I received an email the other day from a student of my friend Jon Greenberg. It was completely out of the blue, Jon died of complications of AIDS in 1993, it will be 18 years next month. He was an English major at Columbia University, and like so many bright and artistic young people in NYC had mostly worked in the food service industry, then for some years teaching English as a Second Language. So he know people from all over the world. His students adored him, he often took them to movies or out to restaurants, they watched TV shows in his classroom, and he befriended many. It’s not surprising that so many felt this love for Jon, he was charming, brilliant at times, often funny, and always beautiful.
At first, I couldn’t tell if the writer was male or female because I’m not so familiar with Korean names, I had assumed male, but on a subsequent email, the she revealed herself as a woman who had deep feelings for Jon–an out gay man. I totally understood, I had pretty deep feelings for him myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to say I was deeply in love with Jon, and the best I could do with my feelings was to call him my best friend. She shared some regret for not connecting in as honest a way as she would have liked to with Jon, and she mentioned that she would like to read his journals. She knew about the journals, and how to reach me because I published a series of poems about Jon, using quotes from his journals in 2001, which are still up on the Mudlark site.
I had no permission to read Jon’s journals. I took them for safekeeping against his family and held onto them for years before I began reading. I re-experienced the same sense of that violation, years later, reading David Rieff’s memoir Swimming in a Sea of Death, (which I highly recommend) written about his mother, Susan Sontag during her final illness and death. In this book, Rieff describes the powerful emotions he felt at reading the personal, intimate musings in his mother’s journals, and the difficult, even painful, decision he made to edit and publish them. Jon’s journals dated over 17 years and were full of venom and love, pain and reflection, isolation and anger, wisdom and suffering. Later, going through my mother’s personal papers and communications, I felt the same complex remorse and pain, agonized over what to keep, what to show, what to discard. It’s no wonder that I spend much time thinking about what I will leave behind.
Rieff also describes feeling cheated out of having any intimate discussions with his mother about her impending death. At the end, my mother also wanted more life, did not talk about her death, did not give me the satisfaction of final discourse. Jon also wanted more life. Although he practically thrust the inevitability of death into the mouths of his friends, he wouldn’t, at the end, admit aloud that he was dying. He shut out his family and made ridiculous, paradoxical demand demands of his friends to burn him in the street and eat his flesh.
Now I can say, after many interval years of conversations with people who are dying, that it probably doesn’t matter what you say or don’t say at the end of life. The agony of pondering these questions is itself rich and worthwhile, but matters little at the time of the event itself. I don’t believe that we alter death’s arrival or its garments by talking about it or neglecting to. I don’t believe that my own illness and deathbed stories will be any more notable in their drama or honesty than any I have had the privilege to observe.
I have sent out a gentle and tentative question back to the woman who wrote to ask me about Jon and mentioned wanting to read his journals. I recognize that I will either have to entrust them to someone else, or destroy them (along with my own journals) before I die. It’s odd to me how the question of journals reverberates for me these days, how journals can seem to stand in for a life.