The feature “Read This With That” pairs old and new, complementary pieces from the Internet like so much fine cheese and wine. In today’s installment: New Yorker writers Ariel Levy and Aleksandar Hemon. (Previous installment: Taffy and Sugar.)
In our culture, even serious people do not like to think about death. There are some exceptions: the fictional Harry Burns (“I spend hours. I spend days”), the semi-fictional Woody Allen (“I was suicidal as a matter of fact and would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian, and, if you kill yourself, they make you pay for the sessions you miss”), and James Wood, who points out in his recent, thoughtful essay, “Why?” that death sucks. The final, fundamental unfairness of life—the fact that it ends without any regard for our feelings—turns us into children, rendering us powerless and whiny:
Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and seems to kill all the answers. And this first question, the word we utter as children when we first realize that life will be taken away from us, scarcely changes, in depth or tone or mode, throughout our lives. It is our first and last question, uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage, and fear at sixty as at six. Why do people die? Since people die, why do they live? Why are we here?
He argues that, without death, narrative would not be possible. If we lived forever, we could not tell stories, because we could not understand endings. Stories are our consolation, and our consolation prize.
This theory is borne out by two first-person essays from the New Yorker by grieving parents: the recent “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy and, from 2011, “The Aquarium” by Aleksandar Hemon. The first follows the author as she travels across the world while five months pregnant, only to give birth to a fetal version of her son by herself on her hotel room floor. The second follows the author as his nine-month-old daughter is diagnosed with and treated for a brain tumor.
If our culture is unpracticed at soberly, maturely acknowledging the reality of death, it is spectacularly unprepared for the death of children. Since we do not want to believe that children can die, except at the hands of monsters, we censor books, avoid conversations, push the scenario out of mind.
Yet up to 25% of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. As many as one in four! And the odds are not as good as you might think even for those that make it to the starting line: a startling number of babies still die during childbirth or shortly thereafter in the U.S. According to the most recent available data, America’s “infant mortality rate was 6.14 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 2010. This adds up to 24,572 babies who died at or around birth in 2010. … The United States may be one of the richest countries in the world, but has a very high rate of infant mortality compared to other wealthy countries — and compared even to some not-so-rich countries.”
According to the organization Save the Children, “politics and culture” both play a role in why “the U.S. is a worse place for newborns than 68 other countries, including Egypt, Turkey and Peru. A million babies die every year globally on the same day they were born, including more than 11,000 American newborns. … The United States has the highest first-day death rate in the industrialized world. An estimated 11,300 newborn babies die each year in the United States on the day they are born. This is 50 percent more first-day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined.”
Does Nicholas Kristof know this? Did you? I did not know this, even though I have both a baby and an anxiety disorder; it’s remarkable I didn’t find out while I was gestating my own fetus. What these appalling numbers mean, other than the fact that our public health system is sorely lacking, is that heartsick parents in this country are so numerous they could be banded together and sold in bulk at Costco.
By contrast, both Levy and Hemon write feelingly about how solitary devastation makes them. In Levy’s case, she says first “as a human being you walk this world by yourself. But when you are pregnant you are never alone.” Instead you are one-plus, not quite single, not quite plural. As Levy describes in skin-prickling detail, that night on the hotel room floor in Mongolia when she goes into labor, Levy’s pregnant self splits in half, goes from one to two, and then rounds down to one again after the tiny, translucent perfection of her preemie dies in the hospital. She is one-plus, the plus being her almost-child, embodied by a picture on her phone that she shows everyone, the loss of whom (of which?) takes up residence in her distended stomach and leaky breasts.
The subtitle of Hemon’s piece is “A Child’s Isolating Illness,” though at first he seems fortunate to be surrounded and even bolstered by community, including his wife and older daughter, their friends and neighbors, and the imaginary brother Mingus that their older daughter creates for herself. One day, this equilibrium breaks down:
I had a strong physical sensation of being in an aquarium: I could see out, the people outside could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments. Isabel’s illness and our experience of it had little connection to, and even less impact on, their lives. Teri and I were gathering heartbreaking knowledge that had no application in the outside world and was of no interest to anyone …
Everything outside was not so much unreal as devoid of comprehensible substance. When people who didn’t know about Isabel’s illness asked me what was new, and I told them, I’d witness them rapidly receding to the distant horizons of their own lives, where entirely different things mattered. After I told my tax accountant that Isabel was gravely ill, he said, “But you look good, and that’s the most important thing!” The world sailing calmly on depended on platitudes and clichés that had no logical or conceptual connection to our experience.
Words help Hemon remain connected to his wife and older daughter, but their fallibility sunders the connection between his family and everyone else:
We instinctively protected our friends from the knowledge we possessed; we let them think that words had failed, because we knew that they didn’t want to learn the vocabulary we used daily. We were sure that they didn’t want to know what we knew; we didn’t want to know it, either. There was no one else on the inside with us … We could not communicate even within the small group of families with children who were beset by cancer. The walls of the aquarium we were hanging in were made of other people’s words.
The same affliction besets Levy, who feels walled off even from people who can relate to her suffering. She loses her wife, a separation—another going from two to one—that seems too painful for Levy to address, even in a piece that is entirely about pain. And she rejects the support of others, strangers and friends alike:
Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.
Levy, it seems, needs to grieve alone, needs the howling nothingness of a Mongolian winter, either to punish herself or to be utterly herself as she can only be by herself. At the same time, though, she needs to tell the story. She reaches through what is empty to show us just how alone she is. How alone a person can be.
Hemon’s family suffers with him. In listening to his older daughter go on at length about her imaginary brother Mingus, he has an important realization: “Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We processed the world by telling stories. … Unlike Ella, I could not construct a story that would help me comprehend what was happening.”
He could not, until he did, the way we cannot conceive of tragedy striking until we must. Constructing the story of his younger daughter’s illness and death, and publishing it, he, and Levy, find the words that were lacking before. They rage at religion, at God, at life, at those of us fortunate enough to not have had yet to really grieve. In telling their stories, they find their way back from there—Mongolia, the aquarium—to here, where life goes on.
Postscript: For those who crave more words, the new site Modern Loss offers candid takes on loss and its toll, especially for the next generation of mourners.
Ester Bloom, a known heroine addict, lives, reads, and writes in Brooklyn. Follow her @shorterstory.