“What can come?” Abigail Thomas’s young grandson asks when told not to venture into the woods at night. What can come? Thomas is struck by the sincere, poignant inquiry. “Can is scarier than will,” she writes, not to provide an answer, but to explain her familiarity with the question.“What will come limits itself. What can come has no boundaries.” For Thomas, what can and has come has indeed seemed limitless.
Focusing mostly on her life in context to a 35-year relationship with her best friend Chuck, What Comes Next and How to Like It is a collection of vignettes that together tell a story of friendship, impending mortality, and finding happiness beyond hardship. Readers of Thomas’ previous memoir, A Three Dog Life, a story about rebuilding her life after a car strikes her husband and his brain is irreparably damaged, know she is no stranger to hardship.
Chuck and Thomas first meet while holding low-level positions at a New York publishing house in 1979. Despite Chuck being 10 years younger, their affection for one another is immediately apparent. Chuck becomes her sounding board, a voice of reason, and her closest confidant, all of which compound the depth of betrayal felt when years later he has an affair with her daughter, Catherine. The seismic rupture caused by this revelation took years to mend, and Thomas kept circling around the event in her writing, unable to figure out how to talk about it. “This book started when somebody asked me to write about Chuck and Catherine, but that was impossible for a really long time,” she says. “I wrote it in about 90 different ways. And then I decided I’d write about being unable to write about it. I think failure is necessary to getting anywhere.”
After years of failing to write the story, it took a new trauma for Thomas to understand where to begin. “While I was still trying to figure out how to write about Catherine and Chuck, Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer and I couldn’t write about that directly either. It was too devastating and too scary. Then, my dog, Daphne, stole Catherine’s favorite wig and ran out the door. That gave me a way to write about it, and so many things came with it. What Chuck, Catherine, and I have is so precious for all of what’s happened, and this became a story about her mortality, and Chuck’s mortality, and my own.”
Daphne tumbles into the story as any new pup: lighthearted, hilarious, and destructive. Then it comes. “Catherine has cancer,” the line reads, followed by, “She has other wigs, but this one’s her favorite.” The words are a gut-punch, and then the chapter ends. The story goes on. “I wanted it to feel that way, because that’s how it was for me. It came out of nowhere,” Thomas says when asked about how she structured that pivotal moment. It is the perfect example of how she is in total control of the narrative, even when she feels that she’s not—a string of tragedies pieced together with undeterred grace. Whether she’s writing about Catherine and Chuck, nostalgia for her teenage years, her battle with alcoholism, or familiarizing herself with death, each scene feels fresh and alive, and this is not by accident. “I keep a diary and I always have a notebook where I write most stuff down. But to me, going back and starting the writing process from a diary is like pie dough that has too much flour in it,” she says. “I want to start again. There needs to be a whole different beginning that turns my motor over.”
Thankfully, Catherine’s cancer is in remission, but a remedy for fear may be more elusive than a physical remedy. For all her positivity, and her admitted lack of sympathy for “ordinary grief” in life, Thomas cannot escape the dread that Catherine’s cancer will return, or that Chuck will succumb to his stage four cirrhosis and hepatitis C. The notion that, at 75, she’ll outlive those closest to her is a terrifying prospect. But, after Catherine’s diagnosis, Thomas began a writing workshop for cancer patients at the hospital that gave her a new, necessary perspective on life and death. “Those afternoons on Thursdays are the most alive I feel,” she says. “Everyone there is about now. Now. Not this week. They are all living with death, and that taught me something I wouldn’t have learned any other way. Sure, death is coming, but you better keep living every minute.”
So, what can come? Anything. Everything. And in many cases, what can come, will come. But, the question remains, how do we like it? How do we continue to move forward, despite heartbreak, failure, fear and doubt? “I don’t know. Life is hilarious, and beautiful, and scary, and you can never stop being curious…” Thomas pauses momentarily before she bursts out laughing. “You know, you can’t control a damn thing, so you might as well learn to like it!”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.