Usually, when an elderly author dies, even one whose work I love, my reaction is something like, “Huh. I didn’t know he was still alive.” Not so with Maurice Sendak. I’ve been listening to his interviews, following his curmudgeonly public appearances for a couple years now, since my boys have developed their own fondness for his work.
I am grateful to Terri Gross for her remarkable interviews with Sendak over the course of thirty years; in their progression, you hear the bright, eager pitch of her voice mellow into something calmer and more self assured. You hear an elderly quaver and huskiness enter his. By the last time they spoke, last fall, the result was an interview that has brought me to tears each of three times I’ve listened to it. The interviews span nearly my entire life, and span the three readings I’ve given to his books. The first, vaguely, when they were read to me as a child. The second, when I read them to my little brother and smugly understood words like allegory. The third, to my own sons, after the mortal dread that comes with motherhood had settled in.
The first Sendak book I ever read to them was Brundibar, which is based on a children’s opera performed by orphans in the Terezin concentration camp. Like most of his work, it’s a story peopled by children on their own. All the grown-ups are at best feckless, and at worst, grotesque and cruel. As a child, this seemed thrilling–kids on their own! Having adventures! As a teenager, it seemed like vindication of my world view, adults being mostly tangential to my own inner dramas. As a parent, it now seems like prophecy. My boys will find me feckless and tangential for a time, and then one day, I will orphan them.
The things I love about Sendak’s books are the worst things: the anxiety, the dread, the casual assumption that the world is an indifferent place and half the people in it are out to get you. These always appealed to my nature, though I am no pessimist. And neither was Sendak. In that last interview, he said, “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
When we were reading the edition of The Nutcracker he illustrated, my boys asked over and over for me to open to the double page close-up of the Nutcracker’s distorted face, teeth bared. Repelled and compelled at once, they shrieked delightedly each time. That’s what Sendak and his books have taught me. You have to look at it. No matter how horrible, you have to look. When he knew his time was short, he gave perhaps the simplest assessment and advice possible, “I will cry my way all the way to the grave. Live your life, live your life, live your life.”
I hope his passage was easy, and I hope he didn’t suffer much. But his life made, if not beauty of suffering, then maybe something even more lasting. Something you have to look at. And by looking, you have to feel. And by feeling, you live.