- Publisher: Books on Tape
- Date: Sept 2007
From the book
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
I was so glad not to have died that day that I made it my new birthday.
A few hours earlier, I was on top of a mountain outside a small town in Chile when I doubled up in pain from an intestinal obstruction. This is a pain more intense than childbirth, as I was told later by a woman who had enjoyed both. While they carted me down the mountain, the pain was impressive enough to make me feel perfectly okay with dying. I would have been happy to die; but as it turned out, this wouldn't be necessary. In a cramped, dingy emergency room, I was examined by a doctor who, by chance, was an expert in exactly my problem. I was lucky, because about a yard of my intestine was dead, and within a couple of hours I would be, too. He opened me up in an emergency surgery that saved my life. I woke up from the operation euphoric. I hugged the doctor and embraced his wife and children, grateful to his whole family for the extra chance at life he had given me. I told everyone that Chile was my new homeland, and I celebrated my new life every chance I got.
But as time passed, a persistent thought kept piercing my euphoria: What should this new life be like? This was time I was getting for free, and it seemed to call for freshness.
Not that I was unhappy. During the year I turned sixty-nine, there could hardly have been more good news coming my way. In January, I was nominated for an Oscar; in April, for a Tony; in September, for an Emmy; and in October, the first book I'd written made the bestseller lists. All this in one year. Even my seventieth birthday came and went without a feeling of dread. I was still a kid. I still enjoyed working hard, and my appetites still called to me with the urgency of a kid's. We must have that dish of pasta, the food appetite would say. But this is the third dish of pasta in the same meal, I'd tell it, secretly delighted by its roguish concupiscence. Yes, a third dish, the appetite would say, and we must have it. Now. Contented as I was, I still wanted to squeeze more juice out of my new life. This was the playful search of
a happy appetite, and I realized how lucky I was to be craving more.
I've known people who didn't even know they wanted more, because they felt they simply had nothing. Every once in a while, I think of a moment long ago in a coffee shop in Times Square when the person sitting across from me mentioned he was thinking of killing himself.
He said it casually as he put down his coffee cup. He was a young black man, only recently out of college. I was twenty-five, and he was about twenty-two. We had met a few days earlier at a gathering of idealistic young people hoping to end nuclear testing. We had been talking about how completely dim the prospects were of our group having any success in slowing the arms race. Then our conversation turned somehow from the destruction of cities in a nuclear firestorm to the subject of his own life. That's when he put down his cup and said, with the air of someone announcing he was considering going off cream for skim milk, "I've been thinking that I might kill myself."
I was stunned. "You can't do that."
He looked surprised. "Why not?"
"You don't have the right to kill yourself."
"Of course I do. It's my life. I can do what I want with it."
"No, you can't. You can't do that to the people around you. You can't leave them with grief and a dead body. You don't have the right to do that to anyone."
He thought about that for a moment. "Yes, I do. It's my body."
"Look. You're smart, you're educated. You have a life ahead of you. A career." I didn't even...