A week ago today, on April 11, 2007, my former boss left this world.
He was many things before he left it: soldier, student, writer, dad. His work as a writer is his claim to fame, of course, with bestsellers like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions making his a household name the world over.
What a pity he can’t send us one last letter. Having pierced the veil, he has changed; I’m certain. His literary vision is not the same.
Because I, too, am a writer; and because I have a blog; and because I was his daughter’s nanny way back when, I am writing a eulogy for Kurt Vonnegut.
My opinion is that my prayers for his soul will be much more valuable in the long run, but nonetheless, here’s my tribute.
Throughout the three short months of my tenure as his employee, during which time I cared for his cutie pie 6-year-old daughter, Lily; cooked his meals; and occasionally borrowed his car to go sightseeing, Kurt Vonnegut was kind. He was always kind.
He was never Kurt Vonnegut, the icon. He was a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, shuffling older gentleman—a bit elusive, very quiet in my presence. I knew of the mettle he was made of, certainly, but in truth we never discussed it. I was shy and didn’t want to appear fawning.
Plus I’d never actually read his stuff.
I tried to read some of it while I was out there, but I am sorry to say that most of his work is too vulgar to really draw me in. Perhaps you’re disappointed to read that, but at least now you know the truth. I was really seeking God while I was out there, and when I didn’t find Him in Kurt’s novels I moved on.
Here is what Kurt had to say in The Writer’s Faith (a 2005 calendar) by his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz:
“I am not the writer Twain was but I am what I believe he would call a Humanist. Nowadays it means persons like my parents and both sets of grandparents, who try to behave ethically without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. They serve as best they can the only abstraction of which they have any real familiarity, which is their community. What about Jesus? I say what one of my great grandfathers wrote, as follows: ‘If so much of what Jesus said is ethically brilliant, and especially the Beatitudes, and Forgive us our Trespasses as we forgive those who Trespass against Us, what can it matter if he was God or not?’”
What can it matter? What can it matter?
It has to matter. It does matter. My life and my redemption from the unhappy hell of my early existence is proof to me, at least, of that.
The strength, the mystery, and the infinite beauty of the Catholic Church are also proofs to me of a living God who keeps His word.
In any case.
I am sorry for taking this tribute and making it about me. Perhaps, as a humanist, Kurt wouldn’t have minded. We are every one of us trying to “find” ourselves, as corny as it is to write that.
Do we succeed? Not all of us. The question, then, is what do we leave behind when we leave this world?
And what (and Whom) do we find, once finally we’ve left it?
When I knew Kurt Vonnegut I was in transit spiritually. I didn’t know who I destined to be, at that point, (I thought maybe a photojournalist), but I was trying hard to find out and was going to Mass as often as possible. I also wrote non-stop, which bothered his wife but amused him, I think. At one point he asked me if I wrote as well as I drew because, while the drawings I did for Lily were on display, my journal never was.
My working for his family brought me to New York City, which ultimately led to my going on retreat in Ridgefield, Connecticut. During this 5-day retreat, I followed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and by the amazing grace of our almighty God, I changed.
For this reason, I can say that without drama or exaggeration that my life today would not be the same if I hadn’t known Kurt Vonnegut.
Thank you, Kurt, for your kindness.
Thank you for your laugh.
Thank you for the chance I had to work for you. God loves you. Rest in Peace.