Sunday, October 9, 2016

About Alice


Last night was my last New Yorker Festival event - for a while, I think. It was a staged reading of Calvin Trillin's book, About Alice, which was published in 2006, five years after Alice, Calvin's wife of 36 years, had died. The book is a love letter to her... to her whole life, really. It paid tribute to the young woman she had been before he met her, to the friend she had been to countless people - whether they were close friends or 'the friend of the sister of the woman we met at that party' who had cancer and whom Alice felt would get better medical care if she made a few calls, to the wife she had been to a man who clearly adored her, and a tribute as well to the mother she had been to her two daughters. Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer (both her parents were heavy smokers) in 1981 when she was 43. She was given a 10% chance of surviving, she lived 24 more years. All those years later, when she thought her cancer had resurfaced, it was instead heart disease which took her life. The radiations treatments she'd endured to treat her cancer had weakened her heart; she died from the cure, not the disease. By then, her two daughters were grown and married, and she said that she had imparted to them all the wisdom she had to give; she said it would be ok to die then, where it most certainly would not have been had she not survived the initial diagnosis when her children where small.

The reading was done by Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht. They sat on the stage with the script which was almost entirely derived from the prose of the book, and occasionally interacted with one another in short vignettes of dialogue. Calvin Trillin was in the front row, flanked by his two daughters, and I was in the second row almost directly behind him. There were laughs in the story, certainly, but as the performance concluded and this treatise of undying love headed toward its end, I saw Mr. Trillin repeatedly wipe his eyes; and when Tony Shalhoub stood to take his bow and then gestured toward Mr. Trillin to stand and take his, I saw the tears fall from his face and hit the carpet.

Alice has been referred to as Calvin Trillin's 'muse' and that seems an apt description. He has said that he wrote to impress Alice, and given the number of awards and accolades he's received, I'm sure that goal was accomplished. In About Alice, he paints a portrait of a woman worthy of impressing. And while certainly this is an idealized version of a woman who had flaws and foibles, the book is a lovely tribute to a wife and mother, to a complex person who gave joy and strength, and to a relationship that perhaps can be striven for. I read About Alice every few years as a reminder of this.