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The Face of Pain


Those were the very best days. The world was in agreement that her book was brilliant and that the author was both heroic and fascinating. Lucy never liked being alone, and the more famous she was, the more people there were to press up against her. She did not have the true love she wanted, but she had plenty of sex and a couple of guys who were very steady in her life. She stopped trying to be a writer for a while and let herself be what she most wanted to be: an interesting thinker. No matter how you try to dress it up, writing is a solitary act. Lucy was a brilliant conversationalist, and in a sense she did her best writing while talking to other people. Now her world was filled with smart people to talk to.

I was at the Bunting Institute the year Lucy’s book came out, finishing up my second novel. We took the train back and forth between New York and Boston and had the money to talk on the phone every day. But Lucy’s money ran out long before her celebrity. She seemed to have a nearly magnetic pull toward poverty. The more that came her way, the faster she managed to blow through it. Lucy gave money to friends, bought a horse, went to Istanbul. She threw me a book party when that second book was finished. I once found more than $50,000 in checks stuck to the front of her refrigerator with a magnet. “I never get to the bank,” she said.

“But why on the refrigerator?”

“I just found the check from the Whiting. I thought it would be safe there where I could see it.” Lucy had won the Whiting Award that year to the tune of $30,000. The check for the first half of the prize had gone missing for more than a month, and she was dreading having to ask them for another.

Lucy owed the world a fortune: student loans, back taxes, unpaid hospital bills. She screened her calls to avoid collection agencies. Once, years after her success, when she was having an especially bad bout of depression, she stopped opening her mail for months. She simply dumped it in a giant Hefty bag by her front door. The bigger the bag became, the more depressed she got. I told her to carry the bag to a mailing store and have them send it to me, which she did. The piles of bills, up to fifteen notices for the same request, covered my floor. I forged her name on overdue contracts and paid off everything I could manage, which left out the student loans and federal taxes.

With the success of her first book, everyone wanted a chance at her second, but coming back inside and being alone at her desk seemed even more unbearable now that everyone in the city wanted her company. When she ran out of money, she started teaching. She moved around from Sarah Lawrence to Amherst to Bennington to the New School. She taught private workshops at home, thinking that the Gordon Lish approach would be the most lucrative. But the place she could have made money, the writing, continued to be unbearable. She always owed some magazine an essay. She went to the MacDowell colony for eight weeks one summer to write a twenty-page book proposal and came back empty-handed. She told me she was playing too much pool. She told me from the pay phone that she had managed to have sex with someone on the pool table after the other residents had gone to bed.

Most years, I sent Lucy a plane ticket to come to Nashville for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She was family. My mother and I would go out the day before her arrival to buy the Lucy-Food, Cream of Wheat and mousse-pâté, vegetable terrines, chocolate pudding, Brie. My mother would make Lucy’s favorite: mashed-potato casserole. Lucy had yet to get the lower teeth that she had been promised in Scotland and had been promised in countless surgeries before that. There wasn’t enough bone in her lower jaw to sink an implant into.

In the hopes of getting enough bone in her lower jaw, of filling out her chin, and, most important, of being able to put her lips together, she decided to embark on yet another harrowing round of surgeries. She had taken a swallowing study and found that because she could not make an oral seal, approximately 15 percent of what she ate and drank went into her lungs. She was constantly choking and went in and out of bouts of pneumonia. By this time, she had cobbled together all of her essays into the book As Seen on TV: Provocations, but there had been very little money in the project for her. She had decided to write a novel, which was now overdue at Doubleday. She had taken a large advance on twenty pages, and what she owed, either the money or the work, haunted her.

“Finish the book,” I said. “Then start the surgeries.”

But she refused. She said she couldn’t put it off any longer. She said that life, real life, would start after the surgeries were finished. She had said it so many times before that I thought surely she was joking, but she wasn’t.

In the summer of 2000, I was 36 and Lucy had just turned 37. She had the fibula taken out of her leg and put beside what was left of her jawbone. I came up to New York to help take care of her. She had the surgery on Thursday, June 29, and at noon the next day it seemed that all of New York vacated to go the beach for what would become the longest Fourth of July holiday in history. The hospital seemed to be manned entirely by two nurses and half a dozen 12-year-old plastic-surgery residents who had begun their rotation July 1. “It shouldn’t hurt at all to walk,” one of the handsome boy doctors told Lucy as she wept with pain. “The fibula isn’t a weight-bearing bone.” Someone needed to be with her all the time. She couldn’t turn her head to the side or lift herself up to vomit, and so we waited beside her with the suction tube. I came in the morning at six and stayed until Lucy’s friend Lucie Brock-Broido came at 6 p.m. to stay through the night, and in between a whole host of friends came to help, Sophie and Joy and Ben and Andy and so many people I had never met before. Lucy asked for what she needed and expressed her gratitude with great dignity. She was a brilliant patient.

“I’m in my element,” she would say weakly as I held her up to give her a sip of water. “This is what I was trained for.”

"Do you ever have premonitions?" Lucy wrote. "I have black empty ones all the time, not of a bad future, but of no future. It scares me a great deal, I can't describe it, but it feels so certain. I like to think it is only my imagination."

When it was finally time to go home, I loaded her in a taxi with the luggage, plants, stuffed animals, a cane, and a walker. When we got back to her apartment, I carried her down the long halls of the National Arts Club, where she was living at the time. Even if she had had the energy, her leg was still too painful to make it more than three hobbling steps. For the next couple of days, I carried her through the streets of New York to various doctors’ appointments. I found it was easy to hail a cab with a girl in your arms.

The idea behind the fibula surgery, as I understood it, was to put the bone in her jaw, wait for it to heal, then install a series of external bolts on her face that would be tightened over time, melding the old bone and the new bone together. The bolts would stay for six months and then be removed, after which there would be some smaller, shaping surgeries. Lucy worked hard on psyching herself up for the bolts. We talked about it constantly. “I’ll finish the novel when I have bolts in my face,” she said. “That will keep me home.” But when she went into surgery to have the bolts installed, they found that the native bone was too weak to support them. After an hour on the table they closed her up.

The only thing worse than having bolts in your face is not having them. Lucy’s leg hurt all the time, and now she felt she had brought it all on herself, as if she had willfully undertaken a surgical folly. She fell into a vicious depression, and when she cried, she talked about how she felt ashamed for what she had done. She was addicted by then to a whole host of painkillers that she was still taking from the fibula surgery, and then those painkillers bled over into heroin. She started cutting herself. Her psychiatrist, in whom she had placed an inordinate amount of faith, dismissed her as a patient. It was like watching the disintegration of a cliff that you suddenly realize had nothing beneath it all along. Everything in Lucy crumbled in on her. Then she took too much of what she had lying around her apartment and wound up back in a different hospital.

Lucie Brock-Broido rode with her in the ambulance and got her admitted to the psychiatric ward at three in the morning. They put Lucy in a hospital gown and left her in the emergency room until two o’clock the next day, saying they would get to her, at which point she talked a nurse into giving her back her clothes and went home. The next day, she saw a new psychiatrist, who said she would have to return to the ward or be released to a friend. She was sent to Nashville.

She got off the plane looking like a twig. What she was suffering from was beyond me to fix, so I did what I knew how to do for Lucy: I made her happy for a little while. I made her all the food she liked and got her massages and pedicures. I took her to bad movies and bought her everything that was not nailed down. I rented a canoe for the day, and out on the Harpeth River we smoked cigarettes and talked about the plot of her novel while we floated, watching as snakes swam silently past the aluminum sides of our small boat. I wanted her to move to Nashville. I had a nice guest room now and thought she should stay until she got on her feet. It would be like the old days. I would do all the dishes. We would dance in the kitchen and I would sit on the edge of the tub if she wanted to spend hours in the bath. It could be like it was. It could be some version of what it was. But once she felt stronger, happier, she wanted to go home. She had a teaching job, she had her friends, she loved New York. Besides, the doctors had promised her another surgery that they really thought would work.

There was another surgery. She wanted me to be there in recovery when she woke up. It was eleven o’clock at night before she came down to the floor. They had shortened the bone in her upper jaw this time and cut the scar tissue in her neck to give her a greater range of motion and taken a soft-tissue graft from her stomach to fill out the side of her face. I took the elevator to a floor marked no visitors and went into doors bearing the same directive. I stood in a huge room of beds turned in every direction. It was like a dream I am still having. I couldn’t find her. “Lucy Grealy,” I said to the nurse.

“Are you family?”

I told her the truth: She was my sister. The nurse pointed to the bed I was standing right in front of and still I couldn’t find her. She looked like someone had beaten her with a tire iron. Her head was an enormous pumpkin, every feature stretched into someone else. There was blood running out of both sides of her mouth and down her neck, blood running out of her nose. The skin over her eyes had been pulled into shimmering translucence, and her breasts were bare. I was crying then, and I stood beside her and held my hand on her forehead the way she liked. When the nurse told me that I had to go right now, I asked her if maybe, when there was a minute, she could hold her hand on Lucy’s forehead. It made her feel better. I went out into the hallway and sat on the floor beside a gurney and cried. Not the way I would cry, but the way she would cry. I cried myself senseless.

There were a whole host of new pain-killers after that, including a bottle of 80 OxyContin that Lucy later confessed to grinding up and snorting. Once they were gone, the heroin that had been flirting with her all year moved in and stayed. There were still lovely times after that. I can remember them. But I told her I could not see her through the heroin. It made me insane, even more than I could have guessed was possible. After sitting beside her through so much pain that came to her beyond her control, I could not abide the pain she went out looking for.

“I will leave you over this,” I told her in the Park Avenue Cafe. “After all these years, I will end our friendship.”

She leaned across the table and kissed me. “You are my angel,” she said. “I so appreciate you saying this. It really helps me.”

“But I’m serious.”

“I know,” she said.

I was serious. I told her every time she picked it up again. “Don’t turn away from me yet,” she said. “Promise me you’ll still take my phone calls.”

I never stopped taking her calls, calls from pay phones in various tiled hallways, calls later from Sophie’s or Stephen’s, where she would go to stay after the hospitals, calls from rehab. I never stopped seeing her, even though I planned to, even when I would be so angry with her. Recently, we were talking about this in the middle of the night. I was standing in my backyard with the cordless phone, looking at the moon. In the middle of all the talk about fresh starts and new jobs, we started talking about Nabokov, and then we were talking about the night sky, the different sides we saw from New York and Tennessee, and then about the metaphysical process of sight. “Who will I talk to?” I said. “If you keep going like this, who will there be for me to talk to?”

“I’ll get over this,” she said. “We’ll look back and call these the heroin years. We’ll say, ‘Do you remember when Lucy was a heroin addict?’ ”

‘For some strange reason birds keep crashing into my window,” she wrote to me from Aberdeen in 1990. “The second one just bonked into it while I was sitting here, and two did yesterday also. Maybe it’s an omen (didn’t I write a poem with birds crashing into windows once?) I remember it now: it was a bad omen in the poem. Do you ever have premonitions? I have black empty ones all the time, not of a bad future, but of no future. It scares me a great deal, I can’t describe it, but it feels so certain. I like to think it is only my imagination, a result of my depression.”

I got the call from her internist, who was a friend of Lucy’s. He had been planning a trip to Tennessee and so had my number in his cell phone. Like all such calls, it came after I was asleep, so that for a while after I hung up, I had the chance to wonder if I had been dreaming. It is remarkable for me to remember now that I had thought it would be possible to walk away from her, that she might have gone on living, but without me. I know now I never would have had the strength of my convictions. I am living in a world without Lucy. I have no choice about that. If she were alive and I had the choice, I wouldn’t have been able to last without her for a day.

Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face on


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