Lying in His Cot with His Dead Mother and Sister


Anthony Burgess

At age one, lying in his cot, his mother, Elizabeth, and his sister, Muriel, lay dead beside him, both victims of the Spanish flu pandemic. His maternal aunt and later his stepmother raised him. He detested his stepmother and included a caricature of her in Inside Mr. Enderby quartet of novels.

Learning about an author’s background is one of the reasons that I believe it is valuable to read biographies and autobiographies of successful people. We can gain much by understanding their challenges and methods of overcoming sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

One of these people is author, Anthony Burgess. He had always attracted acclaim and notoriety in roughly equal measure, perhaps from his traumatic childhood. He was a British novelist, critic and composer. He was also a librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist.

Anthony Burgess was born John Burgess Wilson on February 25, 1917 in a small house in Harpurhey, Manchester in northwest England. His father, Joseph Wilson, had a variety of jobs including an army corporal, a bookkeeper, encyclopedia salesperson, butcher and part-time pianist. His mother was a musician and dancer. He described his father as “a mostly absent drunk who called himself a father.” His father died of flu in 1938.

During his lifetime, Burgess had a knack for annoying people and, therefore, frequently criticized for writing too much. In a 1972 interview reprinted in the Paris Review, he said, “I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.”

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Death: A Curious Habit

Years ago when I was the Publisher/Editor of the Arizona Literary Review, a 64-page monthly literary art and photography magazine, we had an exclusive telephone interview with the actor, James Stewart. I was appreciative of the time we shared with such a generous and interesting person. He died a few years after the interview. I became curious about how he lived his life those last few years. Did he know how much time he had left? I know he was very active in saving elephants, and we ran a full back page advertisement without charge to promote his cause.

Since then, I have developed a curious habit of looking up the biographies of actors while watching old black and white movies. It is interesting to watch their performance while reading about their personal life. I read about their childhood, acting background, relationships, how and when they died. I find it fascinating to know how much longer they lived after they made the movie. What captures my attention is contemplating what they did not yet know. How many more years they had to live. Did their lifestyle, such as drinking or smoking contribute to their death? What would they have done differently? There are times that my heart goes out to the actors who did not know what their future holds for them.

I wonder what it would be like if each of us knew this quality of information during our own life. What would our decisions be and how would they be different? How many of us would want to know this information in advance?

I visited a website called The Death Clock and took their death test. The site provides a friendly reminder that life is slipping away… second by second, reminding  you just how short life is. My results? According to the rather unscientific website I have until Saturday, June 4, 2022. Now that just does not seem nearly enough time! It might be wise to live as though I only had those few years left (or less) and live passionately with a foundation of compassion for all living things.



The New England Journal of Medicine published a fascinating article on July 26, 2007, A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat, by David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Dosa is a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University — both in Providence.

Oscar the Cat, was adopted by staff members of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island as a kitten and bailed him out of a nearby animal shelter. He has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die. Thus far, he has anticipated the deaths of more than 25 residents.

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Cougars at Lake Powell

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Mountain Lion 2014 © Stephen Bruno

One summer during a spiritual and personal growth houseboat retreat, I was teaching at Lake Powell, Page, Arizona, I anchored a 50-foot houseboat near the sandy beach far into the lake at an isolated cove. Our group of 16 participants observed one very large pair of Cougar paw prints about 4 inches wide. This is about the width of an adult hand. There also were two sets of small kitten prints imbedded in the soft wet sand.

In the late afternoon, I was jogging at the top of a steep cliff and as I rounded a curve, I saw a large 100lb female Cougar sitting at the top off a bluff. Her torso was a cinnamon buff-colored contrasted by a white belly. She had two kittens with brownish-black irregular spots on the body and dark rings on the short tail.

I had read that they can jump as far as 40 feet in one leap and as high as 15 feet from the ground. This was disconcerting as I was only about 45 feet away below her. I figured one leap would bring us together.

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Black Bear Family

Black Bear 2014 © Stephen Bruno

At age seven, I encountered my first bears in the wild, in Yosemite National Park. I hiked away from my family’s canvas tent cabin at the Curry Village campground and walked down toward one of the many cold rapid moving rivers in the beautiful valley. I became lost that morning in the splendor of the Giant Sequoia trees and the lush green meadows in the valley floor.

I easily recall that when four adult Black Bears (actually more cinnamon) and three cubs strolled by me when I wandered off the path I was so captivated that I completely forgot about being lost. The bears were friendly, and remained comfortable in my presence. It never occurred to me to be concerned about my safety, or theirs.

I talked quietly to each of the bears, watching their curious expressions as they responded with grunts, and followed them the entire day through the countless blooming flowers and tall green grass. I watched the frequent Gray Squirrels running about and the occasional Mule Deer roaming near the riverbed of the roaring Merced River.

Sometimes I watched as the cubs were wrestling, falling, and nipping each other. They were very playful and seemed curious about me. When the family of bears ate huckleberries, blueberries, or other berries, I ate berries. When they rested, I rested. When they looked for other areas to forage at wet meadows along creeks and river, I walked along with them.

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Yosemite Fire Falls

I remember a special experience I had at Yosemite National Park in California when I was a child. It was around 9:00 P.M. during the summer and I heard a man at Camp Curry call to Glacier Point. “Hello, Glacier!” Then the man at Glacier Point called down with a faint echo, Hello, Camp Curry!” The man at Camp Curry then said, “Let the fire fall!” Then I barely heard, “The fire is falling!” I saw a glowing waterfall of sparks and fire start at the top of a distant mountain and watched as it fell for about 30 seconds.

Later I learned that someone pushed a large bonfire of red fir bark evenly over the edge of the cliff, appearing as a waterfall of fire as it cascaded about 4,000 feet down the mountain. This was the tradition of the Yosemite Fire Fall.

I was so into the fire fall that at first I did not notice a girl about my age also standing alone beside a large tree watching the burning bonfire lighting up the mountain in the darkness. I cannot really explain how it happened but I found that when she and I apparently gravitated toward each other we were side by side, as the fire fall was nearing its end.

We looked at each other speechless after such a wonderful experience and lightly kissed each other on the lips. Then we turned and each ran away as fast as we could in the opposite direction. I never saw the girl again but the combination of the incredible fire fall and my first kiss endeared me forever to the glorious power of nature.