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Roger Angell on what the dead don't know

The Reading Life

November 15, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Roger Angell photographed in 2003.
Roger Angell photographed in 2003. (Sherry Streeter )

This week’s New Yorker features an essay by Roger Angell that is as unexpected as it is understated — a meditation on the death of his wife Carol earlier this year. Or not on the death but on its aftermath, framed in terms of all the things she’s missed.

“My wife, Carol,” Angell begins, “doesn’t know that President Obama won re-election last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn’t know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn’t know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn’t know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment.”

Angell, 92, is a long-time editor and writer at the New Yorker. (His mother, Katharine, was the magazine's first fiction editor, and his stepfather was E.B. White.) For the last 45 years or so, he's written elegantly about baseball — a body of work, collected in "The Summer Game," "Five Seasons" and five other volumes, that is the finest in the literature of the sport.

Here, however, Angell finds himself in unfamiliar territory, writing, with neither sentimentality nor nostalgia, about Carol's death. It's a remarkable performance, not least because he frames the essay from her perspective: What is it that she will never know?

Of course, when people die it's not uncommon to ask some version of this question; my mother-in-law does it all the time. For her, it's the milestones — the birthdays, graduations, rites of passages in which the dead don't get to participate — that she's mourning. Angell, though, has something else in mind.

In the first place, he's not mourning, at least not in the way we commonly understand the term. He's sad, yes, but for Carol as much as himself. In the second, he accepts the situation; he's not railing against fate.

Although she was "seventeen years, nine months, and seventeen days younger than me (we had a different plan about dying)," Angell is disturbed less by injustice than distance, a distance that widens every day. "What Carol doesn't know by now is shocking," he writes, referring back to the election, the hurricane, the World Series: all those events, big and small, by which we mark our passage in the world.

As for why this moves me, I'm not sure, exactly, other than the writing is so good. Partly, I suppose, it's that I'm married also, but even more, I'm struck by Angell's equanimity, his sense that just because Carol has died, she hasn't quite yet disappeared.

Late in the essay, he recalls visiting her grave, in the same small-town Maine graveyard where his mother and stepfather are buried side-by-side. He describes the older headstones, on which “[s]ome of the lettering has been blackened by lichen, and some washed almost to invisibility.” I’ve observed something similar in my own New England graveyard rambles, the way time and the elements reduce all of us to anonymity.

“What I noticed most,” Angell recalls, “was that time had utterly taken away the histories and attachments and emotions that had once closely wrapped around these dead."

This is where I stop, face-to-face with oblivion — yet Angell turns a different way. “It was," he writes, "almost as if they were waiting to be born.”

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