There are stories, poems, plays and novels that resonate and grow in my memory—maybe glow is a better term—when certain events happen in my life. Such is the case with one of my favorite contemporary short stories, “I Want to Live!” from Thom Jones’ collection THE PUGILIST AT REST. (I have a friend in hospice who is leaving behind many people who love and will miss her. So my thoughts are turning melancholy today.)
I’ve written before about the poignancy of regret in “I Want to Live!,” a powerful story that manages to weave the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s ideas around a bantam rooster named Mr. Barnes.
The protagonist, Mrs. Wilson, is dying of cancer, and after her son-in-law introduces her to the works of Schopenhauer, Mrs. Wilson begins to realize that she has never "really lived." As memories of her childhood on a farm unspool, mixing with the morphine and pain, she thinks of her small red bantam rooster, Mr. Barnes, and realizes he was “the very personification” of Schopenhaur’s Will to Live:
“That Barnes—he was something. She should have taken a lesson. Puffed out her chest and walked through life—‘I want the biggest and the best and the most of whatever you got!’ There were people who pulled it off. You really could do it if you had the attitude.
Her little red rooster was a mean little scoundrel, but he had a soft spot for her in his heart of steel and he looked out for her, cooed for her and her alone.”
Mrs. Wilson admits to herself then that she gave up on her dream of a pursuing a degree in pharmacology too easily “but there was a Great Depression and money was very dear. . .had she been more like that little banty rooster, had she been a real go-getter. . . Well—it was all but over now…’