Love and Grief United

The life and death--and struggle with death--of Ken Kesey

In the book, Kesey used the Wakonda River as a symbol of death, the cold and indifferent power of the universe that eventually crushes all men despite their best efforts to survive. In the novel's climax, logger Hank Stamper desperately tries to save his best friend, Joe Ben, after a falling tree pins Joe on his back in the river's shallows. Miles from help, the water rising over Joe's mouth, Hank attempts to keep him alive through mouth-to-mouth respiration. Kesey first describes the event from Joe's point of view:

But beneath the water, in the close, cold dark, the fix was as bad as it was above. And as humorless. More so, actually. Still . . . there was something happening. Not funny the way Joe liked, but funny like it was somebody else's joke. And the laughter was no more his laughter than the grin was his grin. They came from someplace else. They started coming over him right after the water completely covered his face. Black and cold. Shock and horror, then . . . this funny thing swimming up out of the dark. Like something'd been there all along and just waiting for it to get dark enough. Now, in tight silence beneath the water, Joe feels it trying to fit into the skin of him, trying to eat away the thing he is inside, and fit into his skin. A black, laughing cancer trying to take over the shell of him.

Then Kesey abruptly switches to Hank's point of view as he helplessly watches his friend succumb to the disorientation of oxygen deprivation:

A bubbling of hysterical mirth erupted in Hank's face just as he was bending to deliver another breath to Joe. It startled him so he lost his lungful of air. He stared, frowning, at the now placid spot where the strange laughter had exploded. Then gulped another lungful of air and plunged his face into the water, feeling with his lips until he found Joby's mouth . . . open in the dark there, open and round with laughing. And huge; like an underwater cave, it's so huge, like a drain hole at the world's deepest bottom, rimmed with cold flesh . . . so huge it could empty the seas. And the current swirling down in a black spiral, filling it to laugh again. . . . He did not attempt to force his cargo of air into that lifeless hole. He withdrew his face slowly and stared again at the surface of water that lay featureless and unruffled over Joe. No different from any of the rest of the surface, all the way across the river, all the way to the sea.

When his son was killed two decades later, Kesey's long-held fear that the river of death would claim one of his own was realized. "With Jed's death," he later recalled, "what I finally came to grips with was that love and grief have to be united. As soon as you really love somebody, at some point, you're going to grieve.

"Jed's death was the most profound thing that ever happened to any of us, our whole family. The usual thing that you do--you're so crushed by it--is that you turn it over to somebody else, and they take care of the body and the coffin and the grave. But we just didn't. I had friends and family enough that we, by God, we began to build that coffin and dig that hole, and I was so glad. You know, when you're sticking a shovel in the ground and throwing dirt or hammering nails, you're doing something. You've got something to do with your hands, and you join in to do something that's been going on for thousands of centuries: taking a loved one and dealing with it. When you stop dealing with it and turn it over to somebody else, you lose something important. We have to reach back and get ahold of our deaths and our births and our marriages and our children and bring them back to us instead of turning them over to Sesame Street and the mortician on the corner and a school board that you don't want any part of."

That night on the farm--20 years after the high-flying dreams of the Summer of Love had augured into the earth--Kesey had at last seemed to have gotten hold of this particular death. There was nothing morbid or eerie or even sad about the candle-lighting ritual he performed with those children. It felt profoundly joyous and healthy. There he was, still including his son as he played the very same games with these children that he must have once played with Jed.

Death was never far from his thoughts in his later years. His best essays and short stories were about the deaths of Neal Cassady and John Lennon and the shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. His last piece, in the Oct. 25 issue of Rolling Stone, dealt with Sept. 11.

But the subject did not consume him. I saw Kesey another half-dozen times after that first visit to the farm and always found him filled with the irrepressible optimism of youth, a stubbornly sunny conviction that all things were still possible. And though his endless schemes for raising the consciousness of his fellow Americans often seemed impractical, naive or plainly harebrained, I couldn't help admiring the man's resilience. It seemed as if no blow was big enough to break him, that his energy and enthusiasm were inexhaustible.

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