Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

Lessons From A Vision Of A Funeral Pyre

My grandfather’s funeral was the first I attended of a significant family member. It was also the first time I witnessed a cremation, that fiery return to the ashes–and possibly eternal cycles of becoming and passing away–which signals the end of a Hindu’s life. As we prepared for it, I was aware, even through the haze of my grieving for a man who had assumed such a vivid and dominant presence in my life, that I was about to undergo a transformative experience of one kind or the other.

It was not long in forthcoming. After the preliminary prayers had been chanted, and my grandfather’s body wrapped in a white shroud and placed on top of the pyre, my uncle–my grandfather’s eldest surviving son–stepped up and brought a burning taper to it. The wooden logs caught fire quickly and long tongues of flame moved up and through their thickets, rapidly turning into a fierce blaze. I stood on the other side of the pyre; I could see my grandfather’s feet pointing toward me, suddenly exposed, sticking out from the under the sheet that covered the rest of his body.

As the flames grew, so did the radiant heat, and I took a step backward. As I did so, I noticed that my grandfather’s feet had blackened, charred by the fire that turned skin into soot. And then, abruptly, without notice, the blackened skin peeled, exposing an ivory-white flesh below, which began to melt and drip off the the now exposed bones; a bony, skeletal foot began to emerge. I instinctively winced, and started forward; I wanted to protect my grandfather from this horrible, agonizing, consignment to the flames. He was trapped and helpless; pinned under by the weight of the logs.

I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to protect. My grandfather was gone; he was beyond pain and sensation and feeling and suffering. I was staring at the remnants of his body, now lacking the appropriate relationship to the totality I had called my ‘grandfather.’ It could feel nothing, sense nothing. Old instincts died hard; standing there, in that April heat, as the Central Indian sun beat down on me, I could scarcely believe this all too evident fact.

The pyre continued to blaze; the bones in my grandfather’s feet had now started to crack and crumble under the still raging flames. All around me, a sombre group of family and friends gazed on. I had received news of my grandfather’s worsening health a mere twenty-four hours before; we had dashed to his home by overnight train in an effort to meet him, and on arriving, had learned he had passed away the previous night itself. I had spent the morning in a daze, scarcely believing this larger than life figure was gone, never to return.

But now there was no doubt about it; I had received confirmation that the time had come for my grandfather to ‘return’; this cremation had quickly and efficiently prepared his physical remains for the next stage of their transformation and further utilization in this world’s ongoing becoming.

‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.

 

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate At The Stairs’ And An Implausible Grieving

There is much to like in Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate At The Stairs: there is Moore’s trademark dry humor, her dazzling vocabulary and eye for natural and urban detail, her exploration of weighty issues–race, adoption, gender, families, parenting–with a writerly touch that is deft and light in equal measure. But there is a crucial implausibility in the story, which when encountered by a reader like me, is liable to ripple out and weaken the hold of the novel. And reduce in significant measure its emotional impact.

[Spoilers ahead; turn back or hold your peace forever.]

At the heart–or at least, somewhere vital in the novel’s body–is a terrible tragedy, the worst of all: the death of a young child. It is the black hole in the universe of Sarah Brink, who has now found a nanny–the central character, Tassie Keltjin–to look after her adopted bi-racial child, ostensibly representing the start of a new family.

But Sarah and her husband, Edward, lost their son in no ordinary manner. Instead, his death came about quite directly as a result of actions taken by his father. While driving on a highway, their son had repeatedly engaged in loud, disruptive, and disobedient behavior; his father, finally losing his patience, had snapped and forced the boy out at a highway rest stop; once the lesson had been learned, the boy would be let back in to the car. Thanks to a series of confusing interactions with the traffic behind them, the Brinks are forced off the rest stop and back onto the highway and as they frantically try to turn around and retrieve the boy, he wanders on to the highway and is struck and killed by oncoming traffic.

Lorrie Moore now expects the reader to believe that after such an accident, involving the death of their only son, one caused by the inappropriately angry actions of the father, that the mother–who had protested the father’s actions throughout the incident–stays on in the relationship, and that the couple somehow endures and carries on with their lives. Now scarred, of course, but they do endure.

This, I’m afraid, is entirely implausible. Forgiveness in this matter will not be easily forthcoming, if not impossible. The death of a young child very often tears the relationship of the parents’ apart; this is because haunted and grieving parents, looking for some explanation of this most inexplicable of events, will, quite understandably, blame and indict any entity, material or otherwise, for it. All too often, the love for, and the relationship with, a romantic partner and co-parent, will not survive such a lashing out. It will especially not survive when one of the parents is so clearly to blame.

Parents understand the rage that children can provoke in their parents; some might even–from a distance–empathize with Edward. But very few, and I’m one of them, will be able to comprehend how a grieving mother could ever ‘get over’ the knowledge that her co-parent’s impatience and anger had caused the death of her child. To err is human, to forgive is divine; but gods do not walk this earth. Only flawed humans do.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia And The Insight Of The Depressed

There is a moment during the disastrous wedding reception that kicks off Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia that you suspect the reason Justine the bride is being so mysteriously, bafflingly, awkwardly morose, is that she is aware of an impending apocalypse, the one made imminent by a beautiful blue planet approaching the earth on a collision course. She has good reason to be so sad, so distracted, so rueful. The world is coming to an end; how do marital bliss or discord, or effusive praise, or haute cuisine, or elaborately planned weddings, or anything else matter?

A little while later, we are made to realize Justine may well be a life-long melancholic, clinically depressed, sometimes to the point of catatonia, and that she is not the only one who is aware of the proximity of Earth’s new neighbor. Still, she might be the only one who has sussed out that the absurdity of existence must now be reckoned with, and cannot be postponed or consigned to the margins as is usually done. Perhaps the depressed have always known this. Which is why they cannot allow themselves to be distracted like those around them, who rush around engaging in one triviality or banality after another. They rightly perceive these activities as mere diversions. Perhaps it is the depressed who, when the time for death is at hand, find an equanimity that all too many ‘normal people’ find elusive. The worst is here; they have felt its shadow for too long; this final reckoning is at hand.

It is no surprise then, that in the second part of the movie, Justine and her sister Claire, who is worn down and edgy after years of sibling encounters with a mentally ill person, undergo changes in personality.  Claire becomes frantic and panicky; Justine is calm, matter-of-fact, serene. And Claire’s husband, standing in as the ostensibly cool, detached, skeptical and rational man of science, the one who has previously subjected his wife’s anxieties to some scorn and some invocations about the power of science to get things right, takes his own life, not deigning to involve his wife or son in this decision. The end of the world is here; what matter such niceties?

End of the world movies can emphasize both the triviality and banality of our daily lives as well as the primacy of simple human gestures and relationships; they can offer caustic commentary on our shallowness and pettiness and obsession with material reward as well as make poetic statements about the beauty around us that is soon to be consigned to the ashes. Melancholia manages to do all of this. We are reminded the world is a beautiful place, that startling glimpses of sublimity may be found all around us; we are reminded too, that such splendor often showcases conflict and discord and strife.

In the end, as Melancholia, the approaching planet, becomes malevolent, we find ourselves encountering a familiar question, one whose answer can only be imperfectly offered in the present without the actual grim reality of the end of existence upon us: How would we face such an eventuality? Would we put away pettiness and rancor? Would we remain distracted or would this concentrate our minds wonderfully?

Justine knows the answer: hold hands with the ones you love.

A Stranger’s Death, Made Familiar

On Monday, as I walked to campus to begin a full day of teaching, I came across–outside a high school that abuts our campus–one of those dreaded memorials to the too-young-dead: black and white and color photographs, flickering candles, bouquets of flowers, notes of affection and remembrance and disbelief, some printed, some handwritten, and lastly, most poignantly, sobbing,disconsolate girls, resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally grief-stricken friends. I stopped and read some of the notes; I looked at the photographs. There she was, a young teen-aged girl, gleefully, artlessly, posing with friends and family, sometimes in a bus, sometimes in a park, sometimes hugging girlfriends, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes caught off-guard, sometimes preening, sometimes shy, sometimes dressed to the gills, sometimes lazily casual. It was all there, the bare reminders of a life now over. Around me, some students stopped and stared and read; some  stayed, some moved on quickly. There were uneasy glances cast backward at this reminder of the mortality of one of their cohort.

I read her name; the first name was common enough, but she was still a stranger.  But not utterly so. She had a name, she had a face; her presence in this world was visible through the reactions of her friends, through this public memorial that had confronted me and made my weekday extraordinary. I felt a prickliness in my eyes; some irritation had manifested itself and forced, in response, from my ever sensitive optical apparatus, a secretion of moisture to provide instant relief.

This morning, as I walked to campus again, a block or so away from the high school crossing, my pace slowed. I wondered if I would see the same memorial again. I remembered the girl’s name–incompletely, the spelling half-forgotten. I searched for it on the internet. My first try was unsuccessful; on the second, I added ‘Brooklyn’ and tried again. I found her: she had been fifteen years old, killed in an accident on a New Jersey highway while traveling with her parents. The family car had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Her parents and her sibling were grievously injured; she had been ‘pronounced dead on the scene.’ The picture of devastation was now complete. A family ruined, left to grieve, to mourn the premature ending of their nearest and dearest.

The news article that had come up on my search was utterly nondescript; the kind I see on a daily basis, listing the dead somewhere, killed somehow. Perhaps by murder, perhaps by war, perhaps by natural disaster. But that memorial, those pictures, those notes, those sobbing students, those candles, those flowers, they had made this death–of a complete stranger–that much more familiar.

I walked on. There it was again, the altar of remembrance, now moved to the entrance of the school, next to a legend that spoke of how she would never be forgotten. I stopped again, looked at more pictures, read some more notes. Then, I felt that same irritation in my eyes and I moved on.