The fortunate among us are friends with at least one couple who are wonderful to talk with individually and even better as a pair. Those of us more fortunate still are part of such a couple. All indications suggest Tom Lubbock and Marion Coutts were in the more fortunate camp.
Lubbock was the art critic for the UK Independent for thirteen years. After his death, his fond and admiring cohort at the Independent noted that he was, “admired by his peers and his subjects for his vast knowledge and unaffected insight into artists from Francis Bacon to Pieter Bruegel.” Coutts is first and foremost an artist. When Lubbock was diagnosed with a rare type brain tumor in 2008, they had been married seven years and were parents to a young son. Lubbock set out to record the course of his illness in a journal that was published in 2014 as Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.
Lubbock’s journal is spare and knotty, all digressions, worries and questing for certainty. He tracks his condition physically and, more compelling, mentally. Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg, is a perfect companion piece. She’s a maximalist by comparison, exploring the particulars of each event, the facets of her reaction to it and where it may lead in the future.
On the occasion of Lubbock’s initial diagnosis, Coutts writes, “Impact has fused us, made us mutual.” In many respects, she is the ideal partner in this mutual arrangement, despite the recriminations she levels at herself in weak moments. Lubbock turned fifty the year of his diagnosis. The writer Roger Grenier observes that whatever our pursuits, “Death and frivolity condemn us to never finish.” The great Stoic Seneca also notes and disdains the frivolity Grenier mentions, but ultimately he’s convinced we’re each given given sufficient, perhaps even ample time to accomplish what we need to in life. A man of fifty, his wife and small child might understandably chafe at Seneca’s certainty when informed of his impending death. Neither Lubbock nor Coutts seem to dwell on the injustice of his losing out on a third of the average life span, though. They make serious preparations, and Coutts, feeling overwhelmed initially, writes, “I have many friends skilled in sympathy. Strategy is what I need.”
But first, there are idyllic days – unexpected, rude health for Tom, afternoons out and trips abroad for the three of them. These are all part of a welcome reprieve. In time, though, his speech and language memory inevitably slip. As his struggles with vocabulary and speech intensify, Coutts writes, “He is estranged from himself,” and later, “What else is there apart from language? Let me list: touch, the great inter-cosmos of the eyes, running and jumping, sex, cooking, friendship, eating. There must be other things but I have come to a stop. It’s a short list. We will devise another language, and in it we will talk.” They try, if not to create a language apart, at least to manipulate the language he has remaining, to make it serve their needs. This proves challenging and often futile as well. “In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” This seems all the more distressing, given their shared love of art and engagement with it professionally, the central place it’s held in their life together.
The Iceberg is no cliffhanger. Coutts knows husband’s fate is proscribed. Despite encouraging test results and stretches of normalcy, she never forgets this fact. None of that’s to say the book lacks moments of drama or intense emotion. There’s the shock of the diagnosis, which is sudden and severe. Tom’s unreliable language control and sense of place make for tense moments when he’s out alone. She sends him out with an address card in his wallet and “a note saying he is having a focal fit the finder of him might helpfully contact me.” On a notable occasion, when he’s late arriving home, it turns out, “He doesn’t think of any of this and doesn’t use the card.” They fight in strained moments, and the inclusion of those scenes is a bit of candor the reader by then realizes is characteristic of Coutts, who never spares herself in apportioning blame. And the most crushing moment comes near the end, when she overhears Tom repeating her name to himself as if trying to memorize it, at a time when he’s permanently lost much of his vocabulary and facility with language.
“Tom never cared much about travel,” Coutts writes, but by the time he passes away, it’s hard to refuse the metaphor of traveling on at life’s end. The poet Gordon Osing, confronting age and the aftermath of throat cancer, writes,
How will it be, at the last moment?
It will smell of sunlight and other codes in the air
Arriving in somebody else’s land.
Whether that or some other fate awaited Lubbock, The Iceberg is a loving coda.
Sharing loss is a complicated matter, even among family members or dear friends. Somehow Marion Coutts shares her loss with the world at large in The Iceberg. I don’t know her personally, didn’t know Tom Lubbock, but the sense of loss feels shared in some small way. She takes us to the graveside service, where there are sombre, homely rites and a sense of her husband’s lasting presence in the lives of she and her child in the years to come. “And so are the living comforted,” Coutts concludes, but there are other sources of comfort, too. Surely for those among us dealing with loss, her book is destined to be one of them.
- John McIntyre