After suffering from ALS, a sixty-two-year-old man named Lewis has stopped the disease’s progression by taking pills to end his life. His wife, Nina, comes home to find that he opted for the course they had rationally discussed as he descended further into pain. She tries to stay rational, but this is not exactly how she thought it would happen:
This was a thing they had talked about. The plan had been agreed to, but always as a thing that could happen — would happen — in the future. Nina had assumed that she would be present and that there would be some ceremonial recognition. Music. The pillows arranged and a chair drawn up so that she could hold his hand. Two things she had not thought of — his extreme dislike of ceremony of any sort, and the burden such participation would put on her. The questions asked, the opinions passed, her jeopardy as a party to the act.
Her first instinct is to stay rational. Lewis hated sentimentality and he hated ceremony, seeing each as disingenuous, as means to delusion. Also, he did it this way, alone, while she was out playing tennis, for her: “In doing it this way he had given her as little as possible that was worth covering up.” All of this reasonableness slips away, though; it’s not enough to provide her any comfort.
The first thing she wonders, something that distracts her constantly while Lewis’s body is attended to by others: Is there a note?
As soon as the doctor, and the young bearers, and Lewis, had left the house — Lewis borne like a piece of furniture wrapped to protect it from knocks — she had to resume her search. It seemed now that she had been a fool to restrict it to the vicinity of the bed. She found herself going through the pockets of her dressing gown, which hung on the back of the bedroom door. An excellent place, since this was a garment she put on every morning before scurrying to make coffee, and she was always exploring its pockets to find a Kleenex, a lipstick. Except that he would have had to rise from his bed and cross the room — he who had not been able to take a step without her help for some weeks.
I love that Munro has us stop there in that final sentence, with another little burst of reason, if disappointment, before showing us, in the very next sentence at the start of a new paragraph, how this can unravel.
But why would the note have had to be composed and put in place yesterday? Would it not have made sense to write and hide it weeks ago, especially since he didn’t know the rate at which his writing would deteriorate? And if that was the case it could be anywhere. In the drawers of her desk — where she was rummaging now. Or under the bottle of champagne, which she had bought to drink on his birthday and set on the dresser, to remind him of that date two weeks hence — or between the pages of any of the books she opened these days. He had in fact asked her, not long ago, “What are you reading on your own now?”
It’s so sad, and perfectly written. Here is a woman in deep need of some kind of comfort. Even though she was prepared, she finds herself unprepared. At Lewis’s urging, they had sought to strip away the sentimental crutches people often rely on in these circumstances — the ceremony, the sentimentality, religion — and here she finds herself without much to lean on.
This is how “Comfort” begins. As the story continues, Munro makes this portrait of Nina and Lewis even more complicated. We go back and see more of Lewis and Nina before he found out he had ALS. They were both high school teachers, she of Latin and he of biology. When they phased out Latin, she was done, and felt relief: “she was just as glad, secretly, to no longer be working in the same place, and at the same sort of job, as Lewis.”
Lewis, we see, has a strong personality with little tolerance for people who see things differently. This erupts into one of the biggest fights of his life: at school he does not want to give any time in biology for creationism, but that upsets plenty of vociferous, mostly fundamentalist, parents. As the rhetoric heats up, though, he offends many others as well.
Nina, for her part, mostly watches helplessly. After all, this is also the source of one of their biggest fights. When she suggests that there is beauty and poetry in the myth, he simply does not agree. While I don’t for a second think that Munro is suggesting the religious fundamentalists have the right world view, she also does not let Lewis off the hook for his own type of dogmatic stubbornness.
What does this have to do with comfort? I think it goes back to Nina and her own views about myths, poetry, art. She — and many of us — find some comfort in this life in the spiritual, which I am not equating with religion. Lewis stripped it all away. Perhaps in the universal scale, he is correct to do so, but that doesn’t help an individual trying to get through the next day.
Munro doesn’t necessarily advocate for anything in particular in this story. As usual, her exploration is rich with nuance and shirks any simple proclamation to highlight complexity. As such, it is deeply human.
The day after Lewis died prematurely in his sixties, Nina scattered his ashes, still warm, as he would have wished, among the fall flowers and weeds that ran along a country road they had liked to walk. Lewis was a scientist. This is what he would have wanted.
She got the box open and she put her hand into the cooling ashes and tossed or dropped them — with other tiny recalcitrant bits of the body — among those roadside plants. Doing this was like wading and then throwing yourself into the lake for the first icy swim in June. A sickening shock at first, then amazement that you were still moving, lifted up on a stream of steely devotion — calm about the surface of your life, surviving, though the pain of the cold continued to wash into your body.
Lewis had not been an easy husband nor had his been an easy death. Lewis was opinionated and bull-headed enough to have chosen and married Nina, even though she was maybe six feet one and he was maybe five nine. He had probably been attracted to how “pliant” she was, and how “her whole attitude that of a smiling attendant.”
“Comfort” reminds me of “Floating Bridge.” Here is another very difficult man matched up with a very pliant partner. One of the two is dying, although this time it is the man who is dying of ALS. Suicide beckons, although Jinny in “Floating Bridge” rejects it while Lewis embraces it. (ALS is a terrible illness which almost necessitates the serious consideration of suicide.)
Both Jinny and Lewis go through a period before death of furiosity. Both of them are engulfed in rage, and both of them have trouble managing it. Kubler Ross would say that the rage is a typical stage and would also say that it is not unusual for a dying person to be particularly trapped in one of the stages. To each his own, perhaps.
Both Jinny and Lewis experience an anger completely typical of them: Jinny, an ancient, unexpressed anger at her husband, and Lewis, another ancient anger, his at the Church for its stupidity regarding science. For Lewis, however, there is no such thing as silence when attacked. For both Jinny and Lewis, the complications of illness and the threat of death intensify the anger into an almost uncontrollable outrage.
Readers may recognize or remember this rage of the sick and dying person. One necessarily remembers Dylan Thomas and his “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Everything is enraging. The mere touch of another person may be an outrage, or an old and unresolved rage may resolve into peculiar and almost inexplicable explosions. In Jinny’s case, on an extremely hot day, instead of choosing air conditioning offered in a trailer, she wanders into a cornfield and lies down.
Lewis, as he is being slowly engulfed in ALS, becomes embroiled in a battle with creationists. Any reader who has been, like Lewis, a high school teacher may have had such an encounter. To the teacher, the creationists seem trapped in a dying religion, and their ancient anger at being displaced by science has morphed into a strange fury. Lewis and the creationists are both in their death throes and are well matched. To those of you who hold these creationist beliefs, the fact of the matter is that Munro disagrees with you. Over and over throughout a long writing career, Munro has suggested that religion is a different animal than literalism and ceremony for ceremony’s sake. Consider these stories: “Age of Faith,” “Forgiveness in Families,” “A Queer Streak,” “Circle of Prayer,” “Meneseteung,” “Pictures of the Ice,” and probably others.
What matters here, however, is to not get trapped in the lava of Lewis’s rage or the battle between science and religion.
What matters is to notice what the disease does to him. He is unable, in his rage, to notice whatever service he owes his wife. While he makes his wishes utterly clear to her — suicide, cremation, and no memorial ceremonies — he leaves her no parting word. The rage has run through him like a cancer.
There’s no thank you to Nina for the joys of their marriage (the sex, in particular, the long walks, in general, her interest in his knowledge, or the way she has given him a lot of space to live, or the way she lets him be Lewis). There’s no I love you or I have loved you or I have always loved you. There’s no sentimentality. The reader feels as if the justifiable rage that Lewis feels at his unfair illness and at the creationists has invaded the rest of his life like a cancer.
I’m a wife married to a scholar. I can see that Lewis may have believed that he was, in fact, providing for Nina, with bravery and care. His carefully chosen, carefully scheduled, carefully planned suicide saved her the agony which his natural death would have been.
The fact is, however, what Lewis left Nina was nothing. No comfort whatsoever except the unpleasant duties he expected her to carry out. He left her with an empty devotion, somewhat similar, this reader thinks, to a religion having an empty devotion to literalism (rather, than say, the active and difficult devotion to Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)
No surprise then that Nina had a long standing understanding with another man — a man with an equally difficult wife. Nina and Ed knew each other from town and from chorus. They had a relationship that was probably more comfort than an affair could have ever been. They had an understanding that was theirs and theirs alone, a deep recognition of each other that was comfort and no danger. They were both married to dangerous people. They recognized ease in each other, and probably they also found each other attractive. Ed had kissed Nina once.
Her memory of Ed Shore’s kiss outside the kitchen door did, however, become a treasure. When Ed sang the solos in the Choral Society’s performance of the Messiah every Christmas, the moment would return to her. “Comfort Ye My People” pierced her throat with starry needles. As if everything about her was recognized then, and honored and set alight.
This phrase — everything about her was recognized — is central to Munro’s understanding of what women want. The idea runs through her work like a song.
Lewis, of course, had needed Nina to “recognize that threshold” when the progress of his disease had been crossed, when it was that life was going to be impossible and that the planned suicide must be done.
Nina, it must be said, did not recognize it when that moment had occurred.
The technical difficulty of the story: I have a little personal experience with ALS, and to me Munro has captured the disease and its challenges with enormous respect. I wonder what people closer to it than me think.
The importance of chorus: Munro has got this completely right. Chorus is a comfort verging on the sublime. A guy in England named Tom Shakespeare did a study of the importance of chorus to people facing traumatic events and found that those who participated in chorus did better than those who didn’t. There’s something about the meditation created by choral breathing that is physically healing. There is the sublimity of experiencing the music together. And then there is the proximity to the truly rare and great voices.
The great high school principal: Munro has got it right. When the high school principal is great, he or she is what replaces the priest. The leadership is felt. A great high school principal is characterized by a kind of moral greatness: evenness, balance, common sense, and a desire to keep the community together. That’s sentimental, of course. Some high school principals unite their communities by how deeply everyone hates them. So I guess what Munro has right is how much we want the principal to fill this role that used to be filled by the priest.
Seize the Day: This idea of Livy’s came up in “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” and it is implicit in “Floating Bridge” when Jinny thinks that she will allow forgiveness and compassion to invade her, “for the time given.” Ed and Nina seize the day in their way, and Lewis seizes the day in his. Neither capture of the day is complete. Ed and Nina don’t have sex. Lewis cannot allow sentimentality. But Lewis triumphs over ALS, and Ed triumphs over human loneliness.
The way a marriage survives intractable disagreement: In these days of political rage, many marriages are threatened by fracture. The disagreement Nina and Lewis had regarding religion was this dangerous:
The air was thick with loathing. All over a matter that could never be resolved [. . . and yet they survived it] like people who had narrowly escaped an earthquake and had been walking around in naked desolation.
The answer was partly sex, partly determination by both of them, and partly Nina’s “peaceable” nature. This reader finds Munro to be completely accurate about how this marriage survived.
The echo of Munro’s wide reading: I hear an echo in Munro’s phrasing (“walking around in naked desolation”) of Robert Jay Lifton on the effect of nuclear holocaust — that all community relationships and organization would break down under the weight of such complex destruction.
That suicide is and has been probably quite commonplace in the face of terrible illness: Munro makes so clear in “My Mother’s Dream” the availability of narcotics in every house for over a hundred years. This coomonplace availability of narcotic makes Lewis’s actual suicide a non-event. The age-old argument of science and religion is not really an event, except that the way Lewis and Nina survive it. The truly unusual event is the way Lewis’s death rage invades him and creates his offhand and final cruelty to Nina.