David Sedaris has amused and entertained his readers with his road shows and the collections of his essays, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010), Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013), Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) (2017), and Calypso (2018). Happy-Go-Lucky came out in May 2022, and is largely about his life during the COVID pandemic, and the death of his father. This time around, I did not chortle as much as I had with the other essays. In fact, the whole thing was a peculiar blip in the matrix for me: while I was reading about Sedaris dealing with his father becoming ill, being moved into a care facility, and then dying, I was back in the country of my birth, dealing with my mother who is now in her mid-eighties and in a similar situation. It was three days of flying to get there, and it might as well have been to the edge of the universe. To say I was anxious is putting it mildly.
Every day, I’d process what was happening and try to keep a clear mind, and every evening I’d read another chapter in Happy-Go-Lucky, which started sounding like a type of echo in reverse – a echo of how things might pan out in the future – because doesn’t everyone have to deal with their parents aging and dying in a weird reversal of roles? I mean, everyone does die. It’s just a question of how it will play out.
I would frequently fall into these mental traps when talking with my mother, when she’d spring questions on me like “How does it feel to die?” How would I know? Sedaris writes about this, and his fractious and pained relationship with his father in such a candid and spare-no-feelings kind of way, that I felt as if he were echoing what’s in my mind. Again – that echo effect. Empathy, it’s called. He writes about the common human problems that affect all people, though he is the most uncommon of people.
He is unusual in many ways: how he dresses (haute couture and the occasional dress or skirt), how he interacts with his readers while on road shows (directly and openly), the questions he asks them when he signs copies of his books (for instance; to which random street person would you give a large sum of money?), and his relationship with Hugh, his partner of many decades (loving but not free of squabbles, as people do). Probably the weirdest thing about him is, for me, the issues with his teeth and his gums. Good grief, he has to go to a periodontist in Paris, France, for treatment? I had to go Google his face to see if, these days, he has a full set of fangs for fantastic smiles. (He does.)
So, while it is entertaining to read all this, and his frankly odd conversations with his siblings, one has to remember, this is a man, a tender-hearted man, whose father was plainly cruel to him, never showed him love, and remained so until just before he died when his dementia took the sting from his thoughts and words and made him nicer.
Yes, sometimes, the forgetting that comes with dementia is a kind of solace for everyone involved. And, as I realize more and more, so is death, when it comes.
This passage, below, made me cry, not at the time that I read it, but afterwards when I remembered it while I was on the plane on the long flight home.
I think that this passage is the essence of this collection of essays. And it reminded me of my last words to my mother, before I left, which is probably the last time I would see her: “I have to go now – I have to get to the airport.” And she said, ”Don’t drive back along the front road – I don’t want to see you go.” I will not forgive myself for my cowardice for not telling her that I love her. For not saying the word “goodbye”.
How strange the relationships between parents and children are. Reading these essays by Sedaris made things look a little bit more commonplace, a bit more like situations that happen to people, to all people, including me, regardless of how painful they are.
At the end of the book, he quotes the writer Saul Bellow: