The Last Word

The Last Word has traditionally been the spot in Jump Cut for a political editorial, yet I do not feel quite up to that task. After Chuck died in December 2017, I could not deal with the sorry news of the Trump era in the United States and had to shut it out of my daily life just to maintain my sanity. Interestingly, however, a whole new way of moving through the world has opened up, or rather I just keep going, ready or not, through the world of grief. And it is a world that demands constant learning, about myself and others, about death, about the rich world of old people. So, I jot here a few words in a personal vein, since just keeping working on one more issue of Jump Cut, as well as trying to organize and set up an archive for Chuck’s library and writing, are what is keeping me going.

Mostly my life without Chuck is empty. I am enough of a Buddhist to welcome emptiness. Like negative space in Chinese art, it’s quite beautiful. But I also know that this emptiness surrounds me because I have lost married woman privilege. In my twenties, other young women, themselves recently married, explained this phenomenon to me, and my experience has been much as they described. A world and a social acceptance open up to a woman when she gets married, especially for moving around in public space, with things such as going out at night, eating in restaurants, taking long trips—all easier as a couple. I’ve always known the sexist ideology behind this but am experiencing it once again. In fact, much of my life reverts to habits of my twenties, especially turning night into day and vice versa. I get up in the middle of every night and often work on Jump Cut.

Another lesson I had to learn was that death and this terrible grief were waiting for Chuck and me. We lived within the great Western Love Myth. Ironically, narrating that myth usually dwells upon love’s beginning, finding a soulmate. Like most couples who are blissfully happy and stay together a long time, we did not usually discuss our relation with others, sort of like not eating a candy bar in front of those who don’t have one, common courtesy. But under the surface, I/we knew something else lurked in the background—Shakespeare caught this aspect of the myth’s trajectory and speeded it up in Romeo and Juliet. If you gain Love for a lifetime, then one of you has to see the other through to death, with nothing much left to live for. And you walk through a door, forever changed, aware of the mundanity of death, the coming and going, the absolute passing, and the transitory life you had. Those of us who are marked in this way recognize each other and form a tribe others don’t see.

Many people have surrounded me with their love and support. Perhaps most important to me has been a long-distance phone relation with a sister widow in Chicago, Kate Kane. Kate was one of Chuck’s students at Northwestern and called me within a week or two after Chuck’s death. She suggested we talk on the phone every day. We do, and we think about writing a book together, The Widow’s Body. We trace the course of grief in our lives and that of other folks, mostly women who we know; we discuss film studies and college teaching; we even discuss widowlit, those dreadful advice books for those in mourning. (We did find one good poetry book, The Cure for Sorrow, by Jan Richardson.) What I have learned from Kate is how differently people deal with grief. My way has been involving myself in tasks to preserve Chuck’s legacy.

Chuck was a packrat, a trait hard to live with but incredibly valuable in terms of his library and papers, which now give a rich, internationally oriented, sexually queer, and theoretically sophisticated overview of film scholarship, especially from the 1970s on. And Marxism, and cultural studies, and theater, and the avant-garde across the arts, etc.. Early on after his death, I posted as many of his essays as I could on academia.edu, and later threw myself into developing a website with all his teaching materials. I had to stop that because in my crazed state, I had put up PDFs of all his research materials that I found on his computer as well, ignoring copyright. I will get back to building that site in the next year, leaving a copy of his hard drive—wildly filled with porn in addition to his course notes, writing fragments, and downloaded academic articles—to whatever library takes his papers.

Ah, Chuck’s papers! What a story there. He lived in mounds of papers, boxes of them. I had to get at them right away, to find the necessary documents for all the legal work that accompanies death. I sorted some of the papers roughly, had a lot of trash hauled away (yes, it might have been valuable), hired a wonderful local declutterer, and got it all down to about 150-200 bankers boxes, including what was in a storage shed. For about a year and a half, I have been working with a local scholar, Jeneé Wilde, and we have catalogued and organized all these papers into about sixty boxes. At first it seemed like shoveling out the Augean stables, and with my magical thinking at the time, I imagined Chuck’s sad reaction if he could see how I cleaned up his beloved mess. Now I have pride in what we have done, since the outlines of all things he was working on stand out so clearly.

My next task is to find a home for Chuck’s papers and library. I myself have a much more zen attitude toward my own intellectual work and throw out many things regularly, both from my computer and my file cabinet, although like Chuck, I do keep most of my work available on the Internet through academia.edu. Keeping Jump Cut functioning is a way of staying sane, so we’ll go for at least one more issue, with luck, and maybe another after that.

Julia Lesage, October 2019, Eugene OR