During those years in one of my courses at the University of Connecticut, I used Becker’s book as a text to illustrate an existentialist view of life. In it, Becker argues that the fear of death, and our need to deny it, is fundamental to human existence: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
I mention this only to alert you to the fact that this blog will deal mainly with a man whose sensibility and view of life is quite similar to that of Woody Allen’s and Becker’s. Like them, this man throughout his life was spooked by a pervasive anxiety about death, but, perhaps surprisingly, he also had a tremendous capacity for love. It is a love story, then, that I want to relate, a story of love and death.
Irvin Yalom is a world famous psychiatrist of distinctly existentialist persuasion, the author of about twenty books, some dealing with his work as a master therapist, others, revealing his gifts as a novelist. His books have sold millions of copies, and some of them have been translated into as many as thirty languages. And even in his late eighties, he continues to receive scads of e-mail and fan letters from his grateful readers, sometimes as many as forty a day. He’s particularly well known for his novels about various philosophers, especially Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Spinoza. I’ve read a couple of these myself, but the only one I still seem to have in my library is the one about Nietzsche, which is entitled When Nietzsche Wept. All in all, Yalom is an exceptional and accomplished human being. But to me, his greatest achievement has been as a lover.
The object of his amatory devotion was his wife, Marilyn, herself a distinguished scholar of French literature and feminist thought, and the author of about a dozen books. Like her husband, Marilyn was for a long time a professor at Stanford University and also for many years conducted literary salon in the Yaloms’ home.
That night Irv experienced what the French call a coup de foudre. It occurred when he spotted the hostess, a fourteen-year old girl. He was indeed thunderstruck, like a young John Gilbert first seeing Greta Garbo emerge from a carriage. I’ll let Irv describe what happened that night:
Basically I’m not a highly social person [but] … in the midst of a packed house, there was Marilyn, holding court. I took one look at her and made my way through the crowd to introduce myself to her. This was a highly unusual act on my part: never before or after have I been so socially bold. But it was indeed love at first sight. I phoned her the very next day –- my first phone call to a girl.
Actually, it seems almost fated that they would meet and fall in love. Consider the following uncanny “coincidences” in their lives.
First, both Marilyn’s father and Irv’s emigrated to the United States after World War II, each coming from small Jewish shtetls (market towns) in Russia. Both happened to settle in Washington D.C., where they both soon opened grocery stores. And, though Irv and Marilyn only discovered this later, the stores were only one block apart. Talk about propinquity! Irv muses about this in the book:
As a child and adolescent, I must have walked or biked past my future father-in-law’s store literally a thousand times! Our fathers, though, never laid eyes on one another until years after they retired and met at our engagement party.
Hence, from a distance, our early lives seem similar: parents who emigrated from Eastern Europe, fathers who had grocery stores only a block from one another.
If any of you happen to be familiar with the writings of the famous novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, this story may ring a bell. Here’s why: Nabokov developed a theory of fate based on his own experience with his wife, Véra, with whom he had a long and fruitful marriage. They both grew up in privileged circumstances in pre-revolutionary Russia. After the revolution, both families fled, first, to Crimea, as I recall, and after that, to Paris, and then to Berlin (I may have the order of these places confused, but that doesn’t really matter). In any event, Nabokov eventually discovered that their families had moved in the same circles in each location, but somehow Vladimir and Véra never chanced to meet each other. Finally, in Berlin, they found themselves at a masked ball and guess what? Kismet!
From this experience, Nabokov formulated his theory of fate. In essence, it says that “the powers of Eros” meant for these two to meet and kept arranging circumstances so that eventually what was destined to happen, would. Like God, love works in mysterious ways.
In any case, like the Nabokovs, the Yaloms have been together ever since the night of that party. She was in his one and only. After they both completed their professional training, they got married and went on to enjoy a sixty-five-year-long love affair. Eventually, they had four very talented children (and eight grandchildren), and both of them had very successful professional careers and gobs of wonderful friends and colleagues. Their house, thanks largely to Marilyn’s outgoing nature and grace, became the center for years of lively gatherings and parties. In many ways, the Yaloms were blessed with the best of everything a couple could wish for.
Until 2019 when Marilyn turned out to have developed multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. Chemotherapy followed, but it led to a stroke, and more time in the hospital. Marilyn recovered pretty well from the stroke, but she would never recover from her cancer.A Matter of Death and Life, and I’ve just finished reading it.
Marilyn didn’t live long enough to complete it. She lived only about six months before dying shortly before Thanksgiving in 2019. The book is really divided in another way, not just in having two authors. The first and longest part of the book is really a love story, one of the most moving I have ever read. The last third of the book is Irv’s alone where he writes about his anguished bereavement following Marilyn’s death. That part was almost unbearable for me to read. But what I want to write about in this blog is mostly their love story. It’s Irv’s love for and devotion to his wife that makes this book so immensely emotionally powerful.
Listen to how Irv writes about her in August when Marilyn has only a few months left to live (though neither of them knows that yet):
Marilyn and I spend the rest of the day close together: my first impulse is not to let her out of my sight, to stay near, to hold her hand and not let it go. I fell in love with her seventy-three years ago, and we have just celebrated our sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. I know it is unusual to adore another person so much and for so long. But, even now, whenever she enters the room, I light up. I admire everything about her – her grace, her beauty, her kindness, and her wisdom.
Later, after Marilyn dies, he reiterates how strong his love was for her: “I never doubt the depth of my love for Marilyn. I feel certain that no man has ever loved a woman more.” And reading this book, you don’t doubt it either. He spends endless time with her – hour after hour – while she gets her chemo or other forms of treatment. They hold hands constantly – they always have – and remain as physically close as possible. He takes incredibly good and loving care of her. His every gesture toward her bespeaks his ardent love. And he desperately doesn’t want her to die. He can’t stand the thought of being without her.
And here we have to change the focus from the terrible suffering that Marilyn is to undergo during the course of her illness with which much of the first part of the book is concerned to Irv’s own problems, which are considerable.
For one thing, he has recently had to deal with a pacemaker. But worse, he has serious problems with his balance and has to use a cane and a walker in order to avoid the possible calamity of a fall. He no longer feels comfortable driving either. But most troubling of all is that his memory is starting to fail. He can no longer remember some of the books he’s written or call up the faces of some of his patients he treated for years or recognize the actors in the television series that he and Marilyn love watching together. Throughout the book, he worries about this because Marilyn, whose memory is excellent, has become the repository of many of Irv’s memories. When she dies, those memories, which help to structure his sense of identity, will be lost forever. Her death will be like a partial amputation of his self. In a sense, that part of him will die with her. And because he has a dread of dementia, too, this is terrifying to him.
So many times, Marilyn, I search my memory in vain – I think of someone we met, some trip we took, some play we saw, some restaurant we dined at – but all these happenings have vanished from my memory. Not only have I lost you, the most precious person to me in the world, but so much of my past has vanished with you. My prediction that, when you left me, you would be taking with you a good part of my past has proved to be true.
As you read through this book, you come to understand that because of the very strength of Irv’s love for Marilyn, there develops a terrible struggle between them. Marilyn feels so wretched so much of the time, she longs to die, but Irv just longs for her – longs for her to remain alive, not to leave him. There are several passages in the book where she begs him to let her go while we entreats her not to die. “How much longer must I live before I am allowed to die,” she cries. “If I could place you inside my body for just a few moments, you would understand.” But Irv, after a long moment of silence, is immune to Marilyn’s plea to be released. He counters: “Isn’t it enough that you are still alive? That when you go, there will be nothing afterward. And I’m not ready to let you go.”
Later, Irv is sobbing and says, “I cannot bear the thought of your dying. I cannot cope with the thought of living in a world without you.” To which Marilyn replies:
Irv, don’t forget I’ve been living in pain and misery for ten months now. I’ve said to you again and again that I cannot bear the thought of living like this any longer. I welcome death … Irv, it’s time. Please you’ve got to let me go.
Their battle over who is in control of Marilyn’s life reveals the dark side of love, which is attachment. Marilyn is ready to let go, Irv cannot. He is too attached to her, too entwined. He feels he will die without her or at least will not want to live. Attachment is a killer. But if you live long enough, you will eventually lose everything and everyone you have loved. And ultimately yourself. Letting go is the great lesson in life. Marilyn understands this; Irv is too attached to Marilyn even to hear it much less to heed this dictum.
But there’s something else that impedes Irv’s acceptance of Marilyn’s entreaties. As he confesses at many points in the book, he has suffered for much of his life from death anxiety. He even spent a couple of years working with the celebrated existential psychologist, Rollo May, to deal with this issue. But it was unsuccessful – he was still fearful of death. Another instance of his inability to let go. Clinging to life is not a recipe for well being for anyone facing death, his own or that of a loved one.
Both Marilyn and Irv were atheists, but Marilyn herself was not afraid of death.
Irv’s atheism, however, was more militant. He became an atheist at the age of thirteen, he remarks, and like many Jewish intellectuals, the idea of an afterlife for him was both irrational and preposterous.
I’ve always scoffed at irrational thinking, at all the mystical notions about heaven and hell and what happens after death … Rationality and clarity are major reasons why my books are used in classrooms around the world.
I wonder whether Irv had even heard of NDEs. If he did, he surely wouldn’t have given them any credence.
In the end, it didn’t matter what either Marilyn and Irv believed. Marilyn’s situation became increasingly unbearable to her and ultimately she chose hospice care and elected to have physician-assisted suicide. Irv stayed with her to the last, holding her hand and weeping.
My head is next to Marilyn’s head, and my attention riveted on her breathing. I watch her every movement and silently count her breaths. After her fourteenth feeble breath, she breathes no more.
I lean over to kiss her forehead. Her flesh is already cool: death has arrived.
My Marilyn, my darling Marilyn, was no more.
Love and death.
There is so much more in this book than I have had the space to describe. Indeed, I have only sketched the barest outlines of the love story of Irv and Marilyn. It is so much more richly textured and nuanced than my account will have suggested. Plus, their lives, interests and accomplishments are fascinating in themselves. And of course, as I earlier indicated, I have said almost nothing about the very heartrending grief that Irv describes following Marilyn’s death.right to die movement, but I elided those in part because I discussed this topic in a previous blog. At least Marilyn was able to avail herself of physician assisted suicide, which is legal in California, but still difficult because of its strict requirements.
I can only urge my readers to get ahold of this beautiful book. It is a love story as deeply affecting as anything I have read in a long time.
After reading the book, I checked the Internet and discovered to my surprise that Irvin Yalom is still alive at 90, which makes him the longest lived member of his family. He did not think he would long survive Marilyn’s death, but, obviously, he has.
In the book, he tells her that he wished that after she was buried he could be buried with her in the same coffin when his time came. He knew that was impossible, but he couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from her.
But if I could speak to Irv, I think I would want to say something like this.
Death is not a wall, it’s a curtain. When your time comes, just pull back that curtain and jump through the window. She’ll be there waiting for you.
We are never really separated from those to whom we truly belong. Their absence is only apparent and temporary. When you leave the temporal world behind to enter eternity, Marilyn will be there to greet you and you will be able hold her hand once again.