This was the last social gathering I had before the world burned: a gathering last March of many of Dumaguete's artists -- plus guests from Cebu and Siquijor -- at the Amigo home of Sandra Palomar, where we talked about international art fairs, curating, the realities [and heartaches] of being an artist in Dumaguete, and the future of the local art scene. The vibe that night was awesome, and we soon hatched plans I thought would finally make the city truly a haven for the arts. COVID-19 was only a phantom then, we even called it differently [nCOV-19, anyone?]. But we were already starting to worry that night, we weren't even shaking hands with each other anymore. And then a day or two later, the lockdown truly began. But I'm still hoping the seeds of this meeting will bear fruit soon.
I am always astonished when I look up and see the moon floating in the blue of late afternoon sky in Dumaguete. It’s a whiteness that’s ghostly, almost a whiff like the clouds that surround it. It makes me think it’s a herald to the approaching dark of evening, telling you, “I’m here, I’ll light the way.”
A current online education dilemma: I teach humanities classes where I regularly refer to pop culture, e.g. films, music, videos, to make a point. But posting lecture videos with these teaching materials now invite Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms to regularly tag my videos for copyright violations. I always try to dispute the claim, citing fair use/educational purpose in the pandemic—and for the most part, I'm glad the copyright claim is always waived. But still ... strange times this new normal.
I wanted to make my first purchase at Ikaduhang Andana -- the new bookstore in Dumaguete -- memorable last Saturday, so I bought my best friend's second novel. You can visit the bookstore at the Solon compound behind the new SUMC building where the new Coffee Collective is also located.
9:00 AM |
The 1918 Pandemic and the Silence of Local History
All reckoning begins small, no matter how wide the sweep of things ultimately can be in the consideration of the bigger picture: we understand better when we begin with the specificity of the local.
The story of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a wide-ranging beast of so many facets—the horror of watching entire regions of the world—South Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil—become epicenters of devastation one by one, the epidemiological detective hunt for the infected, the medical response formulated from a protocol of not knowing what works, the race for the vaccine, the preponderance of fake news [that harmful documentary Plandemic, which you probably shared on Facebook] and the elevation of quackery [“tu-ob,” anyone?], the political fallouts and triumphs connected to national action to contain the spread, the new sartorial debates over facemasks and face shields, the economic devastation told in impersonal graphs and statistics, the smaller but more vital economic story of human lives upended in terms of jobs lost and small businesses suddenly caught in the cross-hair, the new business normal of Zoom meetings, the maze and bureaucracy of travel restrictions, the mental health struggle of confinement, the drag of online class, the quarantine entertainment that saved us, the elephant in the room that’s China, the deaths of loved ones reported or unreported.
It’s a vast wealth of information we have about this pandemic. This is very much a product of an interconnected world thriving in an age where sophisticated information infrastructures [the Internet, mobile phones, etc.] have defined the way we live—often for the good, and also often for the bad. [Because just as good information can readily be accessed today with a speed of spread that’s astonishing, crippling fake news and missives of disempowerment even have notoriously faster spread, an infection perhaps more than dangerous than a deadly virus.]
We know so much [and also paradoxically so little], and we have a grand view of the pandemic devastating an entire year, an entire world. But as I said, all vital reckoning begins small, with the specificity of the local.
For me, it cannot be helped that I shall always associate the start of the tumult in the local. Sure, in January, we were already receiving dire news of a mysterious disease devastating a Chinese city we’ve never heard of before—Wuhan. But we went on with our lives with blinders on, thinking it could not possibly reach of us, and that if it did government would know enough to order specific lockdowns to stem contagion. [Alas.]
And then one day, we hear this news: two Chinese nationals from Wuhan, one of whom died, were the first two reported COVID-19 cases in the country. They landed in Cebu, then went straight to Negros Oriental from January 22 to 25, but were diagnosed of the disease at a hospital in Manila. What seemed remote and foreign suddenly had the veracity of the local. Suddenly, Dumaguete [and Cebu] was national news: COVID-19 had made its touchdown in the country. The local grapevine burst with whispers about the resort in Dauin the Chinese tourists went to, or the local Dumaguete hotel they stayed in. Suddenly we abandoned going to Chinese restaurants. Suddenly we were wearing masks. The headlines in local newspapers and the voices of local radio were mum about the details—but the whispers were more forthcoming. I remember going past that hotel one night in the interest of morbid curiosity; we found its façade curiously dark, its lobby empty, and we shook our heads, thinking that was the worst effect of the new disease on Dumaguete. We had no idea.
Suddenly Dumaguete was in lockdown mode, but one easily lifted after two weeks or so when quarantine of the locals who were around those two Chinese tourists proved no transmission took place. We heaved sighs of relief, and then things returned to normal—for a while. In hindsight, that was rehearsal, a prologue to the longest lockdown in the whole world. We had no idea.
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine
All these made me think about the local in the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic that devastated the world and killed millions—although its veracity and impact were only made more clear in the historical accounts that came later. How did Dumaguete and Negros Oriental, deep in the American Period as the rest of the country, fare in that devastation?
Turns out, there’s not much local historical research devoted to that pandemic—which I found sad, and should be a rallying call for local historians to fill a gap. In Volume II of Caridad Aldecoa Rodriguez’s seminal Negros Oriental—From American Rule to the Present: A History, the section on the Spanish flu pandemic, which was called locally as trancaso, is really just a short note, recording the virus’ virulence on the basis of a report of the then Director of Education. According to that report, the first wave of the pandemic began in June, with a more deadly wave to come in October. Of 345 teachers in Negros Oriental, 124 became sick, and one died. Of 15,916 students, 8,611 became sick, and 88 died. Most of the deaths were due to complications of pneumonia and bronchitis. All in all, 88 schools in the province were closed. But these numbers—given that they focus only on the public education sector of Negros Oriental, don’t really give us the full story.
In Arthur L. Carson’s Silliman University: 1901-1959, the Spanish Flu is never mentioned, although we do get an account of the development of the Mission Hospital around that time. It mentions the pioneering efforts of Dr. and Mrs. Langheim in spearheading missionary medical work in the province, but had to go on a furlough in 1916 due to the illness of Mrs. Langheim, and they were temporarily replaced by Dr. Warren J. Miller who came just in time to put the mission hospital into shape for the opening of school in June 1916. Dr. and Mrs. Robert W. Carter arrived in Dumaguete by Thanksgiving Day of 1917 to replace the Langheims for good—“and soon Dr. Carter was treating fifty patients daily, but a former ailment recurred and he was forced to go on health furlough in July of 1919. His death came on November 21…” The health crisis occurred during the beginning of the pandemic, and Carter died near its tail-end. Did he die of the Spanish flu? History does not say so.
But it was not as if Dumaguete and Negros Oriental did not see the worst of the 1918-1919 pandemic. In Francis A. Gealogo’s “The Philippines in the World of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” published in Philippine Studies in 2009, we know the Philippines was not spared by the scourge despite the American colonial government’s official downplaying of the real health situation: “[T]he years that exhibited the highest [mortality] rates were all epidemic years. Prior to the 1918 pandemic, the years with the most noticeable mortality figures were the cholera epidemic years of the early 1900s and 1908-1909. But these rates would not come nowhere near the high death rate of 40.79 registered in the 1918 pandemic. Clearly the pandemic contributed to the crisis mortality experienced at the time.” Gealogo also noted: “One may also observe that the provinces exhibited the highest rates were not necessarily those that were most proximal to Manila. Visayan (e.g., Negros) or Northern Luzon Pangasinan) provinces exhibited tendencies mortality rates for influenza during the year.”
In Gealogo‘s summary of total deaths caused by influenza in selected provinces in 1916-1919, we note the following numbers of the influenza dead: Bohol [1916: 40 dead, 1917: 11 dead, 1918: 382 dead, and 1919: 609 dead], Cebu [1916: 549 dead, 1917: 293 dead, 1918: 1,560 dead, and 1919: 716 dead], Iloilo [1916: none, 1917: none, 1918: 4,724 dead, and 1919: 275 dead], Negros Occidental [1916: 85 dead, 1917: 129 dead, 1918: 3,940 dead, and 1919: 215 dead], and finally Negros Oriental [1916: none, 1917: none, 1918: 1,737 dead, and 1919: 299 dead]. We may have fared better compared to our Visayan neighbors—and that may be because we had no working port open for outside commerce then [the pier was only constructed in 1919]—but 1,737 dead of influenza in 1918 is already a remarkable number.
I wish we could hear the voices of 1918 locals making sense of the virulence of the trancaso. We need to unearth those voices—in old letters, in old diaries, if they have survived the decades of neglect, typhoons, and termites.
In 2020, we are at least privileged with all these available avenues and platforms for expressing how we are surviving another pandemic. It is in perfect contrast to the silence we’re getting from 1918—and we hope that our chronicles today, which exist!, can provide a helpful voice for future generations to learn about how we’re faring in this test of human existence, from the world in general to the specific local.
11:07 PM |
Rudy Concepcion and the Charm of Our Surviving Pre-War Films
Currently watching all five of the only pre-War Filipino films that survived the ravages of World War II, all of them available online. Even with the unsubtle theatrical acting and ornate line-readings by some of the leads, these films are a hoot with a charm of their own [I love the music!] -- and provide a glimpse into a lost world. I'm definitely crushing on Rudy Concepcion who starred in two of those surviving films, both directed by Octavio Silos: Tunay na Ina (a 1939 melodrama with the most questionable moral choices done in the name of "hiya") and Pakiusap (a 1940 love story). He died in 1940 from peptic ulcer. His frequent co-star Rosario Moreno, on the other hand, died in 1945 when a Japanese bomb hit her Sampaloc house during the Battle of Manila in World War II.
I am at a loss for words. We knew it was coming, but the news is still a shock. A legal legend is gone, and the world has lost a great, great light. Ruth Bader Ginsburg [1933-2020] paved the way for greater gender equality in America by working within the framework of the law, dismantling bit by bit so much of what constrained women to lead better lives with agency. Her efforts led her all the way to the Supreme Court, where she kept clear, just judgment on the roiling issues of the day. We've lost a real life superhero.
I didn't tell post-birthday Renz, when we ventured into the wilds of the outside world last Saturday, that I was somehow in search of the "unusual." It was yearning I could not articulate. But what did that mean exactly in the haze of the pandemic? I think it has come to mean even the ordinary we used to do back in the day when normal meant breathing without panic. And so we went for a two-hour massage, our first in months. That's pampering in the list of the new unusual. And so we went to an exhibit at the Mariyah Gallery, our first in months. That's art in the list of the new unusual.
And finally, we tried out this new find in the Dumaguete food scene. That's dining out in the list of the new unusual. Himawari, essentially a Japanese dive bar slash restaurant, appealed to me immensely because of its rustic aesthetic and its hidden location. It felt like a secret. It felt like a typical no-frills soba joint near a Tokyo train station. It felt like an episode of Netflix's Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. We had fried octopus, teriyaki-don, and gyudon. We loved it. Saturday was closest I felt to feeling normal in months.
It’s raining in the early hours of Monday morning. I went outside for a bit, breathing in the coolness of a world barely awake, the only sign of life the pink fingers of breaking dawn and the taligsik. There is a temptation to take that as a sign, the world reconfiguring itself for a fresh start. I’ve been awake for two hours now, trying to ease into the grind of the new week, careful to make reachable resolutions, hoping for small triumphs against the anxious subterfuges, eyeing the to-do’s as a kind of salvation. There will be better days.
 This is Where You Bite the Sandwich
Sunday, September 13, 2020
9:00 AM |
Some of What I’ve Learned, Some of What I Know Now
Sometime last March, I had a startling—you could say, existential—question, and realization, that was sharpened by the vertigo of what was then an encroaching pandemic: What if you don’t believe in what you’re doing anymore?
This was the first thing I learned: sweeping world events that obscure the future, and render to tatters all the constants that you know will leave you unmoored. They take all that you are, and interrogate you with questions you really have no answer for. Was the life you led the life you really wanted to have? Do you now yearn for things you never knew you yearned for? In a world come undone, what is your purpose?
I’ve been a teacher for almost twenty years. Is this still me?
The second thing I learned is that the distance between myself and the moon is roughly 42 folds of a piece of paper. Just 42 folds—imagine that—scaling what should be almost unfathomable distance. This knowledge is also trivia, but like many inconsequential things in our lives, knowing this factoid feels like comfort, like a signpost to life’s mysteries.
But you also know all signs are arbitrary, and most mean nothing.
The third thing I learned is that the quarantine has done the impossible—it has made me a morning person. I’ve found that I like the easy, unfettered silence of dawn. But being a morning person is in constant battle with the insomnia the anxieties of this year have wrought. It took a while to get back to the early morning rhythm I had back in July. The dreadful embrace of insomnia all throughout August almost did me in, but I’m back to waking early again, and in communion with a kind of quiet I’ve come to love: it feels like I’m alone in the universes, and it is a womb, and I’m granted respite from a world gone mad. I hope this lasts.
The fourth thing I’ve come to know for sure is that I could cry at the drop of a hat these days, at the slightest provocation, and mostly from small acts of kindness. Or from stories that move me. It is the weirdest thing, how when the world feels so tight and suffocating, our emotions become adrift in an uncharted ocean so large I can’t even recognize what’s joy or what’s pain.
I, too, thought I could weather well the lockdown’s early months. But it got under my skin so thoroughly. I know I am not alone in feeling this desperation, almost at the edge of a breakdown. And it has taken an immense effort to rise from all that, which only really waxed for real on my birthday weekend last August, thanks to the ministrations of the beloved. I found a breakthrough through him—“Just open up and don’t push people away, you can ask for help, you know, you don’t have to do everything alone,” he said during one of my darkest moments—and I’ve made some efforts following his prescription, which also had a weird side effect: it has made me very emotional, and with every catharsis I’d have I’d cry at the drop of a hat.
The fourth thing I learned is that sometimes I can’t tell the difference between hunger pangs and an anxiety attack.
The fifth thing I learned is that I like online class. But online class also means cats on the prowl jumping on someone’s lap, dog sounds sometimes mistaken for a baby crying, [sometimes the sound of a baby crying when there is no baby at all], frozen faces captured in mid-blink, voices chopped up they sound Chinese, the househelp suddenly streaking across the screen, a faceless avatar [“My camera is not working, sir”], the whirr of distant chainsaw, an archipelago in one Zoom call, the disembodied din of everything in a submarine, the professor in short shorts striving for meaning—bridging distance and hoping the lesson arrives fully in the pods of each one’s anxious seclusion.
The sixth thing I learned is the anchor of the following virtues: purpose, gratitude, humility, consistency, talent, and love. All of these in that order altogether is going to be my mantra from now on if I have to survive the emotional roller coaster ride of this pandemic.
The seventh thing I learned, and this is not the last, is that I’ve decided to take 2020 the way it also invites me to take it: “20/20,” a sharpening of vision, of forging a new path from the comfortable blindness of old. Crisis is also opportunity [but please make no mention of that misinterpreted Chinese word you’ve read about in self-help books]. I’m not discounting the hardships of most people today, but I’m staking this as my narrative.
6:08 PM |
On Post-structuralist Historiography, Marcos, and Fr. Aquino
Post-structuralism does ask us to problematize the act of historiography [or history writing] this way: the reader of history is made aware that the writing of the historical material is a construction, but Fr. Ranhilio Aquino forgets the important second part: at the same time, the reader remains conscious of history's basis in real events. In other words, we must be aware that the critique evoked by post-structuralist historiography is aimed at the writing of history, and not the history itself. In other words, you can use writing to convey anger, or fear, or amusement that a dog has bitten a man, but the evidence remains this: the dog indeed bit the man. To quote Bran Nicol: "History is not a detached thing ... it is something that intervenes in our lives." Fact: Marcos was a dictator. Fact: Marcos plundered our economy.
There's a scene in Guy Hamilton's very inventive 1982 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun that made me a Diana Rigg fan forever: she plays a heartless, calculating, and cuckolding actress who would ultimately serve as the murder mystery's requisite inciting incident, and it would have been easy to dislike her immensely—heck, all the characters in the story want to murder her—were it not for one thing: she deploys charm that overwhelms mountains. In this scene in a hotel lobby overlooking the Adriatic Sea, she willfully and glamorously glides into the center of everyone's attention as someone plays the piano, singing Cole Porter's "You're the Top" with the gusto of a true performer and the poison of a vamp with an overwhelming desire to burn all bridges come what may. She uses the lyrics of the song to unleash all sorts of venom directed at specific people—but her glow is so unmistakable that those same people, knowing there is no antidote to her stings, nonetheless cannot help but applaud her. I saw that scene years ago, and I was like, "This woman can do anything. You may want to strangle her, but you also want to kowtow before her." That double-edged appeal has always been at the root of my fawning admiration for Dame Diana—she unleashed that power in everything from On Her Majesty's Secret Service to The Avengers to Game of Thrones. In the latter, for example, you knew her Olenna Tyrell was manipulative and corrupted by her privilege and power—but you also loved her. To be able to limn these contradictions and make meaty roles out of them was her mark. I love Dianna RIgg, present tense, and she will be missed.
Coming home is terrible
whether the dogs lick your face or not;
whether you have a wife
or just a wife-shaped loneliness waiting for you.
Coming home is terribly lonely,
so that you think
of the oppressive barometric pressure
back where you have just come from
because everything's worse
once you're home.
You think of the vermin
clinging to the grass stalks,
long hours on the road,
roadside assistance and ice creams,
and the peculiar shapes of
certain clouds and silences
with longing because you did not want to return.
Coming home is
And the home-style silences and clouds
contribute to nothing
but the general malaise.
Clouds, such as they are,
are in fact suspect,
and made from a different material
than those you left behind.
You yourself were cut
from a different cloudy cloth,
ill-met by moonlight,
unhappy to be back,
slack in all the wrong spots,
seamy suit of clothes
You return home
the Earth's gravitational pull
an effort now redoubled,
dragging your shoelaces loose
and your shoulders
etching deeper the stanza
of worry on your forehead.
You return home deepened,
a parched well linked to tomorrow
by a frail strand of…
You sigh into the onslaught of identical days.
One might as well, at a time...
The sun goes up and down
like a tired whore,
the weather immobile
like a broken limb
while you just keep getting older.
Nothing moves but
the shifting tides of salt in your body.
Your vision blears.
You carry your weather with you,
the big blue whale,
a skeletal darkness.
You come back
with X-ray vision.
Your eyes have become a hunger.
You come home with your mutant gifts
to a house of bone.
Everything you see now,
all of it: bone.
This snack set from the people behind Dug-ab is delicious and filling: charcoal tacos with stir-fried mushrooms, eggplant aioli, and pickled red onions [from Beyond Plants], walnut bread pudding [from Adamo], and latte with Atok Benguet coffee [from Coffee Collective]...
I like online class. It also means cats on the prowl jumping on someone’s lap, dog sounds sometimes mistaken for a baby crying, [sometimes the sound of a baby crying when there is no baby at all], frozen faces captured in mid-blink, voices chopped up they sound Chinese, the househelp suddenly streaking across the screen, a faceless avatar [“My camera is not working, sir”], the whirr of distant chainsaw, an archipelago in one Zoom call, the disembodied din of everything in a submarine, the professor in short shorts striving for meaning—bridging distance and hoping the lesson arrives fully in the pods of each one’s anxious seclusion.
I do not know what moved Seneca, the Roman philosopher and dramatist, to say this: “Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
The idea of practicing—and subsequently preparing—for the mortality that will inevitably claim us fascinates me endlessly, even if death itself [so terminal, so mysterious] terrifies occasionally. I0would love very much a rehearsal for this shuffling off the mortal coil; providing oneself a blueprint for the last of one’s days, which involves an acceptance of finitude, has an allure to it that feels very much like purpose.
A good death is an achievement that’s rarely reached. Many of us would find tragedy to be the marker for our end; more often, there will be an ignoble forgetting; and sometimes there is also our life serving as unfortunate remonstrance. I remember Harvey Dent’s cutting—and ultimately ironic—observation in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (I see the truth of this often, and it is a tragedy.) But do we have a choice with how we can be remembered in the eventuality of our death? The caprices with which we play dice with living are difficult to ascertain—but not impossible to do.
Death as life’s celebration is a unicorn. Sometimes it takes a formidable, creative spirit to execute—just how the great writer Gilda Cordero Fernando did it. A giant of Philippine literature and the arts, she died on 20 August 2020, unleashing from many an outpouring of love and admiration not just for the formidable work she did in the name of Filipino culture but also for the vastly creative way she led a truly remarkable life. “There will be no need for funeral services,” the family announced, understandable given the strictures of the lockdown—but then again, Gilda already had her wake years before, in 2012. At the age of 82, while still in good health, she had commanded her friends to give her a vigil she herself could attend and get to appreciate while still alive—and from the missives of that wake, there was indeed revelry and tributes and meditation and ritual, done in the celebratory mode that was exactly reflective of how she lived. There was dancing, too. “Dance me to the end of love,” Gilda would later write about that celebration in her column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She would live eight more years.
In 2013, a year after her wake, Gilda wrote: “During the novena I heard again those passages in the Prayers for the Dead that always made me teary eyed: ‘Bring her into your paradise, where there is no more grief, or mourning or sadness, but peace and joy with your beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.’”
Here was a woman who stared Death on its face, and danced with it. Here was a woman who knew death was coming, but also knew enough that the life she led had been an instrument for creativity and mentorship. Here was a woman who took death, and made it an end to wish for.
Death as a challenge in the name of legacy is even harder to accomplish—especially if it also means sparing most of everyone else your outward show of pain and your struggles for the sake of achieving something great.
Chadwick Boseman was only 43 when he died. His youth is part of what shocks us about his death, and which lends us to pronouncing words like “untimely,” “premature,” or “unexpected.” But what also shocks us about his passing is the newly revealed context of his meteoric rise in recent years: apparently, between the grueling demands of shooting and doing press for an assortment of films like Captain America: Civil War, Marshall, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and the forthcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he was also undergoing countless surgeries and chemotherapy for colon cancer, first diagnosed in 2016, the year he broke through in his all-too-brief career in film.
I can only imagine Chadwick receiving two different kinds of news that very year—that he was going to play the lead in the first film ever made of a Black superhero, but also that he had stage 3 cancer. He chose to embrace both, fighting his disease secretly on the side, donning the challenges of embodying an assortment of black heroes: not just T’Challa’s Black Panther, but also Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, in Marshall and James Brown, the legendary African-American singer, in Get on Up—on top of earlier playing Jackie Robinson, the legendary African-American baseball player, in 42. These biopics of Black legends, coupled with his recent work with the legendary Spike Lee in Da 5 Bloods, and his posthumous turn in an adaptation of a play by the legendary African-American playwright August Wilson, feels very much like parts of a grand design by an artist who knew what he wanted to do while he still had time.
And all throughout this public rise and secret struggles, there was this: consistency and undeniable talent. What was most attractive about his persona, aside from his charm, was that bristling vulnerability that simmered under his physical show of strength. We had no idea. He once said, “The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” I think that should be his epitaph, the great summation of his life.
There is a video of him taken during his press run for Black Panther, which, with hindsight, hits differently now. In that interview—and we would know now that he was already keeping his diagnosis under wraps—he talked about corresponding with two black kids with terminal cancer. They told him they were hanging on only until the film’s release—which gave him the boost to do the work for Black Panther well, if only to be the best representation of these kids’ hopes and aspirations. But they never lived to see the finished film. Then he broke down. We had no idea.
Here was a man who stared Death on its face, and decided to shape purpose with it.
When the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron died in 2012, I had no idea I would be so devastated. The aftershocks of this devastation still continue to this day, to be honest. Her body of work [all those movies, all those books...] and her life [all that love for cooking, for reading in bed, and for friends...] were seriously aspirational for me.
Like Gilda, Nora seemed to know just how exactly to live—and then to use how she lived to tell her stories. This is catnip for a writer like me. “Everything is copy,” she once professed. And how splendidly she demonstrated that philosophy all her life, from her novel and subsequent screenplay of Heartburn [which dramatized her marriage to and divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein], to her play Love, Loss, and What I Wore [co-written with her sister Delia, which collected the stories of their female friends], to her various essay collections [which collected her journalism and her often amusing takes on everything, even the loose skin on her neck], and to the documentary on her life [which is titled, of course, Everything is Copy]. She mined her own travails at love [as well as that of director Rob Reiner’s] in the screenplay of the wonderful 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally…, which became her lasting contribution to the genre of romantic comedy, on top of those she later directed on her own, including the equally wonderful Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.
But how she chose to lead the last years of her life was for me an outstanding act of legacy-making. Diagnosed with terminal leukemia, she chose to buck her usual philosophy of “Everything is copy,” and kept her illness a secret. And then she began writing bestselling books of essays, and then a Broadway play. She also wrote and directed Julie & Julia, starring her great friend Meryl Streep, who once played her in the film adaptation of Hearburn. Julie & Julia, her last film, would become a critical and commercial triumph, and also served as a melding of two of Nora’s greatest passions—cooking and filmmaking.
She also did this: in the last two years of her life, she called on friends and family, one by one, asking them out to lunches and dinners, to Broadway shows and concerts, to exhibits and lectures—talking and spending time with them without telling anyone this was her way of saying goodbye. And then she died, surprising many.
Here was a woman who stared Death on its face, and saw a blueprint for goodbye: as an artist who remained creative till the end, and as a beloved who did not believe in the fuss of farewells and cares but believed in the more tangible bonds of food, art, laughter, and love.
Gilda, Chadwick, and Nora—they rehearsed death well, and in learning how to die they lived life with the deftness of great spirits. Theirs are truly the deaths one can wish for. To quote Chadwick Boseman: “You have to cherish things in a different way when you know the clock is ticking.”