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During the period between the surgery on the everyman’s appendix and the latest operation, twenty-two years pass. In that time he is healthy and secure. He remembers the promise he had made to himself walking in Martha’s Vineyard of refraining from worrying about death until he was seventy-five.
The everyman first notices he is ill again while swimming at the City Athletic Club one August evening in 1989. He had driven down from New Jersey that day after seeing his father in the hospital, and at first he thinks the illness is an effect of seeing how much his father has deteriorated. Normally, he swims a mile at the club early each morning. He hardly drinks, doesn’t smoke, and his weight has stayed at what it had been when he left the navy in 1957. He does not expect to need cardiac surgery, although he knows anyone can get ill. He realizes something is seriously wrong when he feels breathless while swimming his first lap. He is scheduled for surgery at a Manhattan hospital. On the way to the operating room the next morning, the everyman’s third wife Merete follows the hospital gurney weeping. The everyman takes it to mean that she is worried about what would happen to her if he did not survive, and he provides some words of comfort. The everyman’s operation lasts seven hours. He is left with two long wounds, one in his chest, the other in his leg, where the surgeons took a vein from the leg to repair his heart. The everyman’s cardiologist advises him not to use Merete as his primary source of care as she isn’t up to the task. Howie has already arrived at the hospital. Although the everyman is recovering from a serious operation in New York and their father is dying in a hospital in New Jersey, Howie has enough energy to provide all the support the everyman needs. In order to insure the everyman’s health, Howie hires private nurses for the everyman, one for the day and one for the night shift, to take the pressure off the ineffectual Merete.
The night nurse, Olive Parrott, is a large Black woman who has the bearing of Eleanor Roosevelt. At night, Olive tells the everyman stories about her life as a child on the avocado farm in her lovely and soothing West Indian-accented voice, which reminds the everyman of the way his mother talked to him at his hernia operation. He is very happy to be alive, having had a narrow miss with a massive heart attack. The day nurse, Maureen, is a buxom, bluntly-spoken red-head from a Bronx-based Irish-Slavic family. Merete resents the two nurses and the idea that she cannot cope on her own. She and Maureen have a particularly difficult relationship, as Maureen is openly disdainful of her. The everyman is very weak and in recovery for more than three weeks. Maureen helps with calisthenics (gymnastic exercises) and taking him on short walks. She makes the everyman feel stronger, though Merete becomes very jealous. Maureen has had multiple affairs with her patients. Her liveliness makes all her patients feel better and feel willing to engage with the world. Maureen drives the everyman to New Jersey when his father dies, since he is not able to do so yet. Howie makes the funeral arrangements. Their father had become more religious and after he retired and lost his wife, he had started to visit the synagogue at least one a day. His funeral is conducted in Hebrew, which the everyman cannot understand, as he stopped being religious as a teenager. He dislikes religion and finds it childish. In his opinion, the only thing that is real is the human body. But his own beliefs do not matter when his father is buried.
The narrative continues to follow the women who have provided comfort to the everyman during the operations he has undergone in his life. For twenty-two years, the everyman is free from illness, but this streak is broken by problems with his heart. In a direct sense, the everyman suffers from problems with the arteries in his heart which require immediate surgery to avoid death. But these problems can also be read as a parallel with the metaphorical problems of the heart, that is, the emotional issues that the everyman brings upon himself. The everyman has moved on to a third wife, who we later learn is Merete, a model and twenty-six years younger than the everyman. She provides a contrast to the everyman’s second wife Phoebe. Phoebe was up to the task of comforting the everyman in his time of need, while Merete crumbles under pressure so much that the everyman must use his own slim stocks of energy to provide comfort and advice to her.
Not only is Merete ineffectual, her presence is actively obstructive and worse perhaps than having no one at all. Both the everyman’s cardiologist and Howie understand that Merete is not up to the duty of looking after her husband alone. The cardiologist tells the everyman that he will not release the everyman from the hospital into Merete’s care. The cardiologist describes her as more void than person. To Howie, she is a “titanically ineffective cover girl,” an image of beauty but nothing more. For his part, the everyman has very little that is positive to say about Merete, since she fails him in his specific emotional needs. Substitution works simply and effectively. Olive Parrott provides a motherly kind of care to the everyman, and competent, tough Maureen takes over to become a substitute wife, fulfilling all he needs in terms of daytime care, companionship, and sexual fulfilment. Merete’s response to the affair is not portrayed in the novel.
At this stage, the everyman still has people who are willing to provide support in his journey through illness. What marks out a good companion for the everyman’s illness is a person’s capacity to face situations with a broad kind of stoicism, that is, to take each event as it comes, without letting their emotions or fears overwhelm them. It also helps if the character is themselves in good health. Howie is healthy, successful and sporting. He loves his brother selflessly, and will do what is best to help the everyman return to health again. Maureen is full of vitality and lust. Both the everyman and men in the street notice her healthy, attractive body. This is in contrast to the absent presence of the everyman’s young wife Merete. It is noteworthy that both Howie and Maureen’s capacity to help is positioned as a gift. The narrative makes the point that Maureen’s gift is to make the unwell willing to re-engage with life again via her vitally-alive body. Howie’s gift is the provision of the two nurses, something he is able to do because of his financial situation. Both gifts are of a body (or bodies) as a source of care and support.
The everyman believes in the reality of the body rather than the soul. Everyman, the anonymously-authored fifteenth century play from which this novel takes its name, makes a good point of comparison to the everyman’s materialism. In the play, Everyman is a character who learns from Death that he is to die and be judged on his past sins. Death permits Everyman to find a companion to come with him, and this search makes up the bulk of the play. The pilgrimage from worldly concerns to the company of Good Deeds and her sister Knowledge mark the Everyman of the play’s movement towards penitence for his life of sin and the purification of his soul. The everyman of the novel, in contrast, not only rejects the faith of his family, Judaism, but all religion, including any notion of heaven or God. To him, religion is infantile, founded on superstitions. Instead, he has settled instinctively on a belief in the body as the source of fate. The physical world is the only reality, and our lifespan and quality of life is predetermined by the lives of those who have gone before us – our family and the rest of the human race.