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David Foster Wallace - An Appreciation
By Terry Roland
Before I share some thoughts about my friend, Dave Wallace, I would like to attempt to give just a hint of an inside view of a disease as ordinary as the common cold and as deadly as cancer.
Imagine you have a form of mental cancer. Imagine, the public has paid to read the workings of your psyche, perhaps our brain's most sacred unseen component. Your friends and family treasure your thoughts, imagination and creativity. But a great shadow is spreading clouds over your psyche. The mental cancer progresses and soon you are in its grip. It is a terminal, fatal grip that suffocates all feelings of well-being, of joy, and shields you from engaging in the fullness of the life around you. This is replaced with constant feeling of dread. Noises are too loud; silence is too quiet; light is too light and darkness is like a tomb. The anxiety is constant. You are scared, angry, frustrated and in short, chronically miserable. Your thoughts all inescapably turn in on themselves--they turn toward you in tsunami-like waves and then, like maddening little trickles. It's a cancer that relentlessly gnaws on your spirit and weakens your core self. The things you take for granted, like getting out of bed, eating, exercising, working, being with people, all seem impossible. At some point, you decide there's nothing else I can do except to take my own life. It's the only reasonable thing to do. The pain won't stop. You need relief. Even this is a manifestation of this cancer and how it has eaten away at your psychological interior. It is the final stage of a fatal disease. Your clarity of thought and feelings have vanished and you are left seemingly alone in this dry, barren wasteland. You don't know when you crossed the line between self-preservation and self-destruction, but you know what you must do. You walk away into darkness while so many who have loved you reach out to save you, but you are already gone.
This is the journey many today find themselves on. The cancer is called depression.
This is not to be a feature on depression. I write this just to give a context for what follows.
On September 12, 2008, somewhere around 7:00 PM, acclaimed and best-selling author, David Foster Wallace, after months of battling a debilitating depression, walked to his back patio and hung himself.
I hadn't seen Dave for several months. The last time I saw him we talked over coffee about his upcoming medication change. He was advised to change the medication he had been on for anxiety and depression due to life-threatening side effects. I remember he was a friend who normally engaged in conversation, listened, communicated with care and insight. But this day he was reticent and detached. We talked awkwardly about possible medication cocktails. Information he already knew.
Over the few years I knew him, we felt a special kinship. We both had dealt with the pain of depression, broken relationships and the struggle to find the medical support to allow us to deal with the daily life in, if nothing else, a normal way. He once told me he could, just from the tone of my voice, feel what I was going through based on his past experience. At times, he would seek me out to encourage, advise and just be a friend.
There was a time when I was on a waiting period for the results of a critical medical test. It was a three week odyssey of anxiety for me. I enlisted Dave, among others, to be on my short support list of people to call while I waited for the results. After telling me how honored he was that I chose him, I told him how honored I was that he was honored, then he told me how honored he was that I was honored that he was honored . . . and so on and so on and so on.
We identified with each other as outsiders who preferred to isolate from the crowds into our own private inner-circle of one. He told me how he was advised whenever he had the impulse to hide away, to call someone, anyone and just say, "spaghetti," and hang up. This would, in effect, count as reaching out to someone else. From that point on, we would occasionally exchange spaghetti calls when one or the other of us felt like isolating and not reaching out. "Hi Terry, this is Dave. Spaghetti." Click.
He could also be surprisingly childlike. Once I told him a story of how in 1972 at a Rolling Stones concert at the L.A. Forum, I was confronted by Jack Nicholson when my friend and I tried in vain to sit in one seat near the stage directly in front of the actor. Jack tapped on my shoulder and said, "There's two of you trying to sit in that seat there. It belongs to a friend of mine, I suggest you leave." Dave loved my Nicholson imitation and asked me to tell the story over and over again. He was like an intelligent Lenny in Of Mice and Men. "Say it again, George! Say it again! Do Jack Nicholson!"
Dave found fame early. He was published when he was 26. He wrote what many consider the great American novel when he was 35, Infinite Jest. His writing was unconventional, experimental and boundless. He pushed the barriers of how fiction was approached, framed and presented in publication, including novels with hundreds of now-famous footnotes. He dared to gamble with a near completely original approach to form. And he succeeded. He received the reputation as one of the most important young writers in the nation. A kind of Orsen Welles and Jest his Citizen Kane.
He also was brilliant in the area of non-fiction. His essay written originally for Rolling Stone during the 2000 John McCain campaign has recently been re-released in conjunction with the election season. Dave found his campaign to be a positive contribution to the primaries of the time. He was impressed with the McCain of 2000 even though Dave's politics could be described as firmly to the left.
His most entertaining and well-regarded book of non-fiction is Supposedly Fun Things I'll Never Do Again, describing a week on a cruise ship. His short stories, essays and commentaries often appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New Yorker and the New York Times.
But all of this was secondary to the Dave who I came to know. As a friend he was soft-spoken, thoughtful, reflective and funny. He was also brutally honest, often telling the truth on himself. He never seemed to believe his own publicity as evidenced by his usual uniform of a ragged T-shirt, long hair and a head scarf, shorts, old tennis shoes, three days growth of a beard and a white Styrofoam cup where, like any good gentleman, he would spit his chewing tobacco.
Dave knew I was a Christian. He let me know his own belief in God. He, like myself, was put off by the political agenda of the Evangelical branch of Christianity. We had talks about the oft neglected contemplative Christianity including forms of Christian meditation.
He told me he wanted to know more. When we talked about this, he sometimes would laugh and say he used to call folks like me "Karate Christians," Christians with Eastern influence. But, we'd always conclude such conversations with an agreement to let him know when there were gatherings of these Karate Christians.
The past few weeks have seen a multitude of tributes to Dave as a writer and a friend.
Sudden death often leaves room for regrets. This one is no different. I hadn't seen him for the last several months as my own occupation and pre-occupation with life drew me away from him. When I saw his picture in a Sunday edition obits of the L.A. Times, I threw the paper against the wall. I have walked around at work and in my daily life and I catch myself saying his name under my breath. "Oh Dave." Like many others, there was the wish I'd spent more time with him, made a few more spaghetti calls and the nagging question, could I have made a difference? But, knowing Dave, he would've shook his head and told me to stop being so hard on myself.
So many have and will mourn his passing and with much more intensity and sense of loss than me. So many loved him including his wife, parents, sister, all of those who surrounded him with love, his colleagues, students and his family of close friends.
The last time I saw him, he nervously smoked a cigarette, and it seemed something unspoken went between us. It was fear. The fear I had been feeling in my own recent past, and the one he was beginning to feel as the depression began to slowly eat into him. I had made it through, barely, and I still had a way to go. That day we were outside, the wind blew around us, he looked far away. I could feel and relate to his fear. It couldn't be verbalized. I remember him saying, "There's no pain like sober pain." He knew this first-hand and so did I. Sometimes I lay awake at night wondering the usual question 'why?' There is no answer. At times, there is only silence. But in the silence there is human and divine compassion. Still, sometimes, I have the impulse to pick up the phone and say, "Hi Dave. Spaghetti." It would be nice to hear his voice one more time, to see his gentle smile and to listen for his wisdom. For now 'spaghetti' will have to do. The last word for me from one of America's great writers.
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