Monday, October 28, 2013

A Birthday

Today is my younger son's sixteenth birthday. As I chronicle in my essay "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace," he was born very early in the morning, after I'd spent a night reading Tolstoy.
I arrived at the hospital around nine in the evening, and Paul was born at four in the morning. The intervening hours were intense but dull, rather like being up all night with stomach flu. My husband fell asleep in a chair. Nurses whispered down the hall. The contractions became progressively more wrenching, but in the intervals I continued to read. There was a kind of clock-ticking inevitability to my alternation between worlds—one composed only of dazzling pain, the other merely my everyday self reading War and Peace in the middle of the night. It didn’t seem necessary to call a nurse or wake up my husband. The pain arrived. I squeezed my eyes shut, held my breath, gritted my teeth. The pain vanished. I opened my eyes, took a breath, and turned a page. 
An hour or so into my routine, I encountered this passage: 
The little princess was lying on the pillows in her white nightcap (the agony had only a moment left her). Her black hair lay in curls about her swollen and perspiring cheeks; her rosy, charming little mouth, with the downy lip, was open and she was smiling joyfully. Prince Andrey went into the room, and stood facing her at the foot of the bed on which she lay. The glittering eyes, staring in childish terror and excitement, rested on him with no change in their expression. “I love you all, I have done no one any harm; why am I suffering? help me,” her face seemed to say. She saw her husband, but she did not take in the meaning of his appearance now before her. . . . 
His coming had nothing to do with her agony and its alleviation. The pains began again, and Marya Bogdanovna [the midwife] advised Prince Andrey to go out of the room. 
When I recall this scene—myself in the throes of childbirth reading about Tolstoy’s little princess in the throes of childbirth—the memory has a play-within-a-play quality, a staginess. It feels, in truth, like something I’ve read about in a novel. What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy. I was, at that instant, enduring with this familiar yet imaginary woman the dance of torment and reprieve, torment and reprieve. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death; at each release seized again by life. It was an accident and a strange miracle to read it and to suffer it simultaneously. 
The twist was that I had read the book before. So I knew she would die.
I think about this scene--the death-and-life struggle that childbirth repeats again and again--and I think about where my son is now in his life. Despite love, comfort, books, art, music, animals, the natural world--all of those amenities of civilized affection--he has struggled mightily with tragedies, none of which his parents could have foreseen or prevented. Since the age of twelve, he has endured the deaths of four of his peers--two by murder, one by cancer, one by drowning. Of course he is not alone: all of the people around him have also endured those deaths. Nonetheless, they have weighed him down; their violence has damaged him.

One knows, as a parent, that grief is inevitable. The best we can do is hope that we have prepared our children to weather it. In all of these cases, there was no time for preparation. The suddenness of these four deaths hurled a generation of local teenagers to the lions, and they fought as they could. My son fought less well than many others did. He was not able to throw himself into good works: he was not able to detach himself: he was not able to talk his way through his feelings. When he first learned that Coty and Monica had been murdered, he ran away into the woods. That could be a metaphor for how he has coped, or not coped, since.

But the years pass, and today he is sixteen. Last week, my friend Craig, father of Paul's classmate who died last winter of brain cancer, handed me a scrap of paper that he'd found in his daughter's Bible. It was a torn bit of notebook paper, with a spelling or vocabulary word scribbled on it and then, below, a goofy little joke message to "Pauly." The scrap was a tiny, blithe epistle from the past--a love note to her father, who found it; a love note to my son, who, when I handed it to him over the breakfast table, accepted it gravely.

He sat in silence for a few seconds before he said, "I know where I'll keep this." Disappearing into his room, he returned with his favorite novel, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which he has read and reread many times. He tucked the scrap of paper into the pages and looked at me. There were no more words, yet we breathed an air that had freshened. I nodded at him. Then he shouldered his pack and went to school.

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