3-5-09 Harry Mark Petrakis ... author - photographed at The Parthenon restaurant in Chicago's greek town. sun-times photo by al podgorski
Updated: July 24, 2013 6:41AM
When I was 11, living with my parents and five siblings in an apartment on Chicago’s South Side, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For families that couldn’t afford the unsullied mountain air, the only treatment was rest in bed. I spent two years in bed, passing through boredom, anxiety and terror until I discovered books. I read night and day, desperate to fill my hours and appease my fears, and I only understood years later that without the reading and the artifices of imagination my confinement helped nurture, I would never have become a writer.
At the time of my illness, my siblings and parents were all healthy and vigorous. When my illness became critical and I coughed blood, I was not expected to live. Now, just a few days from my 90th birthday, I am the only one of my original family still alive.
An interviewer once asked the octogenarian Henry Miller whether he ever thought of death. Miller’s answer to the dense questioner was, “All the time.”
I do not think of death all the time, but it does frequently enter my thoughts.
Not the fact of death itself as much as the manner of dying. Since my wife has already reached the milestone of 90, frail because of a stroke she suffered six years ago, I also wonder and worry about her. Will a heart attack kill either of us, a cancer of some kind, an accident? I wonder if she precedes me, how I would live on without her, or how she would fare if she lost me first? After 67 years of marriage and three years of courtship before that, we have become an integral part of each other. If she inhales in one room, I exhale in the other.
Yet, to be young and strong is no assurance of survival. The moment we are born we are old enough to die. That precarious hold on existence continues as long as we live. Each day may be our last.
One cannot dwell on thoughts of death too long because life intrudes. For me now it means waking in the morning, washing, preparing coffee, toast and a slice of Brie for my wife and myself. Then there are daily tasks to be performed, mail to be answered, a prescription to be called into the pharmacy. Finally, when a fraction of time meets a particle of inclination, I sit down at my machine to fashion words into sentences and sentences into stories. That is a ritual I have been practicing most of my life.
I no longer work upstairs in the spacious, light-suffused study where I have written my books for so many years. In the small downstairs room where I now write to be near my wife, the heater glowing at my feet, the sky outside is dark, the weather cold as winter lingers. There are lines from Yeats I think of now, “Must work because I’m old/And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.”
I look back toward my childhood and adolescence and remember a homely boy with ears large enough to make a pair for another head and the period of illness when I managed through books to escape my restricted world. Afterward, there was the shambling through adolescence to the outbreak of war, and being rejected for service because of lingering scars on my lungs. Then faltering through several years in the oppressive snare of gambling. In that labyrinth of futility, finding and courting Diana who, against all good judgment and numerous warnings, accepted me in marriage.
There were early years of financial struggle, the birth of our sons, the death of our parents. My inadequacies as a wage earner burdened my family. Yet, somehow, despite my flawed efforts and through Diana’s fidelity, we survived. I began writing and slowly, fitfully, and through a period of a decade, learned my craft. There was the milestone of my first published story and, a few years later, that matchless moment holding my first book, inhaling the aroma of paper and ink, and the glue in the binding, a fragrance made more endearing because the book held words I had written.
I have also had the opportunity to speak hundreds of times before students at colleges and to men and women at clubs and churches. Whatever words I spoke, storytelling was my theme. Thoreau wrote, “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” I have never outlived my joy in stories.
While we unraveled the small spool of our family lives, the world spun through cataclysmic events. Pearl Harbor and World War II. The detonation of the first atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The launchings into space. The Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights struggle and the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Sept. 11, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the election of the first African American as president.
Meanwhile, our sons grew into young manhood and left our house. They married and we gained loving daughters and then the blessings of grandchildren as we fulfilled Homer’s cycle of the generations.
Along the way were the travels to Europe and Asia, to Cyprus and Israel, to experience the diversity and richness of other cultures. There were also numerous trips to Greece and to the gilded island of Crete, homeland of my parents, where I slept one night in the bed in which my father was born.
Then there were the friends who have graced our lives . . . friends of our youth, our maturity and our old age. A Spanish proverb says, “Life without a friend is death without a witness.” We have borne such witness hundreds of times, and hundreds of men and women have borne witness for us. With these friends and beloved relatives, we have shared the milestone events of birthdays, weddings and baptisms, the holidays of Easter, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Ramadan. In more recent years an increasing number of funerals, as well.
While I believe in a transcendent moral and nurturing power beyond our lives by which guidance we should try to live, I am sorry for not being able to believe that power has the omnipotence to hear and respond to individual prayers. The deaths of millions in wars, famines and genocides confirm that limitation.
I have tried to live in awareness of that transcendent force and haven’t always succeeded. At certain times I have been deceitful, a rampant liar, neglected obligations to my family and betrayed my convictions. I have spoken when I should not have spoken, and I have been silent when I should have spoken. To say this proves I am human is not an adequate excuse. In the end, I may well be found guilty and wanting.
One thing I know is that I have been a fortunate man to live nine decades. I have outlived El Greco who died at 72 and Euripides who died at 78. I also still have beside me the love I have lived with for most of my life. I have also been able to spend that life doing that writing, which I love. That is a bounty to be pitted against the ravages of age we face now.
Meanwhile, I allow myself to believe, as the ancient Greeks believed, that life and death are continuous experiences rather than portals to immortality or damnation.
The heartbeats of countless others will continue even as my heartbeat ceases. And for those we love who remain some paces behind us, let us grace them with the poet Pindar’s prayer for the contestants in a race: “Grant them with feet so light to pass through life.”
This is the latest in an occasional series of Chicago-based memoirs by the novelist and short-story writer Harry Mark Petrakis. More on his work can be found at harrymarkpetrakis.com