Fame and Invisibility

photo courtesy of Eric Bruckbauer

photo courtesy of Eric Bruckbauer

Fame. I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly. High.”

You know the song. “Fame. I’m gonna live forever.” The pounding beat, the back-up singers, the wail of the electric guitar. It makes you want to dance, right? To wear legwarmers and a sweatshirt that falls off one shoulder. Not that you and I hunger for fame. Not us. A tiny bit wouldn’t be so bad, but not the face-on-the-tabloid-cover kind of fame and certainly not the photographer-behind-the-hedge kind.

It’s only natural to be known by a few people…or a few hundred or a few thousand—your tribe, your village, your neighborhood. But wanting to be known all over the world just seems greedy.

I started thinking about fame when I was reading Jess Walter’s novel, Beautiful Ruins. One IMG_0621of his characters was in love with Richard Burton. Another, her son, was obsessed with fame. “It was all he’d ever wanted. To be big. To matter.” His search for fame and his drug use nearly ruined his life. And yet, I could sympathize with his desire “to matter.”

Don’t get me wrong. As a writer, I’m a private person. I don’t hunger for fame. But neither do I want to be invisible. That was something I realized the day my husband died.

The day my husband died

I was out on the deck choosing a color for a new roof when his heart stopped beating. The crab we’d bought from a roadside vender on the way home from his root canal was clattering in the sink. As far as I knew, my husband was sitting at the table eating the Jell-O I’d made for him. When he fell, I couldn’t understand what I’d heard. It was such a strange sound—not at all like a live person falling.

After the frantic 911 call and the CPR, after the medics’ repeated attempts to revive him and the calls to a doctor, after the pronouncement of death and a call to my daughter, they took him away, his body. And I was alone.Port Angeles house 001

Alone in a house that was new to me. Six acres of no one. A forest of Douglas firs and big leaf maples climbing Eagle Ridge behind me. Below, a pasture, a not-so-friendly horse rancher, and then more fields and trees and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. My nearest daughter was on the other side of the state, and the sun was going down.

The rest of that day is a blur now. I cried, I know that. I may have thrown the Jell-O and crab away, or maybe I put them in the fridge and threw them away later. (I didn’t eat crab again for years.) The one thing I do remember is being in bed and feeling something more than alone. That night I felt that I no longer existed.

If a tree falls in the forest …

You know the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If no one knows you exist, do you?

According to a metaphysical theory developed by George Berkeley in the 18th century, “To be is to be perceived.”

Hmm … What do you think?

Next week’s post: “Manila’s Chinese Cemetery”

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Gretchen Houser

    Well, my dear, you’re not invisible now. We see you and hear you and yearn for more.

  2. ‘The day my husband died’ was heartfelt and reminded me to be grateful for every minute with mine.

  3. Sheila Valentine

    That wrting is just so beautiful – and so poignant. I loved it.

  4. Yes, what you have written is true, meaningful and poignant. I can see you in that home — I was once there — and can feel you feeling wrenched apart by your aching heart.

  5. John keene

    Thanks for sharing Your sad reality. It only makes me want to love my prescious family more.

  6. Hi, Nikki. Thank you for sharing this experience with your readers. My husband did not die, but he came extremely close. Have you read My Year of Magical Thinking? The author lost her husband in a way identical to the way you lost yours. I found her book very interesting because although I had not lost a husband, I had lost one son at that time (and now have lost two sons), and dealing with the death of any person close to you is difficult and traumatic.

    About being invisible, logically I think it is impossible for “no one to know you exist,”because you, yourself, always know you exist. But I also think that as we age, and our children grow up and have busy lives of their own, we enter a kind of invisiblity that comes from no longer being indispensable to our families and other people around us. I think that in our society, very elderly people, and sometimes even the not-so-elderly (does anyone EVER consider themselves “VERY elderly”?? I have trouble even thinking of myself as “older!”) are given a sort of “invisible” status.” But I refuse to accept that and keep involved in things that put me in contact with a wide variety of people and participating in a wide variety of activities with them. I think this is the only way to fight that “invisiblity.” My husband LaMont does the same thing.

    • Barb,what a thoughtful comment! Thank you. I’ve heard interviews with Joan Didion about My Year of Magical Thinking, but I haven’t read it. I’m so sorry to hear about your sons.

      My sense of being invisible didn’t last long–mainly that one night fifteen years ago. But it was so strong and unusual that I haven’t forgotten it.

  7. Howard Lee

    Thanks for sharing — I said he was blessed to go that way when I heard the news that time — I still believe as before and that if I am lucky — I will go the same way — quickly. It is hard for the family and loved ones but think what happend if he had to suffer some.
    Take care of yourself.

  8. Arlene Gallagher

    What a talented writer you are. I am at Ocean shores now, because the ocean was a place Pat and I always liked to go and today would have been our 51st Anniversary. Next month it will be 3 years already.

  9. Thanks for sharing such a personal piece with us. I think we all want our life to be meaningful, in what kind of way we want it to be meaningful might differ from person to person.

  10. Hi Nicki,

    It’s really an art to tell a sad story so powerfully as you did. Thank you for sharing your world. I don’t know why, but the image of the clattering crab stays with me. What did you do? Were you good at killing a crab? Perhaps Eugene was good at it? My mother used to kill crabs so often at home and trying not to be attacked by them at the same time. It was both exciting and worrying to watch.

    I think as we grow older, we need less and less in life, and may be less occupied. It is wonderful to be able to choose our friends, how we spend our time, to be less ‘visible’, to have better quality of life, and from this point of view, sometimes, invisibility is wonderful.

    • No, Janet. I was not good at killing crabs. Eugene always did that. To tell the truth, I can’t remember what I did about those crabs. Maybe I did the unforgivable and boiled them alive… or waited for them to die. The nice thing about being married (or having kids or siblings or friends) is that you can divide the labor according to your skills, preferences or strength at the moment. The day Eugene died, I only made one call: to one of my daughters. And she called the rest. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her, and I’m grateful.

  11. muriel eade

    Made me feel like crying as I know very well the feelings you would have had, I felt the same after Dicks death. Eugene was a beautiful man and I can well imagine the hole that is in your heart.

  12. What a beautifully poignant post. Yes, we all want to matter – whether or not we seek fame to fulfil that.

    It sounds like it was a great shock when your husband died. I can’t imagine that kind of unexpected tragedy.

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