was married to actor David Coleman Dukes until his sudden death - a
situation eerily foreshadowed in her novel Life After Death.
A year later, she ponders the unlit intersection where art and
the sun nor death can be looked at steadily"
-- La Rochefoucauld
13, 1981,1 LEFT THE UFFIZI and walked through the crowds surrounding
Michelangelo's David, feeling happy I was in Florence
on a Guggenheim fellowship that summer, working on a book of
poems -- and that afternoon I was on my way to Umbria, where
I would spend the weekend visiting a poet friend at the castle
of her parents. She'd arranged for me to ride down with a friend
of her brother's, an actor who was in the miniseries The
winds of War; which was shooting in the city I was thinking
about poetry I was thinking about art -- about the David
-- I was thinking about the weekend ahead, how my friend
and I would talk about poetry far into the night.
I sat down
to wait in the sunny lobby of the hotel where the actor and
I had arranged to meet. After a few minutes, I looked up as
a tall, dark-haired man appeared in the doorway He'd rushed
over from the set, he said -- and apologized for being late.
He put out his hand as he approached. "By the way I'm David
Dukes," he said, and I understood, as I took his hand and gazed
into those blue eyes, how we know when our lives are changing
before us, how we sense something -- a little ripple in time,
a kind of swerving from the present into an imagined future.
I knew he was going to happen to me -- it felt, suddenly like
what the Italians call destino.
But I didn't
really believe in fate -- that something beyond our power can
determine our lives. It was true that I began to take mental
notes, as writers do, on what I was experiencing. I noted the
pale gold fresco light ("the color of Giotto's halos," I wrote
shamelessly in a journal) pouring through the skylights. I noted
the way David stood, his blue eyes, the sunglasses in his pocket.
He took me to lunch on the rooftop of his hotel; he drove me
from Florence to Perugia through the wineblue valleys to the
castle of my friend's parents, where we fell in love. We carried
on a cross-country romance when we returned to America. We married
at City Hall in New York City and moved to Los Angeles when
I was pregnant. I could tell the story as if life assumed a
shape -- from the fairy-tale fantasy of our meeting onward.
But I had no idea the shape my life would take being married
to an actor. I knew nothing then of the uncertainty the many
times David would be gone away working, the intensity of missing
him, the difficulty and strain of separation. I only knew that
I was headed toward a place from which I could not turn away.
years after we met, on another sunny day -- October 9, 2000
-- I stood with our 17-year-old daughter; Annie, on the front
steps of our home in Los Angeles waving goodbye to David, who
was flying back to the set of a miniseries called Rose Red,
shooting in Seattle/Tacoma. He had been home for the weekend,
attending a father-daughter picnic at Annie's school and a prospective-student
function at USC, where I am a professor. I was sorry to see
him leave but was cheered thinking he'd be home in a few days
for a three-week break. I was pleased, too, because I'd just
finished making changes to the copyedited manuscript of my new
novel, Life After Death. Annie and I continued to wave
as the car sent to take David to the airport pulled away from
the curb. I stood on the steps after Annie went back inside,
waving till the car disappeared around the corner. Then I packed
up my novel, sealing it in the return envelope to the publisher-and
drove to the FedEx drop-off box. On the way I thought about
the book, how making the last copy changes represented a huge
milestone. The novel had gone through many versions. David,
with his actor's infallible ear for dialogue and diction, had
read every revision over the years except this one. He'd asked
to take a copy with him on the plane, then decided to wait to
read it till he got back. I was eager to have his opinion of
this final version of my unconventional novel about life and
death, about (among other things) a woman whose husband dies
of a heart attack on a tennis court.
A few hours
later, around seven that night, the phone rang. The young man
at the other end of the line identified himself as a tennis
pro at a recreation center in Spanaway Washington. This is where
my husband went after his afternoon flight -- for an early evening
tennis workout. And this is where (as the agitated young voice
was now telling me) he had dropped dead of a heart attack on
the tennis court.
rings and your life changes in an eye blink; you reject everything
connected to the imposition of this new unreality a world in
which someone you love deeply no longer exists. You think that
what is happening cannot be happening, that a terrible mistake
has been made. I talked to the doctor; who was sobbing, in the
emergency room near the tennis court where David was taken.
I talked to a cold and insensitive representative of the Pierce
County Medical Examiner's Office. I tried to explain to Annie
what had happened, but I could not grasp that he was gone. Hadn't
he just kissed us goodbye? Hadn't he stood in the bedroom, in
the sunlight, holding the proofs of Annie's senior class photos,
his eyes brimming because his daughter was growing up, because
(as he said then) she looked a little like his mother; who'd
passed away just a few years earlier?
ALL SURVIVORS I FELT ALMOST immediately overcome by guilt. I
ran through all the what-ifs in my mind. What if I'd paid more
attention to his complaints of indigestion and fatigue over
the weekend? What if I had insisted that he get a more thorough
physical than the knee-jerk version required of performers for
insurance purposes? What if I'd looked more closely at photographs
taken of him on the miniseries set -- how pale and tired he
looked, why hadn't I seen this change in this face?
think about coincidence -- the coincidence of the death of a
character in my novel and David's death. But sometime during
that first dreadful night, the absolute particularity of David's
tragedy became shadowed by my sudden memory of the book and
the character Russell Schaeffer, for whom I'd unknowingly written
a kind of twin death. My first reaction was one of new wild
guilt -- as if I had somehow contributed to David's death. I
called my editor; Dan Menaker; and told him that I wanted to
withdraw the book from publication. He said he would do whatever
I wished in this regard, but he asked me to take a week to think
it over. During the days that followed, as I moved, numb, through
my housefull of relatives and guests, through the beautiful
enormous funeral, attended by 500 people, the phone calls about
obituaries and press statements, I tried to come to terms with
what I was feeling. The impulse to throw the book away was powerful.
I knew it was not in any way a record of my life, the characters
were not my family Russell Schaeffer was a businessman, a failed
poet, a substance abuser; an inveterate liar, a character who
knows he has heart disease, who in fact exacerbates his own
cardiac condition by taking digitalis prior to playing tennis,
who in effect commits suicide. Nevertheless the suggestion of
prophecy haunted me. Family and friends urged me to reconsider.
David, they pointed out, after all his reading and patient suggestions,
after his constant, loyal support, would have wanted me to go
ahead. By the end of the week I agreed.
did not stop me from going over and over in my mind this apparent
convergence of art and life. How could I have written into existence
the exact same fate for a character who was almost nothing like
my husband except that he played tennis and was dramatic and
handsome? I know that startling prefigurings are not unknown
in literature. Many years before Hitler, Franz Kafka seemed
to predict the Holocaust in his writings. The Mexican novelist
Carlos Fuentes imagined the death of a son in a novel -- and
his own son met a similar fate. But I do not believe this means
that writers have a sixth sense, that writers are prescient;
rather; I think they are so attuned to, so sensitive to, the
present moment that what they do may appear to be a gift of