L. E. Sissman, 1928-1976
There will be no more Innocent Bystander columns from Ed Sissman. Invariably the task of editing his writing was no task at all, save for an occasional lope to the unabridged to ascertain the meaning of “wodge" or “umbel.” One traveled quickly and admiringly through the supple, stylish, meticulously groomed prose and dispatched it to the printers. I got great pleasure from the frequent lunches where, over martinis or Bloody Marys and sandwiches, we would talk about his thoughts for the next column and the one after that and about whatinell was happening to humankind.
He would gangle into the bar, hunched over as if to deny his six feet four, blink an owl’s blink or two in the semidarkness, and fold himself like a carpenter’s rule into his chair. He was a man of courtly gentleness, and by the time I came to know him, he obviously had decided that he had neither the time nor the disposition to indulge in petty grudges, personal enmities, or the bother of envy. Except for an occasional outbreak of well-expressed outrage. Ed’s notions for the column in the early stages of his relationship with The Atlantic tended toward the light, the humorous, the nostalgic his days as a radio Quiz Kid, his hapless and brief career as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, the fun and foibles of the ad business, the pleasures of driving sports cars and of observing the comings and goings of seasons.
It was not until we had enjoyed many of those planning lunches and had come to know each other fairly well that the difficult subject came into our discussions. A few years before, in 1965, Ed Sissman was discovered to have Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer of the lymph glands that, as Ed later wrote, “used to be routinely fatal.” At one lunch he matter-of-factly explained that if 1 didn’t already know. I should know that he had an ailment that might take him out of the action. He’d like to keep writing the column and a lot more poems, and more book reviews for The New Yorker, for as long as he could stay at his typewriter, and anyway, there had been some breakthroughs in treatment and he might in the end lick the disease.
So we started talking about death. I confessed to a concern that has visited me at many times, one which probably afflicts others who, like myself, have never had to face up to the explicit threat of extreme pain and death. The uncomfortable suspicion is that 1 wouldn’t be equal to the test, that, jolted by the first grip of the torturer’s pliers or the first touch of the electrodes to the scrotum. I’d crumple into a babbler, instant Rubashov, a fifteen-second patriot. And 1 wonder, I told Sissman, if I wouldn’t crumple in the face of the kind of news the doctors delivered to him. “You can’t possibly tell until you’re confronted with it,” he said. “You might find yourself surprised.”
“What is it like.” I asked, “to stare down the gun barrel knowing that the thing’s cocked and a finger is squeezing the trigger?” “I’ll try to tell you.” he said -■ and subsequently he did, in two remarkable Innocent Bystander columns that were first published in The Atlantic m January and February 1972. (’They are included in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the ‘70’s, recently published by Vanguard.)
“Somehow, mv personal home demonstration of the fleetingness of life redoubled my perception and enjoyment of its mutant shapes and shadows,” he wrote in his first “A Little Night Music" column. “Instead of a curtain falling, a curtain rose . . .”
For a time the doctors thought they had cured him of the disease. But then came “Dr. Hodgkin’s second call" in 1969. Though he still was to have a few more years, a time in which he showed astonishing courage and produced much good prose and poetry, the second was to prove to be the fatal call. He died March 10 at the age of forty-eight, leaving more friends than he knew he had and this summing up: “1 have been looking down at the curvature of the earth, at the trajectory of my life and death, from a new perspective: from the perspective of a tangential line lilting, straight as a contrail, away from the earth and myself and all the other things and people. It is, and has been, a lonely journey. But so, if we only knew it. is every life.”