Of a Beautiful Child
I am becoming cicada husk, the cool
Throat of an empty vase, the dark space
Between stars. You touch me and I see
That monstrous child Montaigne pitied
On the streets of Paris – my inseparable twin
Hanging from the center of my chest,
Your head where my heart should be, my heart
-From “Overripe,” by Danielle Deulen
In the news today, a young toddler was denied a kidney transplant that would save her life. Because she suffers from a rare and “complex” genetic disorder (as if genes were simple in anyone’s case), has severe mental and physical impairments and is not expected to live past the age of three, the doctors felt it unnecessary to conduct any procedure that might extend the time she had in her body. The outraged and panicked mother blogged about it, causing a flutter of letters – petitions, really – to be sent to the hospital, lobbying for the transplant that would save this girl’s life.
Whose life matters? Who counts? Which bodies are worth saving? Protecting? Loving?
In Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “Of a Monstrous Child,” the author, often deemed the “father of the essay,” whatever that means, turns the word monstrous on its head. His tiny two-page missive about a child he sees in the street – a “double body and these several limbs” – has the Swiftian power of a brick in the face, a bullet crashing through the folds of the (what he argues is a very closed) mind. Yes, he pities the child, but not in the “oh, heavens, that poor thing,” way that I’ve been accustomed to all my life. As my grandmother said many times with a deep sigh, looking me up and down, “Well, at least you’re smart. That’s something.” My body was not enough, it seemed, and would never be. And now I have a son whose body cannot live in a world that pities him. It’s enough to make me walk around with a brick of my own, but reading Montaigne, I’m reminded that it might be better to walk around with some eyeglasses, some funky-ass, new-agey, look-through-them-and-the-world-becomes-a-scene-from-the-matrix-or-from-your-idea-of-the-afterlife eyeglasses.
Montaigne unpacks the reason why people stare at me when I swim at a public pool. Why people let their eyes linger over Ronan’s floppy limbs, his sightless eyes, his trembling hands. Why our eyes are drawn to the faces of burn victims, missing limbs, identical twins, people of short stature – anyone who falls outside the normative standards of what makes a body, what makes it valuable. (It’s like that scene in any war movie, when the music gets all dark and serious and then amputees start crutching by, looking miserable and haunted and trailed by a nurse with a dour, doe-eyed expression). Quoting Cicero, Montaigne says, “What he sees often, he does not wonder at, even if he does not know why it is. If something happens which he has not seen before, he thinks it is a prodigy.” The burden, then, falls on the looker, and the looker is held accountable for the lens through which she sees – and sorts – the world. I love the way Montaigne makes that child in the essay extraordinary in the truest sense: brilliant and shiny. The thing you want most to pick up when it glints at you from the street. The man born blind in the Gospel of John did not exist to make people feel grateful for their vision; the text is very clear that he, in fact, possessed the vision that others did not. That his was a looking that saw wonder, saw God, when others did not. His body was not a punishment; it was a kind of divine revelation.
A politician (who will go unnamed, so as not to give his “ideas” any greater currency) stated that disabled children are a woman’s punishment for having abortions in her sullied, slutty, ho-bag past. The notion of the “sins of the father will be visited on the sons” being visited on our country’s political scene. Disabled people as metaphors, as objects of disdain, neglect, as warnings, as punishment. Players in the freakshow. Pushed center stage so that others’ fears about what is normal, what is valuable and loveable, are pushed to the side – this, Montaigne seems to be saying, is true obscenity, if obscene means a total lack of imagination about form and variety, shape and possibility. In a world we know just about everything there is to know about molecules and neurons and photons and the smallest bit of what makes life life, we still pity those whose variety doesn’t fit with our limited notion of what variety might entail. Look again, I hear the essay saying now, reading it in light of Ronan’s situation. Look again, and look deeply, truly. Don’t just look at what’s on the stage, look behind the curtain, look up to the lights.
For deep truth is always simple, often deceptively so.“This story will go its way simply,” as Montaigne says. I will take my child out into the world. People stare at us. In my mind I imagine giving them these eyeglasses, fitting them gently over their face, and then asking them to look again (this last part perhaps not so nicely). Look at me and Ronan, in our bubble of simple, unconditional love. Brutal and true and sad and rocked by the truth of death-in-life. Colorful. Weird.
Who should we pity? I pity myself before I had Ronan, before he rocked my mind, my heart. I pity the lens I was looking through, cloudy and dark, a lens that made the world small and mean and inscrutable and limited. “We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom,” Montaigne seems to be reminding himself at the end of the essay. What are the customs in our culture? Hateful politicians, starving magazine models, greedy corporations, a society fueled by the word “get.” The “imperfect” child that is only 14 months old in “Of a Monstrous Child” is a child Montaigne pities not so much because of the shape of his body, but because he has been confronted with, over and over again, the limited capacity of the human mind, our myopic ways of looking, our refusal to see past what is presented to us, our unwillingness to challenge custom.
I see beauty and tenderness in Montaigne’s detailed description. I feel grace. I look at Ronan and see perfection. I see my son. I see the truth, I see his rockstar, off the charts, blonde and green-brown-eyed, pale-skinned beauty. I see something extraordinary, the slick lip of transcendence, the edge of something I have always intuited but until now has been unavailable to me — off sight, out of reach. I hear something – a song, a sonar, a wave. Ronan rides at the center of my chest — his body against mine, his body from mine. I am relieved of the husk of what I was. I am new, which is a kind of revelation or redemption without a fixed endpoint. I feel my old, cold heart pushed aside for one that is explosive, boundless, electric, powerful, and beautiful – mine, yes, but also Ronan’s.