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The Comfort of Books When Other Words Fail

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Other than "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Vivian was unfamiliar with eight of J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. But we're reading them now—it's one of the few things that can still be rectified.

Vivian and I met a little over a year ago on a warm spring morning. I sat on a bench, she in her motorized wheelchair. We were discussing the upcoming benefit in her honor at Cat's Cradle, but that wasn't all. Along with ALS, with which she'd been diagnosed about a year prior, Vivian held forth about the evils of Citizens United vs. FEC, about a life-changing field trip she led to the Holocaust museum in Washington, about having her eyes opened by R.E.M. as a student in Athens in 1982. I transcribed every word of our fifty-two-minute conversation, even the stuff that wouldn't end up in my article. I wanted to keep those moments, pauses and all.

Shortly after the show, Vivian and her family prepared to move to a different part of Chapel Hill. She accepted my offer to help sort through the fifty or so containers stored in a crawlspace. I would come by in the mornings and haul up some boxes, then unpack the contents. She had a sure sense of whether the items would be kept, donated, or tossed. Handwritten letters, pencil sketches, modeling headshots: they were all precious markers of a rich, unique life, but not every beautiful thing was kept.

Our friendship blossomed. I'd stop on the way over and get a turkey sub at Jersey Mike's—with "Italian spices" and yellow mustard, the way she liked it—to share later. After the move, I kept visiting. We watched the brilliant BBC series Blackadder. I made her a mixtape. In mid-June, she was able to meet me and my son for a chocolate chocolate-chip cookie and an iced coffee (with a shot of hazelnut) at Weaver Street Market.

But in late summer, things went swiftly, cruelly downhill with an infection, a misdiagnosis, and a hellish three-week hospital stay. When she came home in mid-September, Vivian was severely diminished. Only one hand worked, and her speech had taken a major hit. "Drunken sailor," she called it. Still, that was preferable to unintelligible, which is where things now stand. With help from her new assistive technology system, Vivian can communicate still, but it's an effort. So we read—specifically, Nine Stories.

In the final image of "Down at the Dinghy," story No. 5 but our first, a mother and a son race happily homeward on foot. I remember something Vivian said some weeks before, in response to a question I asked. In her dreams, she said, there's no chair.

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