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Spalding Gray: 'Life Interrupted'

Spalding Gray talked onstage about his marriages, his travels, about sex, his many fears -- and always, about death. His last monologue was left unfinished when he committed suicide in January 2004.

That tale chronicled a catastrophic car accident Gray suffered in Ireland three years earlier. Titled Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue, it has now been published posthumously.

Melissa Block talks with Gray's longtime friend, the writer Francine Prose, who wrote the book's foreword. An excerpt from Life Interrupted follows:

Book Excerpt

I didn't think there'd be another monologue, and I'm still not sure if there is. I had settled down into domesticity and a quiet life out in Sag Harbor and didn't want to continue making family soap opera. Or at least I thought I didn't.

When I turned sixty there was no big celebration, just a family gathering. I said I didn't want anything. NPR did announce it on Morning Edition, I was happy to hear. Garrison Keillor did not, on his birthday show. We're not exactly on the best of terms. I reviewed a book of his called Leaving Home in the New York Times, and I opened with my girlfriend at the time saying that if I played that show Prairie Home Companion again she'd throw the radio out the window.

There was no party, just a birthday dinner at home, and I remember Forrest, my eight-year-old, saying, "Hey, Dad, remember how much fun it was having a birthday before you found out that you were going to die?"

Then there was a surprise. About two weeks after that, Kathie, my wife, gave me a present of a trip to Ireland for the whole family. Kathie's always coming up with these crazy trips. I remember she took us to the Ice Hotel up in Quebec City where you pay three hundred dollars a night to sleep on a block of ice. So Ireland was cushy. It was a rainy version of the Ice Hotel, I suppose. A little more whimsical, and rainy, and not frozen. I'd been six times before and wanted to go back. It made me laugh in a way that the United States doesn't. We had rainy times but good times. In spite of the rain it was a jolly place. I can remember Kathie and me riding bikes in the rain for hours and then coming upon this Irishman leaning against his bicycle with a golf hat on or whatever they wear, and he said, "How are you doing?" I said, "It's just awful weather, it's just awful," and he said, "No, it's not. It hasn't gotten cold yet."

So I like them; they're optimistic and philosophical. They're not industrialized, really --there was no industrial revolution -- so they drive pretty haphazardly. They don't have a great relationship to machinery, to say the least. There's a lot of banging around and the roads are very narrow, and they just get in their cars and go, you know they just put the pedal to the metal and they're going everywhere, in all directions.

We were invited to the Scanlon estate. John Scanlon was a publicist, a very big one, in all senses of the word. He was a publicist for Bill Clinton, actually, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he had this huge house in Ireland that he was inviting a group of us over to for this birthday bash. He was a big gourmand, and he perished in front of the TV after a big meal just two weeks before we were supposed to go, just died. His wife said, "Come on over anyway, John would have loved it."

So over we went, in spite of his death, about twelve of us, five children -- my niece, my stepdaughter, and my two sons, and Tara Newman's son -- and the rest adults, and the house was big enough to accommodate that without any confusion. I have to say that this place, exquisite stone manor that it was, reminded me a little bit of The Shining. It was disconcerting, actually. It was set right in the middle of these woods and fields, and the kids went running in the fields with no fear of deer ticks for the first time in a long time. The woods looked like Harry Potter woods; they were very old, it was about twelve acres of land, and all very spooky. It was in the town of Mort, which was even more of a spooky name, in the county of Offaly. O-f-f-a-l-y.

We arrived on the longest day of the year, June 21, 2001, and all went to celebrate with a treasure hunt. In the morning, the following day, the next-longest day of the year, Barbara Leary was down in the kitchen -- Barbara Leary was the ex-wife of Timothy Leary and she was one of the guests there -- and I was talking with her and she said that she'd dreamt that I'd done a new monologue, and I said, "No, there's nothing on the table, really, nothing new. My life is without crisis and usually they're based on crisis, and I don't have anything planned at all. Things are going smoothly."

(Knocks three times on the desktop)

So off we went to this monastery, and I guess it was kind of the first harbinger of death, although death seemed everywhere in Ireland. This was a monastery on a river where the Vikings used to come and raid it and burn the books and kill the priests. There was a funeral going on, or at least the grave diggers were digging some graves right near the monastery and taking a cigarette break. I remember that, it was kind of Hamletesque.

Then, driving home, another funereal thing happened. They had the funeral announcements on the radio. I'd never heard anything like that in my life. There must have been about sixteen deaths. Every one of them had put up a courageous struggle, had led an exemplary life, never had a bad word to say about anybody. The announcer read in a monotone, with no inflection at all, pausing about five seconds between each name and then talked about the removal time, Saturday at four-thirty, or whenever the body was going to be removed.

So there was a lot of death in the air that day. When we got home, I took a walk to kind of relieve myself of all that, and walked about six miles through dairy country. The cows were baying and mooing. Mad cow disease was around. I had a feeling they were trying to warn me about something. It was the last long walk I'd ever take in my life. I had no idea at the time, did not imagine it. At the end of the walk I came upon a calf that was in real distress. It couldn't stand up, it had arthritis, and it was looking me right in the eye and pleading with me to put it out of its pain. I told the farmer, "That calf is suffering. You should call a vet, or have something done with it." He said, "Ah, yes, I'll be doing that then. Thank you for looking after it."

So off I went thinking I'd saved the calf, or put him out of his misery, and off we went, five adults-Barbara Leary and her boyfriend, Kim; Tara Newman; and Kathie and I-to have dinner at John Scanlon's favorite restaurant. I have to say, it wasn't that good. Maybe in terms of Irish cuisine it was, but my duck was dry.

What did we talk about -- we talked about the art critic Robert Hughes's car accident that he'd had in Australia, and how difficult that would be, to have a car accident in a foreign country like that. Then there was this discussion about who would drive home. We'd all been drinking, not a lot, but Kathie had only had one glass of wine so she was the designated driver. So we're off and she says, "Buckle up," and no one in the back seat pays any attention to her. Tara Newman says, "Yes, Mom," very condescendingly, and I -- God, I didn't hear her; Kathie says it's because I don't listen. I just didn't buckle up. I think I was taking a pee in the bushes, a last-minute pee, and I got in and so we're off on a backcountry road. I didn't think anything could possibly happen on a backcountry road. We'd come on a main highway and the speeding was terrific, but on the country road I thought it would be...

Just about one mile from the mansion -- and they say these things happen within a mile of your destination, that's why my friend Donald says that he drives like crazy to get out of that radius -- I look up and I see in Kathie's window what looks like a cartoon of a van. It looks like a video game. I can't take it in. We had stopped to turn right, we were still, and the road was a narrow country road, there were no lanes, just a road, and coming at me, at us, was this yellow van. It must have been coming very fast, because all I got was one glimpse of it, its headlights. It was dusk, it was ten-fifteen, and there was this enormous crash that I remember as the most violent moment of my life. It was equal to an earthquake that I'd gone through in California, which had sounded like a bomb.

Our car spun around three times, that's how hard he hit, and he drove the engine right into the front seat of the car, where Kathie burned her arm. Somehow she got out. I thought Kim, who was next to her, was dead. His forehead was down on the dashboard. Tara Newman was yelling, "The car's going to explode. Everyone get out!" I don't remember getting out, but the next I knew I was lying in the road next to Kathie, and she's saying, "I'm dying! I'm dying!" and I'm saying, solipsist that I am, "But I can't straighten out my leg!" And I couldn't. There was a woman kneeling beside me, sopping blood off my face, talking to me, saying that this is a very dangerous black spot, a black spot on the highway where there had been other accidents. She'd lost her nine-year-old son the year before just about a hundred feet from where I was lying. There was cow medicine everywhere, because the van that hit us was the veterinarian, the local vet, who, I think, probably was up taking care of that poor sick calf that I'd reported. It was bedlam. Tara Newman was directing traffic around us because none of the cars would wait. The police arrived and wouldn't even give a Breathalyzer test to the guy driving the van. They said they didn't like to get involved on that level.

The ambulance came and it took an hour. It was like a World War II bread truck, all rattling, and they loaded me in with the guy that hit me, we shared the ambulance together, and I was in such pain and shock that I did not get angry with him. To this day I regret it. I am so unconfrontational. Instead of moaning and weeping about my hip I should have been saying, "You f------ a------! You ruined our vacation." But I'm so involved with the pain in my hip, or whatever it is that's hurting me, that I don't say anything to him at all. I'm feeling guilty because I didn't have my seat belt on. I'm feeling that it's my fault entirely.

We get to the hospital and it's run by Pakistani doctors. There's not an Irish doctor in sight, which is a little confusing for me because I suddenly feel like I'm in Pakistan. It's kind of hard to communicate. They speak English, but at the same time they don't have the same chatty bedside manner that the Irish have, at all. I was looking forward to the gift of gab to try to make me feel a little better. They're not paying any attention to Kathie, who's trying to give them advice about giving my head an MRI because I have this big bump on my head where I crashed into Kathie's head. Our heads collided and she got fourteen stitches and I got this bump. They won't do anything we request and Kathie was insisting on it and they were having a fight with her. She was in pain because the air bag had hit her and she had bruised muscles around her heart. They were writing notes on a piece of paper on her chest where the pain was. Kathie said, "Stop it, stop it, please. Where's your clipboard?" and the nurse says, "Well, we don't have one."

She's taken upstairs and put in a female dormitory, and I'm told that I have a broken acetabulum, that I'd chipped the acetabulum socket in my hip, and that I'd have to stay there in the hospital for six weeks, just in traction, and then I'd be better; I didn't need an operation. And then without any anesthesia at all they stuck this catheter in me. It was unbelievable. It made the pain of the broken hip seem mild.

It was a country hospital and they put me in a dormitory with five other men that are bashers and crashers, mainly, I think, farmers, or guys that have hit each other with trucks and tractors, for fun or out of drunkenness, and they're all boasting about it on their cell phones, because cell phones have taken over Ireland, as they have America. The cell phones are falling out of the bed constantly, crashing on the floor and lighting up with a little "Deet-deetle-deet-deet, deet deet," or "Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody's mother." Every tune was different. I was completely disheveled because I had no pajamas, no toothbrush. I guess you have to carry those with you, the Irish do that, in case of an accident. Kathie said that the upstairs was so dirty she had to pee in the bathtub, because the toilets were unusable.

I'm not about to stay in there for six weeks, I know that, but I don't know how to get out. I feel like a prisoner. It was a shambles in there. I had no orthopedic doctor, he was away for the weekend, so I'm in pain. They've got my foot hanging up, suspended, and they shoot me up with morphine and leave me there and in the middle of the night I woke up and hallucinated that I was in a Civil War battle, Antietam, and was wounded and was lying on a battlefield with all these other wounded soldiers around me, these other groaning farmers. I'm near the window, thank God, the window's open -- you get the scent of manure, and you can hear the cows grazing and magpies cawing in the most sinister way. It all reminded me of a Brueghel painting.

The next morning is Sunday morning and the priest comes through with the Holy Eucharist and I take my First Communion, what can I tell you. I think, Why not? Then a cross-dresser comes through, I swear, out of a Fellini movie. I will never forget her, it, he. He's got long green artificial fingernails, balancing the toast between them, and he's going, "Toast! Tea! Toast!" "No, thank you, I'll pass," I said. Then a woman comes through with a clipboard, they finally found one, and she's taking a survey: Do I want the hospital to be smoke-free?

Excerpted from Life Interrupted by Spalding Gray Copyright © 2005 by Spalding Gray. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.