Body and Soul
A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing
By Panthea Reid
Wild River Books. 324 pp. $17.95.
Reviewed by John Timpane
Panthea Reid and John Fischer were quite a couple. My wife and I got to hang out with them a handful of times, and you could tell that these two marrieds were in permanent love: They got a kick out of each other, still, after so many years together. They took infectious pleasure in their own idiosyncrasies; their private, jokey patois; and their keen, wide interest in people, books, ideas, and everything else.
Body and Soul is Reid's memoir of losing Fischer to an undefined illness in 2015. She tells of their lives together, the confusion and devastation of losing him, and her struggle, if not to stop grieving, at least to let go of guilt and anger, to make peace and step into the future. And she offers advice for those facing what she has faced.
He and she are married to others when they meet in 1974 at Louisiana State University. He is a fine scholar of the work of Jonathan Swift; she writes important books on Tillie Olsen, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. It's clear Reid still idolizes him; although she refers to squabbles, we seldom see any. Mostly, we see what an energetic, witty man Fischer was. (I heard his voice in his "Oh, meow," when he suspects trouble or disorder.)
When his health begins to fail, the true nightmare begins, a nightmare largely of failed care. I still have little idea what killed him, although we get intimations of pneumonia and a smoking habit ("cigarettes were part of John's personality").
This section is written in some confusion, but it's effective. Even exquisitely trained intellectuals like Reid and Fischer can be at sea amid our health-care system. As these two pitiably learn, health care is inherently complicated, frustrating, and bewildering. As Fischer continues to fail, and the couple continue in denial, clarity never comes.
Reid depicts herself as always seeking escapes. And it seems as though, after long, crushing grief, escape is part of her turning point. She is able, at last, to pack up and move from their longtime home in Princeton to a hillside house in Virginia. And she keeps an old promise: to take daughter Hannah on safari. While there, she feels his presence: "It seemed strange to have gone a third of the way around the world to commune with John's spirit." When she returns from Africa, things are different.
Like Reid herself, the book is open, other-aware (the conversational writing is one of the book's best assets), and honest in depicting suffering and in offering advice to others who suffer. I liked her thinking-aloud about what writing a memoir means, and writing it becomes part of the book, part of her healing. She concludes that "writing this memoir has been a lifeline for me." Although it surely is "an act of egoism … I think it has also rescued me from egoism."
Body and Soul is not as well edited as it deserves to be. There is sometimes an impression of muddle. Important events and issues spring up all at once, without preparing us. (One big example is Fischer's conversion from Judaism to Christianity. But there are others.)
But Reid's advice, like her bibliography of grief-counseling books, is wise and useful. Treat yourself well. Do things that calm (take walks, bike, bake bread). Let go of quarrels. Remember, everyone has options: Lean on your consolers, take comfort from the arts, and let family in. "Healing has been slow," she writes, "but it has happened. Sometimes I feel less healed, sometimes more." The best way of honoring her husband is living well, "instead of dying or remaining morose." In 2016, she accomplishes an amazing amount – including the completion of her husband's last great scholarly endeavor, the first-ever edition of Swift's only remaining unpublished work. It was published last year by the University of Delaware Press. I felt like applauding. We see her in her new house, loving the presence of nature, sensing that her husband's soul "remains not far away, beyond the body's travails."