I Set My House in Order
I AM a writer. Not of the first rank; yet I make my living that way. I am not signing my real name to this. I can write more frankly under an alias in telling what I am going to tell. I do not care to be connected with it by name, for reasons you will understand.
Two renowned specialists told me last year that in all likelihood I had an incurable malady; and that my one very bare chance for life lay in an operation. They were honest enough to offer only a minimum of hope that it would be a success. I asked how long this all-necessary operation could be delayed. They went into a huddle with a third specialist. Then they reported that it ought to be performed at once; that a three-month wait was the very utmost limit, and that such a delay might lessen my chances.
I took advantage of the time clause. I promised I would come to the hospital at the end of three months.
I was not frightened. I don’t know why I was not, for I have not thought of myself as brave. It was not indifference. Life meant much to me. I had enjoyed it more and more, every year, as it ripened.
I cannot understand why the news made me neither afraid nor sad. Perhaps it was too big for ordinary fright. Perhaps my sick cosmos did not react to it.
Whatever the reason may have been, I found myself viewing my prospects with an almost indifferent calm. I was able to see the chances from every angle, with an odd impersonal interest. I have never thought more clearly or with less emotion. I was able to analyze the whole thing, as a wiser man than I might analyze some friend’s troubles and give him sage counsel.
A scrap of my own advice came to my memory — something I had written and spoken, more than once, in other days. It ran: —
‘Don’t pity yourself. Don’t let others pity you.‘
Of old, this dictum of mine had seemed to me a bit of genuine wisdom. I had descanted windily on the weakening vice of self-pity and on the ill effects of slumping limply upon the sympathy of others. I had felt my theory was rock-solid.
Now that I had at last a supreme chance to apply it to my own case, I found I did not need it. For one thing, I was not pitying myself at all. I had not the faintest twinges of self-pity.
Nor did I want the pity of others. It would have been of no use or pleasure to me. It would have turned the jolly comradeship of those around me to a doleful tenderness which would have exasperated me past words.
I had no impulse to tell anyone my Great Secret — not even my wife. Most assuredly not my wife.
It was a game where I must play a lone hand; not from consideration for others, but for my own sake. My sword arm must be left clear for action.
I made the doctors promise to keep mum. To my family and to my acquaintances I babbled something vague about not feeling very fit because of a cardiac aftermath of flu — this to explain my slowing down of pace.
Having guarded my position in this way, I went on to the next and far biggest chore which must fill my allotted three months of grace: I must ‘set my house in order.’ I had ample time for this mighty task, if I should go at it with speed and energy and with clear planning.
I reasoned that if I were to be appointed to some post in Australia for a long term of years, thus to be cut off from all my old associations, there would be a hundred needful things to be done, before sailing, to wind up my affairs at home. There was tenfold need, now, for such wholesale ‘redding up.’ And I had three months wherein to complete the tough job.
I took account of stock.
First, of course, came the financial aspect. It is well, perhaps, for a man to leave sweet memories to those he loves. But it is infinitely better and more important that he leave them safe from want.
I am exaggerating when I apply that rule to myself. For I had been fortunate enough to arrange, long ago, that my family should have our home and a comfortable income in the event of my death; but the depression had cut deep into my funds, as into everyone else’s. It had pared down the volume and the prices of my work. It had tangled my fiscal affairs.
There was much to unravel and to clean up, to put straight, to make solidly foolproof, if my family were to live, afterward, in the unworried way I had planned for them to live. I preferred to do this myself — I who alone knew all the details — rather than leave the financial jigsaw puzzle to my executors or to have it cause annoyance and uncertainty at a time when my wife would have scant heart for such problems.
This, then, was my first and major duty; this, and to add as much cash as possible to the sum in hand. I started in from that angle.
I grabbed at every form of writing job I could find, were the pay good or poor. I took work that once I would have deemed miles beneath my notice, from sources that would not appeal to the average writer of any standing, sometimes at incredibly low rates.
When a man goes on a hunt for such work there is more of it to be found than one would suppose. I did it all, to the best of my mediocre ability. For there was a strong chance that some of it might carry my name when I should be a memory. I did not want even the pettiest monument to me to be fashioned from slipshod scribbling. Wherefore I put into the labor all the skill I had in me.
I got more worth-while jobs, too — some of them chased after, and some which were thrown my way without any plotting of mine.
Chief of these unforeseen assignments was a request from a national magazine for a four-part serial. I had written much for that magazine, from time to time, for many years. From letters received by me I had grown to look on its readers as personal friends.
If this serial were to be my valedictory to these readers, I wanted it to leave a good taste in their mouths. (Nor was this a form of maudlin sentiment. Rather was it the normal desire of every host to give his guests a pleasant time.)
I think I succeeded. I had a lot of fun writing that serial. I wrote it faster than usually I write, not only because the editor asked for a certain amount of speed, but because I wanted to make sure it should be finished.
When I say I think I succeeded in my effort to make the serial worth reading, I am not bragging. I base my belief on a letter from the editor, telling me it was the best thing I had written for him in a long time and the snappiest and most spontaneous. His letter went on to say even more glowingly kind things of it.
But it was a race against time. Midway in its course, the doctors told me the operation should not be delayed a week longer. I shut my ears. And I wrote on.
There was a queer thrill in that queerer race; a thrill I reveled in, even as I had reveled in the athletic contests of my youth. When the serial was finished and accepted, I was more childishly delighted than in all the athletic trophies of my career. It was the happiest contest I had waged in my whole long life.
It was the high spot of my year — a triumph at which perhaps you may laugh, but which meant more to me than I have the right words to describe.
I wonder if I have given you the impression that I forced myself to do all this writing, through sheer will power and through mists of agony. If so, I have described it overelumsily. I enjoyed every minute of it and of various other jobs; but the serial most of all. I was as glad as any novice scribbler when several editors were good enough to praise the quality of my output.
There was no heroism or even pluck in my sticking to my desk for nine or ten hours a day during those months of waiting. There was nothing much else to do. I did not feel like going out. I did not feel like doing any of the myriad gay things which strew my average winter. I was too tired. I was in too much pain.
Thus, I had nothing to distract me from my writing. I could live in it, every day and all day. It was great fun. It was more: it was the most important part of my long process of setting my house in order.
For during those three months I earned more money by my writing than I had earned in the preceding year and a half. Things seemed to come my way, in bulk — orders and other chances to land my pseudo-literary products. I was able somehow to fill those orders and to avail myself of those chances, in a more satisfactory and more speedy and workmanlike fashion than for years before.
The luck was with me. And I was adding to my family’s welfare, in case the operation should fail. It was not a battle. It was a game.
During the breathing spells from my work, I was straightening out my financial affairs. I was simplifying everything; codifying and explaining on paper my every investment or other material interest; making things easy and rock-solid, to the best of my power, for those who should come after me. Figuratively, I was clearing out my desk.
Yes, and I was clearing out my desk literally, too. Most people, I think, have documents of various kinds which need burning; others which need classifying and whipping into shape.
This was the least agreeable of my many hurry-up duties. I was urged to it by memory of a tale told me more than thirty years ago by two fellow writers.
A world-famed author of their acquaintance had kept a deskful of proof sheets and of letters and other things he would not have wished his cleanly, gentle wife to see. On the night of his death, these two men vowed his widow should not come across the contents of that desk, and thus have her golden memories of her husband smeared or shattered.
They went to the house, on pretext of condoling with her. She was in bed, prostrated, under the care of a doctor — as they had been told she would be. They bribed a servant. Then they jimmied the desk, stuffed its papers into a bag, took them to the apartment of one of the two, and spent the rest of the night in burning them.
Well, I had hoarded no such collection of literary filth and indiscreet letters and the like, against which friends must protect my wife. Yet there were letters and papers which would have caused needless pain and which would have revived needlessly cruel memories. These I got rid of, in the course of setting my house in order. That corner of the slate was cleaned.
My next step will have to be prefaced by a line or two of explanation, lest I be classed with Little Eva and other saintlets of Sunday School tales. It called for some thought and planning.
In those moral stories, the doomed hero goes around to those he has wronged, or who have wronged him, and kisses them on the brow, and either asks or grants forgiveness.
To me this seems the sloppiest and most ignoble conduct imaginable. There are a few — a very, very few — people with whom I am still on passively bad terms. Perhaps the fault is mine. Perhaps it is theirs. What does it matter whose fault it is? In each instance it is a perfectly good grudge. As such it stands; and thus it shall stand (as far as I am concerned) until doomsday.
I would sooner have cut my tongue out than to have gone to any of these people and told them I was in imminent danger of death, and to have made my peace with them on that basis.
I have a memory of a letter I received from a hospital ten years ago, from a man who had done me much gratuitous harm. He wrote me he was dying. He besought me to come to his bedside and make up our differences. I did not go. If the grudge was worth carrying through life, it seemed to me worth carrying through death. (I saw him on the street, by the way, this year. He was as healthy, apparently, as ever.)
But I had a memory also of an old and dear friend, with whom I never had quarreled, but who drifted out of my life — or I out of his — because we both were so busy at the petty routine details of making a living that we found no time to see each other as of yore. When I read of his death, I felt a keen pang of regret that I had allowed the good friendship to lapse, through my own sheer laziness. I did not want other close old-time friends of mine to feel the same way, in case I should drop out.
So I arranged jolly evenings and lunches and mild sprees with no fewer than five of them — all of the ancient lot who were within hail at the time — and we renewed the comradeship where we had let it lapse. Call that maudlin, if you choose to. I did not consider it so.
If I had died soon thereafter, those five men, each and all, would have been glad their chum of earlier days had happened to spend so much time with them before the fall of the curtain. None of them would have had the sadness which was mine at the death of the neglected pal I spoke of. I think that was one of the minor methods of seting my house in order. I may be wrong. But I was happy, at the time, that I had done it.
In the same goody-goody storybooks, the dying hero or villain almost invariably goes through the mystic process of ‘making his peace with God.’ This smug ceremony was no part of my work in setting my house in order.
In the first place, it seemed — and still seems — to me cowardly and unsportsmanlike to live a regrettable life, and then, at the Gates of Death, to howl for divine mercy. In the second place, I had no ‘peace’ to make with the Father who created me and whose wisely tender care has followed and guided me throughout my days.
A million times I have transgressed His laws and turned my back on His precepts. But He who ordained my earthly course surely will judge me as gently as I have judged a foolish and naughty child of my own. So I did not belittle His justice and glorious mercy by yelping to be forgiven for my sins, on the score that I might be about to die.
I have touched on only a few of the several methods by which I sought to settle accounts during the three months allowed to me. But I think I have given you the general idea. I do not need to bore you with more of the myriad details: the effort to pay every bill, great and small, whether a monetary debt or other and graver kind of indebtedness.
I should like to be able to add that I went around, during this period of waiting, with a glorified smile on my face and with an inspiredly helpful word to everybody who came near me. But I did nothing of the kind. Looking back, I seem to remember that I displayed for the most part all the lovable friendliness of a sick wildcat.
I was played out. I was suffering acutely. Moreover, I was not seeking to leave sugar-coated memories behind me among those I loved. It would take off some of the grief and loneliness if they could remember me as cranky — a man not greatly to be missed. Besides, I was too busy setting my house in order to have time to pretend to be a patient and softly smiling saint.
My supposed remnants of flu, and the genuine heart trouble which I pretended was a part of it, served as ample excuse for any surliness and for the declining of all declinable invitations. I am sorry for those who had to be around me. Luckily there were few of them.
(I am sorriest, a millionfold, that at the end my wife had to know what was the matter. I tried harder to spare her the knowledge than you would be interested in hearing.)
Now for stark anticlimax.
I was carted to a hospital when the three months were up. There I was sent into the Darkness — into at least the shabbier suburbs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death (fearing no evil); and the operation fanciers drew their knives and fell zestfully to work on me.
And they found — to their relief, I like to hope — that they had been almost wholly wrong in their diagnosis!
My ailment was not what they had foretold. It yielded readily — if temporarily — to the operation.
In due time I was shipped home, cured. I had somewhat the feeling of a non-swimmer who has nerved himself for a plunge into a bottomless lake and who finds the water is only six inches deep.
So much for my story. It would be edifying to say that, having set my house in order, I shall keep it so. I shall not.
I know that. I am slovenly. Things will lapse to where they were, now that I have no exigent impetus to rouse me to constant effort. Next time I may not have three months for preparation, nor three minutes. But something tells me I shall not profit by my experience.
Yet, perhaps you may profit by what I have said, and may set your house in order while there is yet plenty of time. Or perhaps you may not.
It is no business of mine. Just the same, it is a good idea. I proved that.