” He had liked to think that the bargain he made in surrendering to William was to trade the ruptures of the past that once played him for days that slipped easily into the next. But now he felt that he was becoming lost along with William, or that he might be falling ever faster, because he held onto a life that spun recklessly about him, while William slept to his own, find end. ” [28:227]
Grief has a long memory for those who survive the dead. And those who are true friends to the dead have no choice but to learn the secrets that the dead know. Far more dreadful than death is how the living have to bear with such menace of death that seems far enough from their own life. Walking on Air is the survivor’s story of one who did not survive; it’s also the story of the awful burden placed by the dying upon those who love them.
He came to hate their awkwardness, the cheap bouquets of flowers they brought, or the boxes of candy he would never eat. Sometimes his mind howled with fury at their abandonment, daring them to endure half as well as he had the long assault of a terminal disease. Sometimes he was kept awake by waves of hatred and resentment, wishing each of them would die. [17:140]
William Addams is dying. Caught in the twilight between life and death where he needs no identity beyond his disease, his unhappiness is so great that it knows no bounds. Estranged from his family, William is consumed by his fear that his two best friends, Henry and Susan, will abandon him. Although deserving of profuse sympathy, he is flawed to a terrifying degree, especially in the ways he inflicts his long, drawn-out dying upon his friends. As if it were a test of his friends and lovers and our moral meaning, William’s slow dying, asserting nuances of pain and ailments, forces his final caregivers to endure humiliation, frustration, moral struggle and guilt, as he demands, somewhat manipulating, a level of devotion that transcends the commitment of even a next-to-kin, to the point where they almost wish for his death to come. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, Henry, an elementary school teacher who makes a scarce living, reflects that he has surrendered his own life to caring for his friend, who in turn cheats him out of everything Henry has believed in their friendship.
(Henry) knew the dean assumed he meant his boyfriend, his lover, his companion, his mate—whatever term he used to describe a sexual relationship. William was none of these things to Henry, or not in the sense a stranger would intend it, but he wanted to leave that impression because there didn’t seem to be a category of platonic friend who deserved the degree of mourning or care due a lover, a parent, a wife, or a child. [18:148]
Written in a quietly menacing prose, with sharp dialogue often separated by prolonged, deep ponderous prose, Walking on Air in keeping our parameters of devotion in check, it invokes inevitable consequence of terminal disease/death that is often left unaddressed, out of fear and disgrace. It ponders how the illness has stolen from the afflicted the ignorance upon which promises were built. Although the context is AIDS, never for once is this mentioned in the novel—implying the universality of the subject matter: We all are likely someday to find ourselves either in Henry’s position or in William’s and in many cases both. It all boils down the one simple question: Are we going to die alone? Invoking a gamut of emotions that sometimes make the book very difficult and depressing to read, this is a moral story well told.
253 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/
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