Parenting Without a Net: Teeth, Memorials, and David Foster Wallace

Today Ronan got his first tooth. My mom spotted it while he laughed (or while he had a seizure; yet another cruel aspect of Tay-Sachs is that laughing fits are often, in reality, seizures). Rick sent me the text while I was working at our local coffeehouse. My knee jerk response: sadness, and then anger. His body will continue to grow: his hair will get longer, his teeth will come in, he will get fatter and bigger. His body will change, but he will not be able to use it in the world in the way he was meant to. He will never be able to use that tooth or subsequent teeth to chew solid food. He won’t live long enough to lose those teeth to the tooth fairy. He will be a little baby in a little boy’s body. Yes, we will love him through every change and in every stage, but there’s also the all-too-present knowledge that his evolution will only go so far and then it’s over the hill and a fast, too fast, sprint to the final, ultimate change. It’s like parenting without a net, without the future, without the foothold that makes the terrifying moments of being a parent bearable.

I was once talked into an afternoon of rock climbing in Austin. The rock face was not terribly steep, but it was disorienting to the point of sickness to be vertical and clawing my way up a rock (Are people kidding that this is supposed to be fun? I thought).  I was hooked up to a sturdy system of ropes and with a posse of strong friends at the ready to assist me, both of which turned out to be unnecessary as I could not move. At all. With all my upper body strength and cardiovascular stamina, I could not move a single inch. I flailed and sweated and cursed and laughed and could not find a usable foothold with my fingers or my foot. After thirty scrambling, grasping minutes my friend lowered me to the ground. Later she held my hands in hers and examined them. “Nope,” she said, shaking her head. “Your fingers are too long. Climbers need short fingers to get those impossible holds in the rock.” So often in the morning I wake up and feel as though I’m standing with my nose against that rock, sweating, trying to accomplish something as simple as getting my hands over my head, or stepping out of bed, and all the while I’m moving against both gravity and logic. These days each morning I’m right back in that park, listening to the steady insect static, the occasional hollow barks from dogs, a few oversized birds rattling through the nearby trees and shaking damp leaves to the ground.

On Wednesday night Rick and I went to the Lannan Foundation’s moving tribute to David Foster Wallace, a writer of verve and passion and genius. The passages read aloud by Rick Moody, David Lipsky, and Joanna Scott from his new book, his old work, and from his interviews were exuberantly intelligent, achingly sensitive, and, from a craft perspective, brilliant, innovative, and for lack of a better word, new. Even the interview responses had craft; the man was an epic stylist even when he was casually riffing about war, art, writing, or American Psycho. After the readings (“spellbound” doesn’t begin to capture it) Michael Silverblatt, long-time host of the radio program Book Worm, asked each of the readers to recount personal anecdotes about Wallace, who hung himself in 2008. Wallace, we learned, was someone others had the urge to call when things went wrong, a guy who saw the world intimately, in almost painful detail, and who tried to bring everything into the experiences rendered in his essays and novels, all that was absurd and profound, all that made us human and horrible, without aligning himself with a particular ideological position that excluded some and exalted others. (As he said in the interview, “I’m not going to line up behind Tolstoy and Gardner.”) He could describe the sky and the weather in ways you’d never think possible (David Lipsky’s chosen excerpts were especially powerful in the ways in which they showed the magic Wallace could make with words). His penetrating insights into all that was weird and wonderful, his obvious genius, his status as a true original with no literary heir — all were celebrated. That there exists a big fat hole in the literary world where his voice once spoke so eloquently and honestly and outrageously was acknowledged.

What I appreciated most however, about the memorial, is that he was not condemned for killing himself. The common view of suicide is that it’s selfish, self-serving, short-sighted (“a permanent solution to a temporary problem”), and of course it is all of these things in some respect, but Wallace’s decision, as tragic for his friends and family as it continues to be, was not treated as a personal failure or even a surprise. Here was an artist who understood, as his friends demonstrated, how difficult it was to be humane in a wicked, stupid world that was also startlingly beautiful and generous and that, in the end, he could not bear to live in.

I didn’t know Wallace, or how he felt, but I have certainly known despair, and I understand that one cannot face that rock wall, with no way out or over it, day after day after day with no break. On some days there needs to be a clear vista, a visible horizon in the distance. I get those days, and I’m thankful for them. I understand that there is only so much pain that a person can bear, and that the right kind of help or resource is not always immediately available. I understand that it is possible to say “I want to live” and “I want  to die” and “the world is amazing” and “the world is shitty” and for each of these statements to be simultaneously valid. (Full disclosure: I learned this in therapy while working with dialectical behavior training and “the wise mind.”) In response to suicide people often say,”think of the people he or she is leaving behind.” Yes. And it is true and logical that the great pain left behind by that person’s absence is incalculable. But people in despair are immune to logic. Saying “it will get better,” or “don’t feel like that,” or other well-meaning statements made out of panic for a person’s safety make perfect sense — nobody wants to lose a friend or loved one to suicide — but such statements often make the person feel worse, which deepens despair.

I’m not advocating suicide, and it’s not a decision I would make for myself, for all kinds of reasons, but however tragic and misguided and irreversible it is, the choice to end one’s life should not be viewed as some inherent weakness in the individual who chooses to do so; it need not permanently condemn them in the eyes of others. William Styron, in his oddly buoyant book about depression, Darkness Visible, takes aim at those who would judge a person for coming down on the “wrong” side of the question: is life worth living? He argues that this question is the biggest riddle of human existence, and that to answer no, life is not worth living, although terrible and unenviable, is understandable. And so is the choice to go on living in the face of these existential terrors. Styron, as I do, believed that we have an obligation to kick on, despite our sadness, but he also understood, as I do, when people are not able to do so.

My grandfather took his life in 1944. I was told matter-of-factly that the incident was officially classified as an accident. Never mind the questionable logistics of a bullet ricocheting in a barn in a way that would kill a person, but the town was small, there was insurance money to be considered (forfeited in the case of suicide), rumors quickly became legends, and my grandfather was Catholic. An only son, his parents would find it unbearable, as all parents would, to imagine him in hell. He left behind my grandmother and two kids, my mother (who has no memories of him) and her brother (who remembers isolated images and incidents), both under the age of two, who still had to live in that same small town. He was 35. Yes, he left them in the lurch, financially and emotionally, and (my grandmother especially) in a state of grief and vulnerability – yet another reason I wish I’d known her so that I could have talked to her about it, tried to understand how she felt, shared my own grief story (for I don’t believe that there are different qualities of grief, or that one is worse than the other). We’ll never know why, but I wish we’d talked about him more, that we knew more about him, that the fact that he committed suicide hadn’t somehow made it impossible to celebrate what he had been like before he stepped into that barn with a gun. It was almost as if he’d never existed, save in his wedding photograph, his carefully brushed hair a bright red plume across his forehead.

Did my grandfather make the wrong choice? Yes. A tragic one that destroyed two families. But was it his choice to make? I have to say yes. Was he crazy? Selfish? Depressed? Maybe, as we all are at some point or another if we’re awake in this world. Or maybe he just found himself living in a world that could not contain his anguish, his despair, his helplessness, and there were no resources for him, there did not exist treatment for mental illness apart from incarceration in an asylum, which is probably not what he needed, and as anyone who has experienced grief will understand, the desire to separate oneself from the feeling often leads to a desire to separate from the world. I don’t agree with what he did; my mother and my uncle were robbed of their father, my grandmother of a man she arguably loved deeply (a Protestant-Catholic marriage at that time was, believe it or not, pretty risque). My brother and I never knew our grandfather, although I’ve been told I look just like him: same hair, same face (only more feminine — thanks!), same eyes, same….depression? Maybe, but it’s 2011 now, and those of us who suffer from what was once called, rather sheepishly, “melancholia,” is now highly treatable. Options exist.

Which makes the situation with David Foster Wallace that much more maddening, and my appreciation for his memorial that much more profound: no blame there. Sadness and regret, yes, but also celebration, astonishment at his gifts, and a clear sense of ownership. He belonged to a new generation of American writers, and no matter how his life ended, we will claim him.

The evening also taught me an important lesson. When we have a memorial for Ronan in the not-so-distant future, tragedy and celebration can be intermixed. We can be angry about our loss and simultaneously thankful for the time we had with him.  And this weird mix of life and death can be — must be, really — a part of everyday experience. I can be sad about the appearance of a tooth and also delighted to see it peeking up in Ronan’s little mouth. I want my understanding and appreciation of his life now, and after his death, to include everything, as much as possible, all the deep  horrors and startlingly amazements along this journey. Everything. We don’t have to say things like, “Ronan lost his struggle with Tay-Sachs disease” because it has never been a struggle. The disease is killing him full stop. We can say this and also say that he, in his own unique way, made the most of his short life despite living with a progressive neurological illness — that he was delightful, sweet, occasionally short-tempered, snuggly, moody, funny, earnest, curious, and most of all, ours.

9 responses to “Parenting Without a Net: Teeth, Memorials, and David Foster Wallace

  1. Bernadette Murphy

    Beautiful, Emily. Thank you.

  2. “I understand that there is only so much pain that a person can bear, and that the right kind of help or resource is not always immediately available. I understand that it is possible to say “I want to live” and “I want to die” and “the world is amazing” and “the world is shitty” and for each of these statements to be simultaneously valid.” You’ve stated this so perfectly, Emily.

    Irv Yalom wrote a book called “staring at the sun” about overcoming our fear of death. He’s an atheist. One of the things he talks about is the “ripples” we leave behind. How our lives touch other lives, and those lives touch other lives. I’ve never met Ronan but he’s touched my life. He’s rippled into me. He’s rippled into you and Rick. His grandparents. And you all touch so many people. His ripples will go on and on here on the planet, even when Tay-Sachs takes him away. I think you wear your soul on your face–and when I look at Ronan’s face I see a soul that is going to leave grief and sadness, and yes, pain and frustration, but most of all goodness. Just goodness.

  3. Emily-This post blew me away-so perfectly true.

    For some reason after reading it, I thought about when through tears, I called my dad “twinkle toes” after one of his endless ALS induced stumbles. He looked at me and roared with laughter until he had his own tears.

    ALS is the scariest, hardest thing I have ever had to witness. But that moment when my own dark humor matched my dad’s was both horrible and wonderful at the same time. Kind of what I think you are saying about conflicting ideas both holding sway at the same time. I get it-I really do.

  4. Thank you Emily.

  5. ” It’s like parenting without a net, without the future, without the foothold that makes the terrifying moments of being a parent bearable.”

    Thanks so much for this brilliant metaphor! It helps and hurts.

  6. Emily – you’re in a blaze of brilliance. These posts are spectacular in their thinking, writing, demanding – they’re a staggering tribute to family, art, and brave love. It’s no mystery where Ronan gets his curiosity from – your fierce question asking and refusal to accept easy vocabulary are almost as amazing as your generosity in giving this blog to the world. In awe, Rachel

  7. Beautifully said again Emily. You are right there is no absolute regardling life or death, grief and loss-it neither all good or all bad-just messy in the way only a human enterprise can be…

  8. Beautifully, brilliantly said….

  9. Yours is some of the most heroic writing I have ever read.

    I entered Amherst College the year David Foster Wallace graduated, and I continue, as a local alum, to use Frost Library at AC. David’s presence still abounds on campus, especially in Frost and at Johnson Chapel, home of the English department. Sometimes I bump into an old professor of mine, Dale Peterson, who wrote the following tribute to David on an AC webpage:

    I can take or leave most of what I read these days, especially online, but your writing is different; it’s a real keeper. I am utterly humbled by all you have conveyed. Thank you very much.

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