do I. Nor does He­len. But there comes a point in our lives when we have to com­pro­mise be­tween what we ideally want and what is good for us, be­tween in­de­pen­dence on the one hand and se­cu­rity on the other. Here in Spain, in this vil­lage, in this house, you have no se­cu­rity at all. I know you dis­agree, but that is the brute re­al­ity. You could fall ill and no one would know about it. You could have an­other fall, and lie un­con­scious, or with bro­ken limbs. You could die.”

His mother gives a lit­tle flick of the hand, as if to dis­miss the pos­si­bil­ity. “The places He­len and I are propos­ing are not like in­sti­tu­tions from the old days. They are well de­signed, well su­per­vised, well run. They are ex­pen­sive be­cause they spare no ex­pense in the in­ter­est of their clien­tele. One pays, and in re­turn one gets first­class care. If it turns out that ex­pense is an is­sue, He­len and I will hap­pily con­trib­ute. You will have your own small apart­ment; in Grasse, you can have a small garden of your own too. You can ei­ther take your meals in the restau­rant or have them brought to your apart­ment. Both places have a gym­na­sium and a swim­ming pool; they have med­i­cal staff on hand at all times, and phys­io­ther­a­pists. They may not be heaven, but for some­one in your po­si­tion they are the next best thing.”

“My po­si­tion,” says his mother. “And what ex­actly is my po­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to you?”

He throws up his hands in ex­as­per­a­tion. “Do you want me to say it?” he says. “Do you re­ally want me to say the words?”

“Yes. Just for a change, just as an ex­er­cise, tell me the truth.”

“The truth is that you are an old woman in need of care. Which a man like Pablo can­not give.”

His mother shakes her head. “Not that truth. Tell me the other truth, the real truth.”

The real truth?”

“Yes, the real truth.”



“The real truth”: that was what she de­manded, or per­haps im­plored.

She knows very well what the real truth is, as do I, so it should not have been hard to speak the words. And I was an­gry enough to do so—an­gry at hav­ing to come all this way to per­form a duty for which you or He­len or I will get no thanks, not in this world.

But I could not. I could not say to her face what I have no dif­fi­culty in writ­ing here, now, to you: The real truth is that you are dy­ing. The real truth is that you have one foot in the grave. The real truth is that al­ready you are help­less in the world, and to­mor­row you will be even more help­less, and so forth day af­ter day, un­til the day comes when there will be no help at all. The real truth is that you are in no po­si­tion to ne­go­ti­ate. The real truth is that you can­not say No. You can­not say No to the tick­ing of the clock. You can­not say No to death. When death says Come, you must bow your head and come. There­fore ac­cept. Learn to say Yes. When I say, Leave be­hind the home you have made for your­self in Spain, leave be­hind your fa­mil­iar things, come and live in— yes—an in­sti­tu­tion where a nurse from Guadaloupe will wake you up in the morn­ing with a glass of orange juice and a cheery greet­ing (Quel beau jour, Madame Costello!), do not frown, do not dig in your heels. Say Yes. Say, I agree. Say, I am in your hands. Make the best of it.

Dear Norma, there will come a day when you and I too will need to be told the truth, the real truth. So can we make a pact? Can we prom­ise that we won’t lie to each other, that no mat­ter how hard it may be to say the words, we will say them—the words It is not go­ing to get bet­ter, it is go­ing to get worse, and it is go­ing to go on get­ting worse un­til it can get no worse, un­til it is the very worst?

Your lov­ing hus­band, John

Henri Matisse: In­te­rior at Nice (Room at the Beau Ri­vage), 1917–1918

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