The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, September 04, 2006

Death Is an ally

Death Is an ally

Over the last few days, I found out that Robert Sheckley, brilliant SF writer and an old friend of mine, died last December, and I never even heard about it.

He fell ill while on a trip to Europe, and died in a hospital on the East Coast.  And I never heard about it.

I had a choice of ways to deal with this—some that would trigger fear and anxiety, and others that would deepen my understanding of life in a useful way.

I always try to choose the second.  Lord knows I often fail.
When my father was dying of cancer fifteen years ago, it became difficult to watch the process—it ate him up until he began to resemble The Cryptkeeper.  But there was a voice inside me that cautioned me not to look away.  To, rather, observe this process with infinite care.  That it is where life ends, and the ending helps us to interpret the beginning, and everything in-between.

Life, you see, will lie to us—it doesn’t want to lose us, and will tell us things last forever, that individual actions have little importance, and that tomorrow is as good a time for action as today.

Death knows better.  It whispers that if we love, we need to express that love today.  That if we have hopes, we need to formulate those hopes into plans, and act upon them today.  If we love to dance, or sing, we must dance and sing today…tomorrow is too late.
I remember the last time I saw Bob.  We were having lunch in Portland, and I went up to his office, a small and cluttered loft he kept very separate from his living quarters.  I have no interest in ragging on the dead, but for the last decade his volcanic creativity had slipped its leash.  He could begin writing, but not end it.  He saw a thousand possible story branches in every action, every word, every feeling. 

For years, he had controlled this fountaining of creativity, converting it into one of the finest bodies of work in the history of the science fiction field.  Now, it had gotten away from him.  Unless an editor sat and dictated what he should write, he just couldn’t quite do it.

So he wrote books, but they were often set in other people’s worlds, controlled by corporate needs, trading on the Sheckley name or his still impressive manic creativity…but time was closing in on Bob, and it was painful to watch.

Did his love of certain herbal substances help him or hurt him?  I can’t say.  But anyone who drank as much as Bob smoked would certainly be thought a problem drinker.  According to Bob, he had never really needed discipline—he just sat at the typewriter and BANG!  Out popped a story.

And once this ability began to decline, he had no way to de-construct his psyche, clean the wires and tubes, and focus down again.

What is there to be learned?  More than anything else, I just wish I’d stayed in more careful touch with him.  Friends gone are gone forever, and all we have left is our memories, and the things unsaid.

I’m not certain there was much unsaid.  But I wish he’d had a little more time to create wonder.  I’m not egotistical enough to think that I could have or should have made a difference. 

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering.

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