In my house, next to the kitchen phone, among the important items we don’t want to lose—keys, phones, ID cards—is a photograph of a handsome young man wearing a blue t-shirt and smiling into the camera. Behind him is a canopy of summer trees and the English sky coloured its typical sheet-metal grey. I visit his photo as though it may need some of my attention.I notice the smile all over again, and remember him all over again: as a newborn floppy in my arms, as a five-year-old with his stack of Lego, as a young adult laughing at a picnic table in our garden, surrounded by family on an ordinary spring day.
Since his funeral last Thursday I am visited by thoughts of the beautiful wicker casket covered in flowers in which he was carried, solemnly and with great care, through the ancient church with its vaulted ceiling and dark pew benches below pretty stained glass. If you ask me how I feel about the death of this most beloved boy, I can sum it up in a these words: He was twenty-four.
That is enough information for you to know just how great a robbery was his death. And that something rare and terrible has taken place after which recovery cannot be complete.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, if you’ve never felt a heavy loss of a dearly loved child (I must make clear that he was not my son, but my friends’ son), I envy you. If you’ve never stood in a place of shocked speechlessness and horror and the fear of the future, which seems to hold nothing good anymore, nothing to reach for, I envy you.
Not all of us have these experiences: to wish you could sign away your own life in place of another, to be willing to follow even the most ludicrous, irrational faith if it holds a piece of magic that will save your child. Not all of us have had reason to stay up nights researching, then typing out what you hope aren’t hysterical-sounded messages to experts in a field of medicine you now wish you’d studied just so you’d know more about your child’s condition. Thank God, these experiences are rare.
I don’t envy those who hold lucky tickets or are among the world’s super-rich, or Booker prize winners, I envy those whose children are healthy and well. I envy those who have not sat in the specialists’ offices or spent every penny on medical consults, or hoped and prayed and bargained and pleaded. I remember wishing so much that my own child was ordinary and that I could count myself among those gifted ignorant folks who do not endure diagnoses or burials. My own son, still alive, thriving despite predictions, his unusual brain in turns both a gift and a curse.
T.C. Boyle has the most beautiful story, Chicxulub that brings the reader as close to an experience of such loss as can be rendered imaginatively. It won’t help to steel you for the moment that it is your friend or husband or wife or parent or child. It can’t make pain lessen. It’s just a story. But it is so unflinchingly and unforgivably accurate, depicting what parents feel through the darkening hours of fear, and that final, dreadful verdict upon a child they’ve loved more than they thought would be possible before bringing her into the world. It is as close to being there as you can be without being there, if you know what I mean.
I listened to Lionel Shriver read Chicxulub for the New Yorker podcast. As Lionel did during her rehearsal of her reading, I welled up through the build-up of the narrative, and cried at the end, not for the fictional characters within its pages but for all those real life daughters and sons whose loss brings a kind of annihilation.
Writers matter to us all because the unearth aspects of our everyday lives that deserve our reflection and attention. Words honour loss. Words honour the dead. Words don’t make it any easier, but at least give a structure to our feelings that offers the illusion of safety within the chaos of our emotions. Writing brings alive memory. Just blogging about this boy I loved–and who was so loved by his family–allows me to hold him in my mind once again.
Writers can scare you to death without even trying. Chicxulub will unsettle you, will bring into an uncomfortable space. It will surprise you–everything about it speaks of the strange mixture of inevitability and surprise that makes up our lives. Everything about the story screams warning, warning warning….How does one set about writing a story like that? I don’t know and I write all the time. It is just what happens, or can happen.
Be brave: read the story.
The Authors Guild has joined the Writer’s Union of Canada in celebrating why writers matter this week. If you use #WhyWritersMatter in tweets it will help tell everyone how you feel about them.