Narrative Magazine Friday Feature: Kate Moses's 'Chocolate Cake For Diane'
Narrative Magazine: Diane Middlebrook was a Stanford University professor, poet, critic and biographer. Witty, stylish, and formidably intelligent, Middlebrook was a generous nurturer of younger writers. Author Kate Moses recalls how a brief interview with Middlebrook evolved into an extraordinary literary collaboration as well as an exhilarating, heartbreaking friendship.
7140 words. Approximately a 30 minute read.
I ASKED HER what she wanted most. I didn’t need to explain. The time for explanations and contingencies had passed. I sat as close to her as I could, careful not to put pressure on the tubes taped down at her wrist, bruised and thin as a bird’s, or to knock the elevated table holding a paper cup of chipped ice: the only thing left that she could ingest, even that not always successfully. December would arrive that week, and Diane had not eaten since early October. After nearly four years of hard fighting, her cancer had finally won. Diane’s husband, Carl, had told me on the phone the night before that it was a matter of weeks. Even so, consummate hostess that she’d always been, when I walked into her hospital room that morning Diane offered me a cup of chipped ice of my own.
Now she held my hand in one of hers, my face in the other, cupping my cheek, studying me, memorizing me. As thin and frail as she was, despite the engine of pain ramping up its brutal revolutions inside her, she was still her radiant self, her physical beauty clarified to its pure vibrant essence, her desire for her life still as unquenched as her curiosity always had been. It was really no surprise that she managed to look glamorous even in a faded hospital gown.
There was so much she still wanted, she told me, speaking in a voice slowed and softened by weakness but still characteristically emphatic, that she hardly knew where to begin. The machines hooked up to her tubes sighed rhythmically on either side of the bed, delivering timed doses of morphine she could control by pressing a button. Outside her room’s two west-facing picture windows was a pale sky she described as silky, and the Pacific Ocean spread horizontally in the haze beyond San Francisco’s successive elevations, its green canopies of trees. “But the first thing I want is something only you can give me,” she said, squeezing my hand. The mischievous smile was forming before she got the words out.
“I want you to keep Carl supplied with those walnut–black pepper biscotti,” she said, lifting her index finger and holding it gracefully upright, ready to brook no argument. “He’s going to try to refuse and he’ll say he’s on a diet, but he loves them. Just tell him they’re from me.”
I KNEW DIANE Middlebrook through her work nearly a decade before I met her, and I’d been hearing stories about her for just as long. In 1991 she published her biography of poet Anne Sexton, making headlines when it was revealed that Sexton’s psychiatrist had given her the audiotapes of his sessions with the notoriously self-revealing poet. Though Sexton’s daughter and literary executor had endorsed the release of the tapes, citing Sexton’s valuation of the process of art as much as the product, the flames of controversy over doctor-patient confidentiality, the ethics of privacy after death, and the boundaries of biography continued to lick the air for months—long enough for critics and readers to discover how insightful, fair, unflinching, and engaging a writer was Diane Middlebrook.
"Anne Sexton: A Biography" became a sensational bestseller, garnering prizes and widespread acclaim. Its tenacious depth, intellectual rigor, and compellingly elegant style set a new standard in the field of biography. A professor at Stanford whose doctoral dissertation at Yale had been directed by the literary critic Harold Bloom, Diane had by that time written or edited a handful of other books, including a collection of her own poetry, but in biography she found her medium. Not just any biographies, though Diane relished the puzzle of human desires and human relationships, seeing every odd-shaped piece in surprising ways—another friend has observed that Diane never wrote off anyone as uninteresting. But from the Sexton book onward, Diane lavished her energies and attentions on the lives of artists, in particular artists who had, somehow, transformed themselves, their personal reinventions as audacious and integral as the art itself.
Diane once told me that every biography is in some way about the biographer. In each of Diane’s lives of others, then, is a little girl born in Pocatello, Idaho, who published her first poem at age eight to the astonishment of her practical parents, people who could not imagine their daughter becoming a writer, much less a poet: she’d have to pay her own way if she wanted to go to college, her father insisted. Her family’s reaction and her own prompted Diane to keep asking herself, How does art happen? Where does it come from? Who made it, and why? And what does it matter?
So there was, first, Anne Sexton, a mad housewife from Boston who went to psychotherapy and found an uninhibited poetic voice. Then came "Suits Me," about jazz musician Billy Tipton, who lived for more than fifty years as one of the “boys in the band,” marrying five times and fathering three adopted sons, though he was in fact biologically female, a secret he/she maintained until death. Then followed "Her Husband," the biography of a marriage: that of poets Sylvia Plath (the eager, brittle perfectionist whose ferocious grief unloosed the most iconic twentieth-century American poetry by a woman) and Ted Hughes (country boy from Yorkshire become Poet Laureate of England, but forever to himself and everyone else her husband)—a couple whose fertile creative partnership shaped both of their poetic imaginations indelibly, for their lifetimes.
At the same time Diane was passionately engaged with the world outside her study. One of the first women hired by Stanford’s English department in the 1960s, she was a force to be reckoned with and an early instigator of establishing feminist studies at the university as well as their Center for Research on Women (now the eminent Clayman Institute for Gender Research). Diane was a true salonnière, organizing her classes seminar style and fanning the spark of ideas they kicked up. Her students recall seeing her stride purposefully across campus to and from her provocative, engaging classes, always elegant, always stylish, wearing fabulous shoes—the model of formidable, unapologetic womanhood.
Her third marriage, to Carl Djerassi, the chemist who synthesized the first oral contraceptive pill, brought Diane material wealth that only complemented her natural generosity. She and Carl actively nurtured the lives and achievements of a wide swath of artists and thinkers, amassing a stunning collection of art themselves and hosting lively gatherings of writers and painters and scientists and composers at their homes in San Francisco and London but also establishing an artists’ colony where visiting creators from a range of fields could get their work done in blessed peace. Just as in her biographies, Diane wasn’t simply drawn to art on its own; she was innately, unreservedly fascinated by the people who made it.
Even that’s too restrictive: Diane was fascinated by people. Ted Hughes once said that Sylvia Plath had a genius for love; Diane’s genius was for friendship, a magnetic empathy and curiosity imbued with such confidence in the dreams and aspirations of others that you felt smarter and more talented and more capable in her presence. Talking to Diane carried with it the thrill of a new love affair, of feeling locked in to another person whose every word you hung on, and who, you knew, was not just listening blandly but in her mind already erecting the scaffolding for your desires. That’s not to say she didn’t have her own opinions. She had plenty, and they were powerful and often subversive and almost always as disarming as her easy charm. Diane’s critical ingenuity was part of her genius with other people, her ability not merely to believe in you but also to wrestle your ideas and fantasies into clothes they looked good in.
Diane so loved a good mental tussle, in fact, that she missed the intellectual rigor of academia after she left it, despite how devoted she was to her writing. With her book on Plath and Hughes nearly complete and her next project still in the wings, in 2003 she decided to become a salonnière in fact, teaming up with friends in San Francisco and London to launch literary salons for women writers in both cities and inspiring a third in New York, using her significant address book of novelists, biographers, critics, poets, and journalists to build the membership. Of course she had plenty of male writer friends, but she had always been drawn to how women, particularly creative women, balance their lives. A sister herself, she cultivated sisterhood. And, she said often, women have a different kind of conversation when men aren’t around. Diane loved those kinds of conversations—she was always intrigued by the ways other writers approached craft and the practical aspects of writing as well as how they met the demands of family and economics—and she admitted without apology that she wouldn’t schedule a salon event in one city while she was in the other because she didn’t want to miss anything.
The project Diane turned to with her customary verve after "Her Husband" was a biography of the Roman poet Ovid, who rejected his family legacy of membership in the Roman senate and instead became the most famous poet of his era, author of the "Metamorphoses"—a writer intrigued by transformations and also overtly concerned with the survival of his art beyond his lifetime. In the prime of his life, at the apex of his brilliant career, Ovid did something that so offended the deified Caesar Augustus that he was exiled to the barbaric outskirts of the empire and never allowed to return to Rome.
Diane had been reading and studying Ovid since graduate school, had taught him and lectured on him numerous times over the years, and it was not on a whim that she finally dug in to write his biography. Even so, it was an ambitious project since there is virtually no biographical material on Ovid beyond the pages of his own works. Most of what is factually known about Ovid comes from his letters from exile, which were not merely private correspondences but poems intended for posterity by their author, who was certain his words would last. It was Ovid’s confidence in his survival that had always intrigued Diane, and she closed the introduction to her book with a poem Ovid wrote to his stepdaughter from the lonely shore of the Black Sea, urging her not to give up on art:
In brief, there’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark of the mind.
Look at me . . .
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights. What if
some savage’s sword should cut short my existence?
When I’m gone, my fame will endure,
and while from her seven hills Mars’ Rome in triumph
still surveys a conquered world, I shall be read.
As the four years unfolded during which Diane was working on Ovid and—suddenly, unexpectedly—fighting for her life, Ovid’s words took on an urgent poignancy that none of us who loved her, still less Diane herself, had anticipated. “I am not ready to die,” she said again and again, her voice brisk and decisive, that elegant index finger held aloft, underscoring a declarative that carried with it a refusal to become anything but what through will and self-confidence and keen intelligence and pluck she had determined herself to be. She was not going to be a victim, and she was not going to give up. In the face of Diane’s strategic and uncompromising pursuit of survival—looking at this woman so rampantly alive—it was impossible, inconceivable, to think otherwise.
ON ONE OF the first days of the new millennium I was trolling the Internet, trying to find an excuse not to write a novel about Sylvia Plath. Writing this book seemed no longer a matter of choice. I felt as if an angel had stepped out of a Renaissance triptych and pronounced my fate in tiny gilded letters that floated toward me on a current of air as I protested, hands held up in awe. Except the messenger of my fate was no angel. YOU’VE FOUND THE STORY, Sylvia Plath was insisting with her little golden ribbon of words; NOW YOU HAVE TO WRITE IT.
“The story” was something I’d stumbled on. It was the story Plath had built up poem by poem while assembling the manuscript of "Ariel" during the frigid December of 1962; it was a mythic fairy tale of her own survival that corresponded to her life during that lonely time of fragile hope, when she was estranged from Ted Hughes and on her own with their small children, feverishly putting her book together while her babies slept.
It was well-known that "Ariel" had been rearranged after Plath’s death, never published as the poet had intended it, and that it established her reputation as the quintessential scorned-wife self-destructive Fury. But why, despite the veritable cottage industry of literature on Plath, had no one told this other story, the author’s own? Her story pointed toward a writer fully in control of her artistic process and clear not just in her intentions for her work but also in shaping the rest of her life—a life she fervently wanted. That is, until mental illness felled her.
When I read the "Ariel" poems in Plath’s order for the first time, the story she’d told herself about her life was as vivid to me as if I’d made it up, and everything I thought I knew about her shifted. In truth, I knew right then that I would write her story as she’d imagined it. Every molecule in me already churned it forward, even in my dreams. I was going to make it up, following the hefty trail Plath had left for me in her poems, her journals, her stories and essays and recordings and letters, a paper trail spanning two continents. . . . I was going to have to work like a detective, or maybe a biographer. I’d already begun strategizing, identifying sources, collecting and sifting through material. So it was a psychological formality, a defense against a daunting task, that I was still looking for a way out a few weeks later. Instead, I found Diane.
Her name appeared in a news story with a phrase that caught my eye: “noted biographer Diane Middlebrook, who is at work on a new book about Ted Hughes...” Alongside all the quacks and self-promoting acquaintances who have made a vocation out of talking about Plath and Hughes, here was a meticulous scholar and a sophisticated thinker. I knew from reading the Sexton biography that Diane Middlebrook was not one to demonize or elevate her subjects. She was smart, she was unbiased, and I hoped she might talk to me. I conjured up her email address (ah, Google, invented just in time!) and wrote to her, giving examples of questions I had, thinking what a coup it would be if she let me pick her brain for an hour. She told me later that my questions made her think, “Huh! I wonder if she’ll let me pick her brain...”
“Kate!” she cried with unabashed pleasure when I arrived at her office at Stanford a few days later. She swung the door wide and gathered me in. It was the kind of greeting reserved for people you’ve been missing all your life. When the hour of our appointment was up, we were so far from done with each other that I walked Diane to her class while she described the pivotal opening scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes Were Watching God," the book she was about to lecture from: a young girl’s ecstatic awakening to her life in a blossoming garden. I was so enraptured by everything Diane said—by Diane herself: striking blue eyes that never left mine as we talked, chic angular European eyeglasses and spiky dark hair, a sumptuous embroidered pashmina flung crosswise over the shoulders of her tailored suit; Diane gliding purposefully and lightly across the campus, a prima ballerina across a stage—that I went to the Stanford bookstore, bought Hurston’s novel, and waited for two hours in the English department’s faculty lounge, reading in the eucalyptus shade, until Diane came back so we could keep talking.
I think it took a few more days, a few more late-night and early-morning email exchanges, for us to realize that we were neighbors, our apartments visible from each other’s windows, and that our birthdays were a week apart. (Mine were the late nights, staggering back to my novel after my children went to bed and the dishes were done, since my desk was our apartment’s dining room table, while Diane, as she said, was “a lark,” greeting dawn with the ritual of six cups of coffee and “something delicious to read, like a Trollope doorstopper” as inspiration.) It took a bit longer still to learn that we’d both been little girls from nowhere determined to be writers yet with no idea how to become the thing we wanted. Diane was much farther along in her writing career than I was when we met, yet she never treated me as anything less than a peer, someone else, like her, who’d figured it out on her own. We were both somewhat amazed that we’d gotten it right, at least so far, and from the start we recognized each other as kin.
For the next three years, as Diane wrote "Her Husband" and I wrote "Wintering," we became a fertile creative partnership of our own, collaborating on our research and stirring up the juices of each other’s ideas while, by agreement, never reading the other’s work in progress until it was completed. Nonetheless, we talked about our books endlessly, as often as we could during what Diane called “tea-and-cake babbles,” sharing lavender macaroons from our favorite neighborhood French bakery or truffles from the tiny chocolate shop Diane discovered in North Beach or slabs of the various cakes I, a therapeutic baker, put together on my “day off” between chapters. Mostly, though, we were conversing electronically, heads down at our desks or typing frenetically in archival libraries in London and Atlanta and Massachusetts and Indiana, muscling through voluminous files of unpublished letters and manuscript drafts and odd bits of texts and radio recordings that we could access only by showing up and transcribing everything ourselves, because almost none of the tons of archival material protected by the estates of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes can be photocopied.
Our partnership, then, was both practical and pleasurable, built on trust as well as pragmatism. By sharing all of our research, we made twice as much progress in half the time. The added benefit was the camaraderie of someone who not only understood the esoteric minutiae that had become our mutual flashpoints but who still wanted to hash it over—over cake—when everyone else we knew had gotten good and sick of hearing about Sylvia and Ted.
One of the difficulties of this kind of research is recognizing what you’ve got in front of you and knowing if you’ll need it. Diane’s rule, arrived at by hard experience after the ten years it took her to finish the Sexton biography, was that you simply didn’t know what you might need to know, so you should record it all and have really good systems to keep track of it. Diane and I each had—and shared—our separate and multiple chronologies, archive databases, chapter-by-chapter outlines, discographies, you name it. Still, it was all too easy to lose some tidbit of information in the avalanche of words set off by the merest whisper from one of our two graphomaniac subjects. Often the most frantic scrambles took place when one of us turned over some archival stone and found a buried treasure beneath—not for ourselves, but for our confederate. Emails would fly, and the mark of the professional and personal intimacy that had taken root and flourished between Diane and me, our like-mindedness, was the brevity of our exchanges over shared creative territory, no explanations needed. Today some of those urgent, telegraphed messages are priceless. “Where oh where did I put SP’s diaphragm???” Diane emailed me one 7:00 a.m. “Do you have it?”
There was only one hiccup during the time we were pulling our tandem carts in the same yoke. In June 2001, when Diane was eagerly anticipating a summer and fall off academic radar to focus on "Her Husband," a routine checkup led to a diagnosis of a rare liposarcoma, confined to a slow-growing tumor near her kidney. Surgery debulked the tumor, which was soon after deemed by the doctors “indolent” enough to require no more treatment than regular CT scans. Beyond the initial breath-holding as she waited for the first test results to come through, and despite the necessary barbarities of abdominal surgery, Diane’s primary reaction to her tumor was annoyance at its imposition, the gall of its pulling her away from her book—though not for long. Less than a month after surgery, Diane made us a back-to-the-trenches dinner of horseradishy meat loaf and spoon bread, accompanied by more of the walnut–black pepper biscotti I’d first baked for her while she was recuperating. We compared our latest book notes and joked about that word indolent—if you had to have a tumor, Diane said, it was good to have one that was unambitious, content to plump up lazily in one spot, eating bonbons with its feet up.
During the months that followed, I watched Diane’s customary stride across a university stage in a pair of matching but different-colored shoes—one red, one black—before a gasping audience of people who hadn’t realized what an audacious expert she was at revealing her personal flair and originality in even the most circumspect places. One night at dinner with a group of eminent Plath and Hughes scholars, after a long day of lectures during an academic conference, Diane was bold enough to redirect the lofty tone of our table conversation by revealing her rescue fantasy for Plath. She would have offered to babysit, Diane said, putting Sylvia on a plane to somewhere hot and sunny as an antidote to the cold isolation of Plath’s last despairing weeks. Every person at the table nodded. They’d all had similar fantasies but had never dared admit them.
In autumn 2003, when both of our books had been published, Diane and I had the chance to fulfill a different mutual fantasy as we toured for our books at the same time, crisscrossing the country and again joining forces, reading and giving interviews together from both sides of our subject’s coin, fictional and factual. The highlight, the real frosting on the cake for both of us, was an invitation to be the guest speakers at Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, for an annual lecture named after the astute librarian who had purchased the famous archive we’d both used so extensively in our research. We would read in a lovely browsing room in the library where Plath had attended class while she was a student; the library’s gallery cases would display manuscript pages and letters and photographs and personal items of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes alongside the pages in our books where those items appeared. As Diane and I primped in the ladies’ room before our lecture, I looked down at Diane’s feet. “Where are your shoes?” I said, expecting her signature red-and-black pair, which were actually part of a quartet of otherwise unsurprising, matching pumps. “Oh, Kate, you won’t believe it!” Diane said, laughing. “I’ve worn them out! Both pairs!”
A few days before our Smith appearance, I’d emailed Diane from wherever I was to wherever she was, telling her the dream I’d had about Sylvia Plath the previous night. Over the years of our collaboration we’d accumulated between us a casebook of dreams of Plath and Hughes, sometimes with all four of us in them. But this was my first since I’d finished my novel, and it was just Sylvia, me, and all the books—hers, Ted’s, Diane’s book, and mine. In the dream Plath was inconsolable, weeping and weeping, and I desperately thumbed through the books, scanning pages, trying to come up with something to comfort her. But what about this, read this, how about this, I said to her, all to no avail. It finally dawned on me that none of what I had to offer could help her. She was inconsolable because of the terrible, unchangeable fact of her lost life. There was no consolation. When I woke, I later wrote to Diane, I realized that it was Plath’s birthday. Diane emailed in return the next morning, reminding me that it was by then the anniversary of Hughes’s death, the two dates back-to-back. “Don’t worry, Kate,” Diane wrote to me. “We are taking good care of them.”
FROM THE LAST days of January 2004, when Diane learned that her tumor had returned with a vengeance, she never took her eyes off Ovid. Through those surreal years her book was her anchor, as the life of her elegant mind had always been. She was single-minded in her concentration, hoarding time away from successive chemotherapies and monthly dendritic cell treatments and surgeries and the repeating struggle to recover from every onslaught her body had to withstand. She was mostly based in London during that time because it was easier to get to Germany, where the thrust of her ongoing treatments was concentrated. Email remained our primary link, and since by chance the new novel I was working on was also set during the Roman period of the first century—Ovid’s neighborhood, chronologically—we continued to bounce ideas off each other and spin out plans for dual research junkets. “I’m hitting you with my morning gusto, hot out of the oven,” Diane would write, telling me of a brainstorm she’d had about Ovid’s mother or to alert me to a book on Roman gardens or wall painting.
I likewise hoarded whatever time I could have with Diane on the rare occasions when she came through San Francisco, and in June 2007 I saw her for one day in London, when I was en route to a family vacation in Turkey. We met at her literary club in Pall Mall, the Athenaeum—so like Diane to stand, literally as well as figuratively, beneath the golden aegis of the Roman goddess Minerva as she was writing a book about the greatest Roman poet of his day. The waiter in the club’s library frowned at my traveler’s blue jeans, but he served us anyway, a high tea of currant scones pooling with butter, double cream so thick it wouldn’t leave the spoon, lemon curd and marzipan tartlets and chess pies and raspberry petits fours. “I’ve been saving myself for this,” Diane said, greedily admiring the plump glazed raspberry on a petit four. I knew what she meant: for years, because of cancer, she’d had to avoid sugar.
The previous year had been a roller coaster. Despite Diane’s treatments, the tumor was unshakable and growing. There had been two dramatic surgeries, one resulting in a touch-and-go postoperative infection, and still Diane had returned to San Francisco to dazzle the women writers’ salon with a reading from her Ovid manuscript and an animated talk on the challenge of writing a biography without primary sources. In London I noticed how thin Diane had become, and she carried a walking stick to help with the pain in one leg caused by the tumor, but her wit sparkled as always.
We babbled about everything, trading information about software designed for writers to organize their manuscripts and a Moroccan restaurant that had recently opened in our neighborhood in San Francisco. At some point, as we discussed her progress on Ovid, I told Diane I’d happily take a break from my novel to be her research assistant if she needed it; we had often commiserated about how disorienting it is to be pulled in and out of your train of thought, which she’d been experiencing regularly all through writing this book. I was no Ovid expert, but I knew the depth of the historical ocean she was sounding. Diane’s eyes glittered, intrigued. Still, she was reluctant to steer me off the path of my own work. We agreed to think about what she could pass on to me that would benefit my novel as well, with the promise that when she came back to San Francisco in December as planned, we’d divvy up her “question marks,” pushing each other forward. We left the Athenaeum arm in arm, descending into the Tube together and kissing good-bye at Leicester Square, partway to our separate destinations—Diane to meet Carl for a play, me to join my family and other friends for dinner in Primrose Hill—Diane blowing me another kiss and calling “’til December!” as her train pulled away.
Nothing, after that, happened the way any of us had planned or hoped or thought possible. By September Diane couldn’t keep down any solid food. A week before Thanksgiving she flew back to San Francisco in a state of emergency, driven straight from the airport to the hospital. Her doctors had come to an agreement: there was nothing more they could do but try to make her comfortable, ease her swiftly increasing pain. Friends and family began to arrive to say good-bye.
To lucidly and courageously face your own death is not the same as letting go your passionate, fierce embrace of your life. Diane, in those last weeks, held these two seemingly conflicting ideas in balance with all the strength and clear-eyed realism she’d always possessed. And her touchstone to life, what had given her a foothold through four embattled years, confirming by its very existence that all of her fighting and suffering had not been pointless, was her biography of Ovid.
Through the autumn, as the cancer had ground away at her, Diane had refocused her strategy for completing the book, and with the help of her friend Nancy Miller, who flew to London from New York for three days in early November, she had distilled its concept into a tighter, more achievable plan. But Diane had simply run out of time. There was no question: she would not be able to finish the book on her own. She was so weak and in such constant pain she was sometimes not able to hold a pencil, and her pain medications were disorienting: timed-release doses that periodically submerged her mind like a carnival dunking machine. But she might, with great concentration and will, be able to talk about Ovid, to dictate the blueprint for her book’s final form, and she wanted to try.
There was no time to lose. Carl gave me a copy of the manuscript as well as the notes from Diane’s marathon sessions with Nancy, and he started clearing space in Diane’s visitor schedule so that we’d have time to work. Overnight I studied the manuscript, scoured my reference books, conferred with Nancy, learned how to use a high-quality digital voice recorder. And Diane—Diane asked her doctor to adjust her medications so that she would have more control over her thoughts and her ability to articulate them. This meant, in practice, that she would have to withstand more pain in order to work on Ovid, a price she was willing to pay for as long as she could stand it.
I came to the hospital during any window of opportunity, and after setting up the recorder I’d sit by Diane’s bed and interview her, sometimes generally, going over themes and conclusions she was threading throughout the book, sometimes moving sentence by sentence along the backbone of chapters, picking up on points that Diane wanted to refine or dropping ideas that no one but she would be able to spin out. All the while, the monitors beside her would hum and click, phones and call buttons and the fluorescent ceiling lights would buzz, and an endless parade of nurses, technicians, aides, and administrators flowed through the room, all with their necessary errands and assistances. Sometimes I’d wait in the hallway for a few minutes or an hour to allow someone else to have time alone with Diane. It was less than an ideal setup for her to concentrate on the fine points of a book of scrupulous scholarship, but she was never less than gracious and appreciative to each person, whether it was her doctor or a friend of thirty years or the guy changing the lightbulbs. And as soon as we had the chance, Diane would turn slowly to me and say, “All right. Back to Ovid!”
Which isn’t to say this was easy for her. It wasn’t. In fact, it was downright superhuman most of the time, a heroic and determined effort on her part to stay focused and acute when her body was impatiently tugging her in the other direction. It was often like watching a great, dignified actor remain in character and deliver his staggering final soliloquy as the theater is being dismantled board by board all around him.
She didn’t always win the coin toss with her body and her pain medications. There were bad mornings and good afternoons; she fought so hard to stay lucid that sometimes hallucinatory drifting would transition to brilliant rationality in the space of minutes. Other times it was hard to know if she was really tracking along with you or floating out with the tide of her mind.
One morning I arrived primed for a third good day in a row of subtle insights and pointed directives on Ovid. Diane’s son-in-law, Norio, showed up at the same time for his morning check-in visit, and we sat on either side of Diane, stroking her soft hands as she reminisced about Norio’s wonderful cooking and all the sumptuous dinners they’d enjoyed over the years. And then, for the next hour, Diane described to us a rambling sensory fantasy of the chocolate cake that she wanted more than anything, and if she was very good, she told us, the doctors and nurses would let her hold a bite in her mouth. “Just one bite, one forkful,” she said, assuring us that she’d promised not to swallow it, “one taste to hold on my tongue.” The cake, she told us, would be tall and moist and thickly frosted, erotically dark, absolutely filthy with chocolate, not just gorgeous but sublime, she explained, savoring the word; the best chocolate cake you’ve ever had, and surrounded by flowers. “What kind of flowers?” I asked, though I was sure I knew. “Red roses,” she answered, sighing: huge, dark-red blooms. And not just the cake would be surrounded by red roses, but the entire room would be filled with them, the floor blanketed feet thick in red rose petals, just as Cleopatra’s boudoir had been carpeted in rose petals when she invited Marc Antony to their first private assignation on her royal barge, its sails drenched in perfume.
Diane’s thoughts had snagged on her chocolate cake, and she couldn’t get herself free of it. Eventually a nurse came in, and Norio and I stepped outside to the hall. Was this powerfully vivid scenario Diane had sketched out for us real or not? I was ready to go to every bakery in town or stay up all night baking if she could really have that cake.
Norio’s face is trustworthy and kind; he’d always had an uncanny understanding of Diane, and she adored him. He shook his head gently at my question. “No, it’s just her craving that’s talking,” Norio said. “She can’t really have anything.”
Even so, I thought there must be some way to fulfill Diane’s longing. After I left the hospital that afternoon I called around to florists until I found a miniature rosebush covered with a dozen deeply red blooms, all just beginning to open. And I knew of a local parfumier who’d created a line of boutique perfumes including one called “Cacao”—it smelled exactly like the richest, headiest chocolate. I bought a tiny vial and brought it with the roses to the hospital the next day.
“Do you remember your chocolate cake?” I asked Diane. I couldn’t tell by her smile whether she made the connection when she saw the roses, so I handed her the little pouch holding the perfume. “See what you think,” I said, watching as she opened the bag. “That’s heavenly!” Diane’s sister Colleen exclaimed from across the room. “I can smell the chocolate from over here.” But Diane only got as far as twisting the little cap partway off before she stopped. “No,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “Once your body has lost its desire, it doesn’t come back. It’s gone.” She had no recollection of all she’d described the morning before.
Was it really only two weeks that I spent with Diane at the hospital? In my memory time stretches out with the sustained sweep and build of a symphony, every day distinct yet layered over the ones before, a palimpsest of indelible days. Toward the end of that time Diane was noticeably flagging. I’d stopped trying to record our conversations, not only because we were so often interrupted but also because Diane had to speak so slowly, holding her pain at bay and simultaneously coaxing her thoughts forward, that it became more efficient just to take notes. We were making incremental but continued progress on Diane’s manuscript, even indulging ourselves in occasional breaks for gossip and a few choice stories. Her sense of humor remained intact. After retelling Carl, another friend, and me the tale of how she snazzed up to meet Ted Hughes in 1978, wearing a custom-leather pantsuit with a hummingbird tooled onto the back of the jacket, to which the smoldering, seductive Hughes responded, “Nice suit!” Diane slid her eyes at Carl, saying, “I’d like to implore you to cremate me in that suit.”
At the end of the first week of December, Nancy, who would share the responsibility of literary executorship with Diane’s daughter, Leah, flew out from New York so that the two of us could help Diane wind up Ovid. Diane’s editor too came to the hospital that week; she returned to New York with a copy of the manuscript as Diane had begun reshaping it and with the promise of all our accumulated notes and outlines. It felt like we were nearing a completion. On that Saturday Diane was in noticeable pain, but when either Nancy or I would ask if she wanted to stop, Diane would grimace, shaking her head no. “Let’s keep going,” she’d say.
The three of us worked through the afternoon, going over every chapter, every dangling issue, everything Nancy and I could think of. Night was pulling itself down outside Diane’s hospital room windows when Nancy and I looked at each other and realized we’d gotten through everything. Diane’s family had started to gather for the evening, and just then Leah, Diane’s treasure, walked through the door, all cinnamon and light. “I can’t believe it, but I think we’ve gotten through all of it, Diane,” Nancy said. “I think you’ve covered it all.” “Good,” Diane said definitively, exhausted and ill but satisfied, holding Leah’s hand. “Because the rest is unthought.”
I was going home to assemble our notes. I kissed Diane and told her I’d be back on Monday and I’d bring a copy of everything we’d done, typed out and orderly, the plan we’d made to transform her unfinished manuscript into a book, her years of work and hope into a lasting thing. But that night was the last time I saw Diane, the last time I spoke to her. The next day Diane asked for her pain medication to be increased. She lingered on, floating in and out of consciousness, for another week, finally letting go the day after Leah’s birthday.
There had been a moment earlier in my previous week with Diane, what turned out to be the final time I was alone with her. She was deeply asleep most of the day after a bad night, one of several bad nights; Carl had asked a few of us to take turns with him at the hospital so she’d never be alone. I sat reading in the dim light by the half-closed window shades, glancing over now and then to make sure Diane was comfortable, but she never stirred. We were drawing so close to the end of Diane’s life now that, seeing her washed so far away from us, I wondered if she’d fight her way back. Suddenly the machine that controlled her morphine started to beep. It was only alerting the nursing station that it was empty and needed to be reset, but it scared me, and I jumped up and stood by Diane’s side. I was studying the flaring numbers on the machine’s face when I felt Diane’s hand slip around my wrist.
“Every minute has been delicious,” she said dreamily, and I looked down at her, not knowing if she was truly dreaming or tumbling in the surf of her mind, her focus turned inward. “Every minute with you, Kate,” she said then, holding my gaze, squeezing my wrist. “It’s all been delicious. Every minute. How many relationships can we say that about?”
MORE THAN THREE years have passed since Diane died, and I have been looking for her chocolate cake ever since. I know exactly what she wanted—“just a taste”: the melting, voluptuous give of it, a flavor almost earthen in its richness. Flowers’ petals cupping, roses so full they arch from their sepals, letting go at a touch, a sigh, sending up a wake of scent. Just a taste, she’d said: that lasting, insatiable desire to taste the life that none of us ever want to give up on or truly lose; that full engagement with being generously, passionately alive, tasting the exquisite sweetness of one’s singular life, which was Diane’s gift. No Caesar could ever take that away from her.
I imagine what it would be like to breathe in, to take a bite, to hold Diane’s chocolate cake on my tongue. To close my eyes and think, “Diane! You’re right. It is truly delicious.” It may take me a long time to find that cake, but I won’t stop searching. The process, we both knew, was always the best part.
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