A Bittersweet Task

November 18, 2010 at 4:09 am (By Amba)

As J lies on what I suppose is his deathbed, or death-and-resurrection bed, slowly getting smaller, more hollow-cheeked and thin-legged, I sit on my futon on the floor beside the hospital bed, reediting a digital file of his story of cheating death as a teenager in Soviet Russia.

Back in the ’90s, our friend Robyn painstakingly retyped the whole book to post on the website that she and her husband Ralph had created for Jacques.  (Ralph had become our future friend as a child, when his father, Warren, operated on Jacques in 1975 — three and a half years after he and I met — discovering a massive staph infection behind his left lung and in two of his vertebrae, which had probably been smoldering in his body ever since a sadistic guard in Russia shot him through the chest, missing his heart by maybe a centimeter.)  When we then republished Donbas in 2000, adding back material that the first crew of editors had cut out and new passages that Jacques had written since — and an epilogue describing his return to the Donbas — Robyn took all but the first three chapters down from the website at our request.

Jacques’ lifelong dream, which he had hoped from Day One I would help with, was to see his book read in schools and made into a movie.  It was all he had salvaged from that experience (well, okay, a Russian soul — no small thing), and in many ways his sense of his own worth balanced on the razor edge of the book’s acceptance.  Everybody who loves him is aware that Jacques has a bedrock foundation of natural confidence we can hardly imagine and are drawn to by an unfamiliar but gravitational force; most are less aware (some more than others) that, as with most trauma survivors, it is overlaid by (like one of those black strata in the earth that memorializes a mass extinction) a layer of ash and shame.  I am reading his unflinching account of how filth-encrusted and pus-befouled he was when he escaped from the Soviets’ clutches on legs rotting with gangrene.  People in British- and American-occupied Germany moved away from him in train stations; one or two even spat on him.  Nothing that happened to him as a prisoner in Russia — where he had at least been valued for his strength, and even loved — had wounded him as deeply as his rejection by (barely) respectable people when he washed up like a piece of flotsam on the edge of the West, and especially his rejection from an American military hospital (a simple act of triage; they thought he was irreversibly close to death, a mistake that is still being made more than six decades later).  That rejection was so devastating that he lied about it in the first edition of the book, and wrote instead the fantasy that he was taken in and cherished there.

Are you beginning to see why I couldn’t put this guy in a nursing home?

For various reasons too complicated to go into here (the simplest of which is that it’s just so goddamn difficult), I failed to devote myself sufficiently single-mindedly to getting Donbas made into a movie.  In 2001, though, I did write an article about J and me for O, the Oprah Magazine (the article will soon be permanently archived on the magazine’s website).  Around the same time, he had been contacted by a middle-school student in Oregon who’d loved the book and wanted a new one as a retirement present for his teacher, whose copy was falling apart because he’d taught it for 25 years.  It looked as if J’s dream might finally be gathering itself to come true (just as he was beginning to get ill), but then the magazine hit the newsstands, literally, on September 10, 2001.

Decades ago, a gay editor who had a crush on J had published the book in paperback with a rather homoerotic, bare-chested cover illustration and the wince-worthy title A Man Never Dies.  (“A man always dies, sooner or later,” I pronounced in my infinite thirtysomething wisdom.  Oh, yeah?)  Well, be that as it may, a book never dies.  Or this one doesn’t.  It keeps clawing its way out of the grave.  Freeman Hunt, a blogfriend from the Althouse community, ordered it from the link on my blog.  She gave it to her husband, David, who is a filmmaker.  He fell in love with it, as certain people, over time, inexorably continue to do.  And now it’s 2010, and I’m sitting here reediting the digital file that Robyn never trashed because David and his business partner plan to produce a school edition AND a movie.  Is J aware of this?  Intermittently.  Will he live to see it?  It would be a mistake to rule anything out with him, obviously, but probably not.  Does it matter?  The part of him he wanted most to live will live.

I noticed recently that J’s hands, which he described as having been so hardened by mine work and mineralized by coal dust that you could break a razor blade on his palm, are now much softer than mine.  I also thought about how his being on hospice for a year is some kind of strange restitution for his rejection from that American Army hospital in postwar Germany so long ago.  He’s having his umpteenth rematch with death — he’s won them all till now — but this time, he has a corner.


  1. A said,

    There’s no part of this post that isn’t wrenching, but imagining his experience of rejection after the desperate, incredible journey of escape literally chills me.

  2. Christopher Diamant said,

    Dear Annie;

    I am trying to contact you about perhaps doing something you might feel is a part of sealing your destiny in bringing our generation to face it’s ultimate uncovering: as of the pages of a book I was given to write; or really; copy; since when I was given it; it was already written; although not yet here as where it could be read.

    So you would say I am a scribe.

    I write what is called “script”

    What is script?

    Script is what explains scripture; but before you sigh and look away please remember that I chose you to write the introduction of this book because it was decided that you were a better choice than taylor branch; something which my publisher Paul Cohen the Longsuffering unjustly to me my quite justly in his estimation is a big mistake: but I don’t think so: Taylor branch is focussed like a laser; and his work does resonate with my own:

    But you are universal; and were called to be chosen for this; of that I am sure……

    Shall I write to Simon and Schuster on the permissions for “Do You Believe In Magic?” or should I just ask you here for your address? Min is st.christopherthelast@yahoo.com; or just accept my request on facebook

  3. amba12 said,

    Christopher: thank you. But if you read this post you can see why I can’t handle anything like that right now. It is way too much.

  4. david said,

    Reminds me of this quote, from Chief Tecumseh:

    “When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.”

  5. Christopher Diamant said,

    Dear Annie;

    Of course; I understand completely, I only hope that you might let me know when you feel closer to this particular emergence, I shall be here; patient and ready.

    In Love;

    the Mighty God.

    child of the resurrection

  6. amba12 said,

    David —

    All the more reason not to let the legend die (as if it needed help from us!).

  7. Danny said,

    I’m continually left breathless by your exquisite writing. And by Jacques’ struggles and triumphs. That film must be made, I know it will be. Do you have anyone in mind who you think could play Jacques? Would it include an afterword with someone playing you? For some reason, the first person that came into my head to play you is Natasha Richardson but that sadly can’t happen. A younger Vanessa Redgrave would also have been perfect. Liev Schreiber as Jacques?

  8. amba12 said,

    Well, we need an amazing kid to play J as a kid.

  9. amba12 said,

    Too bad Charlie isn’t a little older!

  10. Peter Hoh said,

    How about a graphic novel?

  11. amba12 said,

    That’s a great idea, actually.

  12. Donna B. said,

    Though I always intended to, I just tonight got around to ordering the book. I should have done so right after I read the first three chapters some time ago, but that was during a period of austerity around here.

    It was also during one of my “not reading books” phases. Thanks for writing about it again.

  13. Sippican Cottage said,

    Hi Annie- Hello from your friends in Maine. There can’t be a half a dozen men like him in the world, can there?

  14. amba12 said,

    Hi, Sipp. I call him the Last of the Titans. He had a few friends who were titans also; he’s outlived them all. Many titans are surprisingly fragile; or they give their all and burn out relatively early. The bigger they are the harder they fall. But J is lasting relatively long and falling softly, for which I expect to have a solitary but very thankful Thanksgiving.

  15. PatHMV said,

    Friend Sippican, hello! Haven’t seen you around in a long time. Hope you and the cave-cubs are well.

    Annie, thanks as always for the update. His hands may be softer now, but they are still powerful in their own way. I had such a unique sensation when he shook my hand as I was leaving our visit 2 months ago (or was it 3? I’ve lost track of time myself). It was very intense.

    If I can help edit anything (I’m pretty darn handy with Word and with basic typography stuff) or ever look over legal papers for you two, please let me know. I would be very happy and honored to do so.

  16. amba12 said,

    Thank you, Pat.

  17. Randy said,

    How incredibly touching. Annie, are there family or friends with you now? All of your far-flung friends here are thinking of you, wishing we could be there to somehow comfort you. Mere words seem so inadequate this morning.

  18. karen said,

    Word, Randy.

    I’d wanted to comment earlier– i cried, instead. Not bawling, mind– just so touched deep in my heart to hear so much love and to witness something so personal. Yes, an honor.

    I tried to get onto hotmail and got booted off a couple of times. I’ll try again soon. I seem to catch only brief, chance glances at all my favourites(like mr g:0)).

    This process can take awhile, i think- the process of moving on, being reborn into the heavens. Or, like a friend of mine recently and @39– you’re gone in a missed heartbeat:0(. Fr. Six(mund) says that every day God picks a bouquet and no one knows when we’ll be chosen.

  19. amba12 said,

    That’s a lovely thought, Karen. Jacques was picked yesterday. I haven’t had a chance or the strength to post about it yet.

  20. christopher witt diamant said,

    Rochefoucauld once said that

    “….Death and the sun are two things that no man can outstare…” but for those who see the sun as the fact of Death they are one and the same; pitiless and merciless.

    ……I hope to be here as one of the keepers of the Flame; when they whose love still lives and hearts still burn can be reached; to perhaps wipe away the tears……


  21. Meade said,

    “The part of him he wanted most to live will live.”

    Thanks to you, Annie.
    My condolences.

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