“If you are to understand one thing – the most vital thing, the skeleton key to unlocking anything worthwhile from the sojourn upon which you are about to commence – let it be this: You are not special.”
This line appears in the preface of Joseph Lezza’s forthcoming collage memoir I’m Never Fine: Scenes and Spasms on Loss, set to be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2023. Lezza makes this point not to bring anyone down, but to discuss how everyone undergoes the same series of losses and personal challenges in life. Lezza lost his father to pancreatic cancer, and while he had to undergo his own journey to come to terms with the loss, understanding that he was in the same position as everyone else on the planet who has and will lose their parents one day, and that this merely meant he could find a way to relate and respond to others as a result.
I’m Never Fine is a series of essays that blend creative nonfiction and poetry to produce a series of ruminations and retrospectives on Lezza’s life, with the death of his father as the anchor for the collection. The book is divided into three sections, each covering a different part of the grieving process. The essays in Lezza’s work are a mix of sarcastic wit and deep introspection as he tries to find his own path through the five stages of grief, which turn out to be more homogenized and nonlinear than appear.
The first section, “Prognosis,” is the shortest of the collection, featuring two essays that address the start and end of the Lezza’s encounter with death. The first, “Death, The Moon, and Dry-Rubbed Steak,” examines moments that made him first understand endings. While these ranged from familiar like the closing of a Steak and Ale restaurant, to the historical of touring the ruins of Pompeii, these encounters are filtered through Lezza’s at-times irreverent attitude, but also carrying gravitas that is found when one is presented with relics of the past.
The second piece in the section, “Nine. One. One,” meanwhile, is an examination of how we anthropomorphize the concept of time. He looks at how we assign meaning to numbers, much like he had to once his father began treatment following his diagnosis. He writes,
Astrologers call them “master numbers.” Mystics, “angel numbers.” It’s all the same.
Energetic codes from the fates, life trying to break through. They are not omens, we are told. They are not to be feared but, rather, interpreted against the framework of our own lives. From there, the deeper meaning can be unearthed.
The second section of the collection, “Pathology,” follows the treatment and eventual passing of Lezza’s father. Many of the essays in this section play with form and structure, to compare moments in this time with other mediums to better process them. The essay “Wading Toward Willamette,” tells of Lezza and his family going through Hurricane Sandy while comparing it to a playthrough of The Oregon Trail, with text boxes summarizing the status of the figures in the story and how likely they are to make it through the difficult time. Then there’s “A Comedy of Errors,” an essay following numerous tests and procedures Lezza’s father had to undergo. This essay is structured in five acts like an Elizabethan play, with the various nameless doctors and physicians characterized by their role and how they treat his father.
Throughout this section, Lezza doesn’t get lost in the creative structuring. There’s less humor in this section, but its replaced with honesty and detail that makes it easy to get absorbed into the seriousness of the situation. Throughout this section are references to treatments and care, many of which are used to draw parallels. “On Respecting the Layers” speaks about the surgeries and scars left from the treatments his father underwent, but this is followed by “How to Shave Your Dying Father,” which is an act of care that is treated less clinically and with more comfort and affection.
This section is also where Lezza provides insight into his family during this time. While some pieces like “The Bottle is Irrelevant” focus on aspects of his father, others examine those around him. “Loud, Quiet,” is a brief piece where Lezza examines the relationship between his parents, with a focus on his mother and their long marriage. “The Space Between Tenses,” features a look at the day his father died, primarily how his father’s mother and sisters responded to his death. This section continues to play with how we look at care, how it can be detached and clinical, but also familiar and empathetic.
The final section of the collection, “Paroxysm,” focuses more on Lezza and his life before and after his father’s passing. Now that a major event in his life as past, this is where Lezza is made to examine who he is in his world and how others react to him. These pieces are focused more on Lezza’s health, physical, emotional, and mental, and how he had to address certain moments in his life. We do see a return of the more snarky tone from the beginning of the section, but we also see how he has to bare himself now that he has plumbed deep into his character.
A few pieces in this section speak of his responses to certain aspects of his life, such as in “Losing My Religion” where he grapples with his faith and how it was impressed upon him at times. “Little Murders” addresses his sexuality, where his parents’ less-than-ideal reaction to his coming out affected him during his developmental years and early adulthood. “Abide the Chirping,” meanwhile, brings up Lezza’s personal health issues by discussing when he was diagnosed with General Anxiety and how he continues to live with it.
But it’s also in this final section that the thesis of the collection truly manifests. The titular essay examines the meaning we give to the word “fine,” and how Lezza has to find a difference between honesty and full disclosure when it comes to sharing his anxiety and history with others. Lezza writes,
The moment I stop minding my stride is the moment something blows up in my face. I like that. For once, I’ve painted myself into a corner and I’m in no rush to leave. By coming out so unapologetically against an expression, I’m bound by my own declaration of independence. Attention must always be paid. Dialogue deserves contemplation. Words have to mean something. It doesn’t mean unloading my dirty laundry on those with a predilection for pressing. It means being conscientious about my word choice; choosing terms that do justice to my frame of mind without soliciting a symposium.
By the end of the collection, despite the trouble course he had to take, Lezza finally ends at acceptance. His father’s death was something inevitable and discovering the fallibility of the world around him was always going to happen. But by finding a way to address all of this, a level of assurance was found, and while it may not make Lezza “special,” it makes him at least one version of “fine,” even if he denies he could be.
I’m Never Fine is an honest and unique exploration of bereavement, grief, and acceptance. Lezza won’t be the first or last person to lose a parent, but his exploration through his clever wit and raw openness makes his work easily relatable. It’s a self-diagnosis that offers hope, even if it’s not apparent on first reading of the test results.
Alex Carrigan (he/him; @carriganak) is an editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. His debut poetry chapbook, May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), was longlisted for Perennial Press’ 2022 Chapbook Awards. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more.