Sunday, August 05, 2007

Don't disturb my circles

We take our lives for granted. That’s my thesis for tonight.

Not in the sense you usually think of it – ungrateful for our blessings, hurrying past the small beauties and hidden graces kind of “granted”.

No, I mean literally. We get up every morning and don’t stop to think: I might not make it to sunset alive. Would ‘t’were bedtime, Hal, and all well. I might die today; make all my plans and schemes and hopes meaningless. Come home in a box. Done. Finito. End of mission, out.

And that’s fine. Life wouldn’t be bearable if we had to wonder every morning if we’d see the twilight and every bedtime if we’d see the dawn. As I child I remember hating – hating – that moronic prayer that includes the line about taking my soul if I die before I wake. The idea that I could just close my eyes and stop, never waking, just fading from one starless dark to another…well, I’m kinda amazed I ever slept as a kid.

I remember being both fascinated and horrified by death. I think most kids are. My mother used to like to tell the story of me as a toddler staring transfixed into the pyracantha bushes as a California king snake coiled into a cedar waxwing’s nest and devoured the young birds. I worried about it, wondered if it would hurt, why it happened to old people. I once refused to kiss my paternal grandmother (a lovely but prematurely desiccated and antique lady) because, as I hissed to my father in an undervoice, “...she makes me think of Death”.
It seemed to me then and still does, by the way, that the worst part of Death was Fear. No matter how awful the dying once it's over it’s..well…over. For you, nothing more. Whatever happens next, including nothing, the living part of your life is done. Now the fear and hurt and emptiness moves on to those who loved you.

Which brings me to my antithesis: once you make the decision to have children you find that nothing in your life can be taken for granted. You give hostages to Fortune, and Fortune, heartless bitch that she is, commonly slays or maims them without remorse. This is the side of parenting the books won’t tell you and your parents themselves have lived with so long that they’ve forgotten to even mention it. Does a fish think about the water it swims in, or an earthworm the soil surrounding it? Look inside a copy of “What to expect when you’re expecting” or Dr. Sears on discipline. You will find no whisper of doubt that this little person you’re reading about will suddenly be gone, as finally and achingly as the last sunlight before full night. You will be – or you have been already – tossed into the Drowning Pool without a life jacket while the raging typhoon called “childhood” hammers you with fifty foot waves of pure terror. Drowning? Choking? Falling? Lead paint? Toxic fabrics, plastics, metals…hormones in milk, child molesters in the street, thought-destroying dreck on the TV? Yep. It’s all out there. Waiting for your kid.

And your child, or children, will rend you on this rack of Fear every day, for they themselves are fearless. Death may intrigue or terrify them but will that stop them from dancing as fecklessly as Shiva in a ring of fire atop the narrowest of ledges? From hurling themselves off high places as if they knew that angels would catch them before they dashed their feet against the rocks? Watching all-in no-rules cagefighting on Versus long after bedtime?

You bet your sweet ass it won’t. The only thing more invisible, invincible, immortal and bulletproof than a college sophomore with eight shots of Stoli in her is your five-year-old on his bicycle. One bioadaptation that pediatricians should provide for the parents is a wider throat, since their hearts will be in it fifteen times a day.
You couldn’t live like that and neither could I. So our synthesis is to try, like Archimedes tracing figures in the dust, to manage our little piece of the world while the Heavens fall around us. We teach, we warn, we clutch, hold and pull away. We hide the scissors and cap the poisons and pad the corners and close our eyes at the daredeviltry and hope that the fates are kind and the ground soft. We compare car seats for impact performance, choose bike helmets for impact resistance, make healthy lunches, watch uplifting programs, read good books and teach good manners and confide good choices until it seems that we’re ready to fall over exhausted from so much care.
And all the while in the back of our minds there’s a hard, cold place we don’t want to visit but know awaits us; the realization that work and try and hope and pray as we might it might not be enough. That we may tell ourselves that anything that wants to hurt or kill our children will have to tear us apart before it does, but even as we do we realize that all our love and all our strength are helpless against a kinked umbilical cord, a flu germ, a moment’s inattention on the part of another driver.

So we go on. And learn to live with the fear that all parents live with from the moment their children are theirs. Until the moment their own eyes close.
Long ago I asked my mother in the blithe ignorance only the adolescent can carry off: “When did you stop worrying about me?” and the look I received answered me better than words could have ever done. She hadn’t. She didn’t. She never will, until they put the pennies on her own eyes. And now I understand as I look in on my own little Peeper – and worry about another little person too far away in Lianjiang for me to do anything but worry – and stand silently listening to his night-slow breathing. I understand about the stone.Fear (Strakh)
So you think you know the real meaning of fear?
Yeah, you think you do know, but I doubt it.
When you sit in a shelter with bombs falling all over.
And the houses around you are burning like torches.
I agree that you experience horror and fright
For such moments are dreadful, for as long as they last,
But the all-clear sounds–then it’s okay—You take a deep breath, the stress has passed by.
But real fear is a stone deep down in your chest.
You hear me? A stone.
That’s what it is, nothing more.
Ilya Selvinsky


atomic mama said...

I'm starting to understand about the rocks. And I think mine will be in the boulder category - no cobbles or pebbles.

walternatives said...

Oh, man,, I hadn't even started to think about drowning, choking, falling or drunk drivers.... Happily, I'm married to someone with your type of "why worry?" sensiblities - good balance for me the worry wart.

Meghan H said...

"Every plan is a prayer to Father Time," as it says in that Death Cab For Cutie song...

FDChief said...

AM: when they're yours every stone is like a boulder. Believe me - and I'm the "casual" parent. I can't imagine what it's like to be my beloved wife.

W: Gotta have that calming sensibility from somewhere. Sadly, as often as I help my bride gain some "perspective" I infuriate her as I casually watch him do something she absolutely freaks out about. You may find yourself going there with DH - tough to find the right balance.

M: Yep. For some reason when I was writing this a scene from the old Hayley Mills "Pollyanna" movie popped into my head where Karl Malden (playing the minister) gets up and preaches this sermon punctuated by his enthusiastic cry of "Death Comes In An Instant!". It was funny in one of those not-funny ways, y'know? But the thing we try to hide even from ourselves, I think, is that it's true. Life, and death, can only be "managed" to a degree. And for some of us Death does come in an instant. Wierd fact: when researching the next post I came across an article that mentioned that Franklin Pierce's 11-year-old son died in a train crash that both he and his wife WITNESSED...

That's so horrible I can't even imagine how I'd deal with something like that. And yet people get handed stuff like it all the time.

How we make it to the grave ourselves still sane, I sometimes have no idea.