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Angles of Death : LIGHT YEARS: A Memoir. By Le Anne Schreiber (Lyons & Burford: $20, 160 pp.)

September 08, 1996|Susan Cheever | Susan Cheever is the author of eight books and is at work on a memoir

"Love, if genuine, is indescribable," wrote Louisa May Alcott in "An Old Fashioned Girl." She might have said the same thing about death. The truth is that the most important experiences in life often can't be put into words.

This is why the Hebrew word for God is never spelled out in the Jewish Bible. This is why the millions of pages written about sexual passion still miss the feeling of soaring through time and space that is the subtext of so much human history. And this is why so much of the best writing about subjects like love, faith or death is writing that studies its subjects obliquely--the way we are forced to look at the sun to avoid being hurt by its power.

Le Anne Schreiber's writing in her extraordinary memoir "Light Years" is all indirection. Instead of writing about death, Schreiber writes about everything else, and death just surges up in the reader's peripheral vision, a dire and toxic presence.

The book's opening section, which is ostensibly about fly-fishing, soon focuses on a daughter being gently taught by her father. Schreiber sends her father photos of the trout stream near the house where she lives. She writes him letters about things she has seen while fishing: A heron lifting off or a buck crossing the stream.

"On my last visit to him, I saw he kept those pictures at his bedside," she writes. "Thumb-worn at the corners, they still glistened at the center. One August morning he asked if we could talk about a few things 'just in case.' He said he would like a portion of his ashes to enter the stream."

Schreiber's journey from being a daughter whose father taught her how to fish and release what she caught, to being a daughter who releases her father's ashes into the stream where she fishes, is at the heart of this sad, simply written book. By the time Schreiber delivers the ashes into the fast-running stream, she has butted heads with a local company whose waste made the stream a stinking morass; she has risked her life wading into water over her head, trying to find a short cut to the spot where she had decided to spread her father's ashes; and she has come to some kind of mournful terms with his death.

"Standing up, I looked at the water coursing downstream and felt something well up in me. I felt a deep sadness that brought tears to my eyes, which added their slight flow to the stream that was carrying my father's ashes to places perhaps more distant than I can imagine. But I also felt a powerful wave of relief rising and cresting within me. I had fulfilled my promise, and my reward was a sudden explosion within me of all the love that was contained in its making."

Ten years ago, Le Anne Schreiber left a workaholic's dream job in New York--she was the first female editor of the New York Times Sports section and deputy editor at the New York Times Book Review--to move to Columbia County, N.Y. She bought and began to restore and live in an old country house. But then, as if her settling down had unbalanced her past, her mother, father and brother died within a period of five years.

Schreiber's writing about the loss of her father, filtered through the lyrical images of the trout stream, is perfectly balanced by the comic, loony story of Sebastian the cat. After her mother died, Schreiber was reluctantly talked into sharing ownership of Sebastian. Sometime during their first squabbles, she noticed that the cat's blue eyes were exactly like her mother's. Her description of the craziness of grief, the mundane kind of insanity that follows the death of a parent, is eloquent and unconventional:

"My mother had died in October, and I was still in the grip of the magical thinking that too close a contact with death can inspire," she writes, describing the cat's eerie, haunting resemblance to her mother. "There was indeed a resemblance of coloration, and once I registered it, I couldn't stop seeing it and seeing it. . . . But if this were reincarnation, it was born of bad karma. My mother hated cats."

After her father, mother and brother die, Schreiber has to come to terms with death itself, with grief incarnate. "For the first time," she writes of a drive over a mountain near her home at midnight, "I felt the full impact of what I had become--the lone survivor of a natural disaster wandering in the wasteland of my family's destruction." Getting out of the car and climbing for a while relieves her sorrow. Finally, she stops. "I stood still letting the moon shine indifferently on me, and I knew with perfect clarity that I had not been singled out. I was simply part of the landscape, part of what is living, which is also part of what is dying."

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