There are people who exist outside of your own life, people you never meet and never see in the flesh, who come to represent a part of yourself all the same, who possess within themselves some part of you, a living safe to keep some soul. I remember how my mother cried when Mickey Mantle died, how he was the star of so many afternoons of her youth. And now I know something like that, because having sailed through nights and days and in and out of weeks and through eighty-three years, Maurice Sendak died, the news being relayed to me one morning as I was off to give an interview. The interview was about me, about my work, about the novel I’m supposed to write. I was late and couldn’t read an obituary. I went to the interview, talked about myself without ever saying much. I went home and listened to a recent interview Sendak gave to NPR, his voice hoarse from a stroke. But his humor was not tempered, his imagination still alive. Of all the lines in that interview, which was a most beautiful thing from start to finish, the one that made me happiest was what Sendak said he was doing with his time. “I’m writing a poem about a nose,” he told Terry Gross. “I always wanted to write a poem about a nose.”
That day that he died was a strange one for me. It was the day of my last class at Princeton. I picked up my cap and gown and my yearbook and my class jacket and a woman who I did not know asked me if I was sad to be leaving. And so I was losing my grip on one part of my life at the same time that I had lost a tether to a part of my past that I still cling to very dearly. I felt like I was somehow between lives, in a gray area of apprehension and nostalgia.
I was not a Seuss child, but a Sendak one. I believe that this means I was mischievous and brave and silly, and there’s photographic and anecdotal evidence to support this. But I think the best proof of what sort of child I was comes through recalling my most vivid childhood memories. I remember dunking a tiny foam basketball on a hoop until I ripped it from the wall of my bedroom. I remember the racecar bed that I slept in. I remember filling up the holes in these Bertoia kitchen chairs with forks pointed up so that someone would stick himself if he sat on them. I remember pulling down all the books from the shelves and sitting in a pile of them like a king. When I pull my copy of Where the Wild Things Are from its shelf I see Max staring into the face of monsters with terrible claws and terrible teeth and I’m reminded of a version of myself that time cannot erode. I see those nibbled page corners and that tattered cover and I slip it off like a slinky dress and read the words and feel like there’s still pieces of that little kid within me.
Sendak liked to talk about how he didn’t ever learn how to write for children. The Wild Things were really wild and they weren’t colored an inane blue and they didn’t want to sing carols and play with bouncy balls. They wanted to eat a little boy. Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is one of the most often banned books in America because his protagonist runs around naked. His last book, Bumble-Ardy, is about a pig who goes his first nine years of life without ever being allowed to have a birthday party. A truly great story for children, I’ve decided, is one that does not fully blossom on first reading. It’s an adventure then, when you’re three or four or five, and then when you come back to it because you haven’t been that young in such a long time and you miss it, it blossoms more fully, you see things you didn’t see then and you see why you didn’t see them. You know yourself better than ever. That is the way of Sendak’s books, at least for me.
Sendak’s voice was a cluster of splinters in that last interview. “I’ve gotten quite old since the last time you saw me,” he told Gross. And what had age done to him, in the end? It had him looking at things he had been scared to look at for a long time. I was like that as a child, afraid of monsters and scary stories. I remember reading Where the Wild Things Are by myself for the first time and going to bed. I dreamed a dream where a giant chased me around my house having eaten my parents and the scream I dreamed I screamed to send him away was exactly the one I imagine Max would have screamed. And so I’m here now, looking something else I fear in the eye, this “leaving” thing, and I find that Sendak has come to my side yet again.
“I have nothing now but praise for my life,” he tells Gross, perpetually in the present thanks to the power of recording. “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…” I think of this place that I’m supposed to use as a launching pad, a place to hurtle away from into whatever is out there. I am afraid, there’s no denying it. But then, I’ve always been afraid, and then I’ve always stopped, looked those monsters in the eyes and let them know who was king. That was me and that was Sendak, too, and he put it on the page so I could see it, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years after I read it the first time and know it again. “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready,” Sendak says, about leaving. My leaving is not so permanent, but nonetheless it’s like a first death. But I’ll have this life to call upon when I need it, and that’s something I learned from a picture book that I began to eat because I loved it so.