Things Fall Apart

One of Dad's oldest and dearest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when my brother Chris, my husband and I went to Dad's house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding her to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He's been nagging all of us to do the same. It's the housekeeping of dying. "I'm so glad you're here today," Bets said. "It's really hard to be alone with all those books."

She paused. "I mean, great, I'll have all these books. I'll find room, I have a big house, but what am I going to do with all these books?"

An expression of suffering graced Betsy as we talked, an expression many of us have worn in the last few days, faces crinkled with emotional fatigue, eyes milky but dammed by necessity. We look fragile, exposed, confused and scared. We're watching our rock slowly tip toward the sea and we can't fathom it.

"He really wants me to take the books?"

I nodded.

"So I take the books?"

"You take the books."

This visit has been full of conversation and celebration. Dad has seen many close friends from out of town, and we've had lovely gatherings both large and small, but he's fading into a haze of exhaustion and illness. And, in a bellwether of things to come, he took a plunge backwards and fell on his ass while coming down the stairs from his porch.

My brother was visibly shaken by the event, but Dad thought it was hilarious. "I felt like a turtle who had been flipped on his back!" he snickered.

We didn't find it funny at all. Dad's bones are compromised by the cancer, which has spread like tracks of a freight train through his ribs, shoulders, but most especially his hips, and the medicine he's taken to combat the cancer also thins his bones. They are waging a war in tandem against his internal structure, and as his weakness becomes more profound we've been holding our breath for this very moment. A broken hip would be a disaster of epic proportions.

It's also true that my brother and Betsy happened to be there to witness his fall, but Dad spends much of his time alone. If he hadn't had company, if my brother hadn't been there, Dad wouldn't have had immediate help. And he probably wouldn't tell us about the fall because he wouldn't want us to worry. Which we all know is absurd because after all, he's dying. Things really can't get a whole lot more dire than that.

Unless you break a hip.

Regardless, our pain was skimming very close to the surface this week while all of us, together and separately, struggled with the much more overt reality of Dad's mortality.

•   •   •

Because Betsy was doing her reluctant duty sifting through the stacks, I was, by proximity, somewhat committed to doing the same. My brother had given me a gentle ultimatum the night before. "There are already gaps in the bookcases," he said. "You don't want to miss your chance." Chris has been loaded down with every photography book Dad had, and Betsy was getting the guided tour through the philosophy and classics sections. Other friends had plundered different regions in the landscape of books, Dad hand-selecting many that spoke to his great affection for the people he imagined getting the most out of them.

"Betsy has picked some real gems out of his paintings, too. You want to get down there."

I'll be frank: I haven't felt a pressing need. I don't know why; I'm aware of the finite timeline which has been picking up speed in the last few months. But much of my time is spent with Dad, and when I'm not spending it in the car or in lobbies or exam rooms, I feel like I should spend it washing our clothes or picking up our neglected piles of detritus in our own house. Or writing, which happens less and less these days.

There are other more poignant, less practical reasons I haven't made it a priority, which became clear as Dad stood in the center of the room using his cane as a pointer, suggesting certain books to Betsy and different books to me. It seems I have no criteria other than sentimental ones. I wandered toward modern art, pulled out a Roy Lichtenstein book and set it in my pile, as I remembered browsing through Lichtenstein as a child, amazed at the moiré dots of comic strips writ large. Maybe my son will be similarly fascinated. I pulled out James Joyce's Ulysses and set it aside, a book I've never read despite its profound effect on my father. It's the same copy I remember migrating through our house, shelf to shelf, to table, to shelf again, bound in blue cloth, worn gold lettering, no dust jacket. Dad read it so many times that he knows parts of it by heart; it lives in my pile now. Maybe I'll read it.

I pulled out two massive art books: Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I set aside Mike because I pored over every sculpture as a child, amazed at the life he breathed into rock. Leo I pulled out because dammit, no-one else should have it. The book must weigh twenty pounds. Maybe my son will learn how to read Renaissance Italian backwards and learn to build proto-airships because we have this book.

My brother looked at my stack while passing through the basement. "Damn. You got the Da Vinci."

I became confused, didn't know why I picked it out other than that it seemed like someone should. "I thought Milo might learn how to build crazy contraptions," I joked. "You can have it."

"No, you. It's fine."

"You know where I live," I said. "You can get it anytime."

Betsy was deciding, based on my selections, whether or not she felt possessive of the things I had stacked. "I feel my cupidity coming on," she admitted as she toddled over to where I stood, her own hips creaky with stiffness and metal. "What are you looking at over here?" she asked as she gazed over my shoulder.

Dad admonished her gently. "You wouldn't be interested in that, Bets." He shoved her toward another area. He was pale, circles under his eyes pronounced by the harsh fluorescent lights in the basement. The swelling in his face from the edema made him a doughy gray. He was unsteady, but unflinching in his desire to pass this torch, to get the job done. I moved a chair for him to the center of the room where he could choreograph our dance through the stacks of his life.

"If you're going to take Finnegan's Wake, Bets, you have to take the Key. It's the only way to understand it." He paused. "You should read it aloud. It makes no sense if you can't hear the words," he said.

"Maybe not this time," Betsy sighed as she placed the book back in Joyce's area. She grabbed a collection of shorter stories instead.

Unintentionally I found myself looking at the paintings Betsy had set aside and I felt my own cupidity rise. What if she took the one painting I wanted more than any other painting? What will I do without it? I had no criteria to work with there in the paintings, either. Dad hobbled behind me through the poorly lit areas where his artwork, hundreds of pieces, live in tidy stacks against the walls, a lifetime of work housed here: nudes, landscapes, abstracts, pieces from the Cleveland Painters Union, a fictional group of artists who together protested the NEA's dictates about "pornography" versus "art;" Dad painted in six different styles for six different artists, even created a several hundred page dossier of correspondence and biographies for each character/artist and hosted a gallery exhibit of "their" work at his university, hiring a friend to play the part of Irene Varvel, a woman who created installation pieces. Now they live here, all his characters, his alter egos, in the basement.

I crisscrossed from stack to stack, pulling out his landscapes. The more austere ones of Colorado don't speak to me the way the ones of his trips to France do, even though Colorado was my home for the first half of my forty years and I've never seen France the way Dad did. Maybe that's why I like his paintings of France; they're his alone.

I gravitated toward blue and lavender sunsets more than high sunlight. More lush foliage and dappled light than his stark, spare mountain scenes. Desert scenes less than water views, but more than Boulder environs, my home town, which is strange.

But then I stumbled across a painting of his art studio in Boulder, a silly ad hoc building covered by low shrubs and lilacs, cobbled together from found and recycled construction materials when I was just a baby. I was surprised at the force of my emotion, face to face with my home growing up. My backyard. I began to feel ill.

He was explaining the location of each landscape with vivid clarity, each trip frozen in moments through his eyes and hands. But the paintings I set aside for myself, including the one of his art studio, seemed random and unedited, a poorly curated exhibition of Dad's work. Or maybe I was too distraught to see clearly.

"I feel seasick," I said. "I have to stop."

"Okay, I understand," he said.

I made my way upstairs to help Chris, abandoned to his task of putting up a railing where Dad had fallen the day before; and my husband, abandoned to the task of fixing Dad's irrigation before the heatwave hit and Dad's garden, which he loves, withered. I stood on the porch when Chris walked up. "I think I'm falling apart," I said, as a wave of grief struck me with the force of a cattle prod in the heart. He put his arm around me as I gasped a couple short hiccups of sadness.

And then I went to buy everyone lunch.

Dad was pleased. "We did some good work today," he said. "It feels good, virtuous even."

He was lucky. The rest of us felt like a train had hit us and then backed up to make sure we were really, truly damaged.

•   •   •

That night my brother and I sat on my patio, talking about our days with Dad. Mostly we laughed. We slapped away the mosquitoes, vicious this year because of the late, wet spring, but we refused to go inside. We pondered Dad's businesslike attention to the minutiae of wrapping up his life. We told stories about him. We drank too much. Smoked too much too.

"We'll have to have a thing for him back in Colorado when he dies," I said. "A party. All his friends are back there."



"It's just that it didn't occur to me," he said. "Of course we will."

I've lived face to face with Dad's deterioration since the beginning; Chris is witness to peaks and valleys between visits. He sees Dad one month and he seems pretty good. Wait a couple months and it's a changed landscape. He hasn't had time to catch up, catch his breath. But the cancer isn't waiting for Chris. It's got its own internal schedule specific to no-one but Dad and itself.

Chris was devastated when he arrived last week. I called him the day before, just to give him a head's up, let him know that Dad was in a different place than he was the last time he saw him, but it didn't really help. I can tell Chris about Dad's weakness, frailty. His puffiness and the heaviness in his legs, but it doesn't matter. Dad's voice on the phone is strong and full like old times.

And then you see this little old man, shrinking before you. No strength to pick up his legs when he climbs in the car. No color in his face except the purple rings under his eyes. Flaccid skin which never heals after he gets blood drawn, bruises now weeks and weeks old.

"I thought I had twenty more years," Chris choked. "He had this ridiculous longevity in his family. I just assumed he was going to be around. I haven't done all the things I wanted to do with him. I don't have kids. My kids will never know him," he gasped, raw grief ripping through him. "Bastard," he laughed through his misery.


•   •   •

"Your experience is so different from mine," Chris mused. "You see this part of him I don't see, while he just keeps handing me this stuff that he wants me to have. 'This vase...I'm not sure if it holds water. You'll have to test it.' But I don't care about the vase; I just want to talk to him."

"I'm a project coordinator for Dad," I said. "It's not terribly emotional a lot of the time. I make sure his doctors' visits are scheduled, I take him to his appointments, we get his medicine together. I talk to doctors and nurses about his issues. I'm a taskmaster much of the time, which is fine with me," I said. "But because we're together so much of the time doing the most pressing things, he doesn't really feel like telling me to get in the basement to sort through books like he does with everyone else."

Dad's obsession with getting everything sorted before he's too weak drives my brother crazy. I can understand it; Chris just wants that time to talk, not make it about the shifting of material goods. But I understand Dad, too. He's overseeing things to the very last extent he can--making sure that the most banal parts of his death do not bog us down when he finally takes his bow. He wants us to be able to grieve when he dies, not sift through books looking for their new home.

As with all things, it's a dichotomy that sits better with some people than others. For Betsy, having Dad stand weakly in the middle of his library making observations about the literary merits of one book over another was a bitter chore. It's casual for Dad, this housekeeping, though it signifies a conclusion many of us aren't ready to accept. But Dad just chips away as he slips away.

•   •   •

I've been on cancer duty since my birthday last year, squiring Dad from Point A to Point B, making phone calls, parsing medical information, reading instructions about side effects and making decisions about how to run Dad's medical life without too much fuss. It's been a job with great perks: I hang out with Dad a lot. But like many jobs, it's a detail oriented gig in which I don't invest a huge amount of emotional weight. It's not that I've segregated my emotional life, it's that I do my job caring for Dad like any job: with a certain detachment.

The dam cracking was inevitable, and it happened in a most unfortunate venue: a sunny afternoon gathering with old friends over bottles of vinho verde. Some combination of the heat and the wine, and the week's heavy emotional burden which accommodated not just my own grief but many of the people I love, conspired to create a perfect storm of emotional collapse. I fell apart before my friends eyes, much to the surprise of everyone, myself included. It was a complete dissolution of my being, into small pieces of confusion and sadness, bitter tears, and the admission that Dad was making his exit. I wept without restraint, and as I spoke about it, I cried harder. It was a shocking loss of control for a person who has made her way with a relatively calm dignity about this whole mess.

I walked outside, hoping I could at least stop myself from crying all afternoon.

I sat on the curb smoking a cigarette I had lit desperately off my friend's stove, repeating myself and laughing at my impromptu spectacle between sobs that still choked from me. "Okay," I said. "Okay." I laughed. "Okay. Okay." I pulled on the cigarette between repetitions of my meaningless mantra. "Okay," I whispered. "Okay...okay." Spurring myself to being okay, to being right again, to closing the gash spewing grief.

I lay down on the weedy parking strip under a beautiful tree, gazing through its branches, noting the gaps where golden afternoon light fell, forest dark greens and browns broken by bluest azure, yellow highlights bouncing playfully across the leaves.

It was a painting Dad might have crafted himself. Slowly I stopped repeating myself. I stopped crying. I put out the cigarette. I dusted myself off, a little shabby, face puffy with crying and heat, but not falling apart any longer.

I went inside, embarrassed but calm again, relatively speaking.

•   •   •

I had my husband drive me to Dad's house after the party so I could share with him my thoughts, love, confusion, and personal suffering which rose up like a geyser out of nowhere. I never ate dinner but drank wine all night, so I was pretty loopy. I didn't care. I sobbed on his shoulder about the choices we faced, none of them good ones: radiation or letting the cancer run its course; keeping the catheter or undergoing surgery; hospice care. Talking about our loss which is not here yet, but which I felt bitterly going through his paintings.

He listened just like my father always did. His voice is still strong though the rest falls apart. I fell apart, and like a bad flu I retched it up, some of it all over Dad, but now I feel whole again. Dad holding me, though we're the ones who provide the balance now, since his legs are too frail to carry him.

And Dad, despite the weakness in his legs and the gaps in his library, has not tipped into the sea just yet.

Death Takes No Holiday

Death becomes your companion when you pop a bun. It lurks around outlets, it seeps through the water in the tub, it creeps under the tangled blanket in the crib, it hides in the slightly too large bite of nectarine, it nestles with the germs that are alarmingly invisible. It is always one step ahead of your baby-proofing and one step behind your half-assed job of it. Last night after struggling with a very fussy bun and counting the minutes before bedtime, I sent my husband off to give the bun a bath. We've done it together a million times, and we enjoy the family wet t-shirt contest that results. But last night I left my husband to his own devices as I cleaned up the Chernobyl of dinner, and thought it would be a nice male bonding experience.

After a few minutes I went back to check the progress. My husband was just rinsing the bun's hair, who was slightly cross about the whole affair. The furrow in my husband's brow indicated a little distress. I assumed that the fussiness from dinner had bled into what is usually an enjoyable event.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"It could have been better," he replied, looking exasperated as I swaddled the bun in a towel.

"Is it your back?"

He looked guiltily around for a minute. "Yea. It's pretty bad." He was unusually sheepish. "But I'm just not very good at giving him a bath."

"You're fine," I said. "What was the problem? Was he still fussing?"

"I'm afraid he's going to die," he admitted.

I understood completely. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't envision his death with some sort of horrible clarity. Usually not very seriously, but it seems to color everything I do. And truthfully, it's never very far off. Yesterday as I was making soup and letting the bun skooch across the floor to clean the dust kitties, he made his way around the corner from the stove. And just as I arrived to investigate, he was sticking his fingers in what would have been the electrical socket were it not protected by a swivel head specifically to deter baby fingers.

"I'm afraid he's going to die while he's in the tub, so I rush through it, and it's not very fun."

"He's not going to die while you're there," I promised. "You're not going to leave him, you're not even going to turn away for more than a towel, so he won't die. The bath is fun," I reassured.

"I know," he said, but didn't seem convinced.

We all ponder our own mortality; having a bun is about pondering someone else's. Which on the one hand is extremely stressful, but on the other is a nice testament to our ability to love unconditionally.

And it makes dinner a daring high wire act, every morsel of food a potential choke hazard, which is pretty exciting when you get right down to it.

Viewer Discretion is Advised

After a protracted state of writing-ennui (unresolved as yet, but perhaps winding up after several nights of insomnia, pounding through my various neuroses) I can rely on television for springing me to action. Last night after a grueling bout of putting the bun to bed (a baby relay between the husband and myself--apparently neither of us had what the bun needed and thus he remained awake for what seemed an interminable duration) I was completely drained. Plunking my ass in front of the computer wasn't enough of a distraction; I felt that to complete my ass-widening I needed the idiot box simmering in the background, to add a certain three-dimensionality to my loafing, as it were.

The television hasn't been turned on in weeks; since my favorite shows were shit-canned I haven't had any reason to watch it, so this was a special occasion to be sure. After flipping through our six channels (we don't have cable, aberrant freaks that we are) I settled on CSI, which I enjoyed once upon a time. But this was less about watching television and more about loafing, and I listened to it like background music while looking at trashy websites about Hollywood gossip.

So CSI was bleakly unfolding in the background as I surfed completely inconsequential websites. It was the usual CSI plot every time I looked up: corpse, dissection of corpse, 3-D imaging of the inside of corpse, clever plot twists about corpse. I had no idea what these particular plot twists were, but I could clearly spot the criminals by the edgy way the investigators questioned them. The television was serving its purpose: it would distract me briefly from the internet, which was a distraction itself, and I never got invested in either medium as I fulfilled my loafing destiny.

As the hour ticked by, I surmised from Marg Hellenberger's sober tones that she was just about to tie up all those loose ends regarding our weekly ne'er-do-wells, a youngish married couple who, to the best I could tell, nagged at each other for the entire hour while passing the buck of who did what to whom. It was only natural that I would look up at this point: it was like getting the reward for watching the show without putting in any of the effort of following the story line.

I glanced up as Marg earnestly addressed the couple in interrogation. I could tell without listening that she had gotten the case sewn up; the couple looked increasingly agitated as she connected the dots for them, laying out one after another of the infinitesimal hints that they, in their impossibly human way, didn't account for in their fiendish plan.

It was here that I began to sense a flaw in my own fiendish plan: my happiness while loafing with all of my senses overloaded hinged on the media I was utilizing being complete fluff. But as Marg spelled out the couple's crime, I had the sinking sensation of being duped: the crime which she was describing was not the crime of two heinous and unlikable scumbags, easy to despise and dismiss as completely deserving of their future jail terms. No, it turned out that they were parents of a child with Tay-Sachs, a disorder that is so mercilessly cruel that one wonders at evolution for creating such a wretched fate for tiny children.

It unfolded in front of me just like a slow accident that I could have avoided if only I had taken a left turn instead of a right. But now I was committed to following it through, straight to the end with the screeching tires and smashing glass, and there was no doing anything but watch as I slid into it.

And so I watched, as it blossomed in perfect CSI form, Marg describing what clues she had put together as the scene played out in shimmering, slightly blurry flashback. The couple's first child had died a grueling, torturous death from Tay-Sachs, and it looked as though their second child, a tiny, sweet little boy about six months old, had also lost the genetic lottery and was destined to the sa\ me horrible fate as his sibling before him. Rather than suffer the misery of watching their second child live out a painful, torturous and long death, they made the impossible choice to take their son's life. Of course, because they were distraught and confused and generally out of their gourds (and it's television), they decided to let him die of heat exposure in the car, thereby serving the dual purpose of making it seem accidental and saving their son the misery of an abbreviated life lived in slow, depressing deterioration followed by his inevitable, ultimately desirable death.

At this point I realized I had been completely Shanghaied. I had learned about Tay-Sachs when I had to make all the decisions about what sort of genetic tests I was going to have done when I was pregnant. Because I'm of Jewish heritage, Tay-Sachs was mentioned as one possible genetic worry amongst the many that I had to be concerned with when growing the bun. Not too worried, but it was mentioned. To be at risk of passing on Tay-Sachs, both parents must carry it themselves, and then it's a 1 in 4 chance your child will develop full blown Tay-Sachs. But most people don't carry the gene at all, and far fewer married couples both have it, so it's very rare. So I was never personally worried, but it was one of the many varieties of horrible illnesses one has to consider when you're pregnant.

The National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association describes Tay-Sachs like this:

    A baby with Tay-Sachs disease appears normal at birth and seems to develop normally until about six months of age. The first signs of TSD can vary and are evident at different ages in affected children. Initially, development slows, there is a loss of peripheral vision, and the child exhibits an abnormal startle response. By about two years of age, most children experience recurrent seizures and diminishing mental function. The infant gradually regresses, losing skills one by one, and is eventually unable to crawl, turn over, sit, or reach out. Other symptoms include increasing loss of coordination, progressive inability to swallow and breathing difficulties. Eventually, the child becomes blind, mentally retarded, paralyzed, and non-responsive to his or her environment.

After this grueling marathon, the child expires by no later than five years of age, unable to even breathe by his or her own lung power any longer, a yawning vacuum where once there was a child full of potential.

I was recalling this horrible disease as I watched Marg explain to her perps what the crime scene had revealed in the murder of their little boy. And of course it seemed a merciful death compared to the drawn out deterioration of a helpless child. I'm watching this unfold, and I'm trying to look away because I know what's coming: the ghastly killing itself, replayed in grim muted color flashback, the moment when they put the tot in the car, knowing that they won't be getting him out again, and I'm trying desperately to look elsewhere, anywhere but the television, but I can't, and they buckle him in the baby seat lovingly, and I'm covering my mouth in horror as the tears literally explode from my eyes, and they kiss him as he coos and babbles with his chewy toy, and I want to run from the house but I'm stuck there, forced by some will not my own to continue watching.

Then they cut away from the flashback to give it a dramatic pause, a little visual comma before cutting back to the scene as Marg describes the one point upon which the case hinged: the autopsy on the child had revealed that the baby had ingested Baby Tylenol before he died. Back to the flashback as Marg's earnest voiceover continues: "You gave him Tylenol because you didn't want him to suffer," she says as the father leans into the car with the medicine dropper, the very same one I used two weeks ago on my own son to deliver the grapey, purpley pain reliever. This tender act, this act of mercy, so personal and small just about sent me to the mental ward.

I fell apart. The delivery of the pain reliever tipped the scales enough that I was audibly sobbing, wishing that I too could die, at least until the show was over, but it kept unfolding before me: now the couple is standing beside the car, now the son is falling asleep, now the wavy heat lines on the screen illustrate the rising temperature in the car, now the couple turns away, now the blurry close-up of the son giving up quietly and sadly to the elements, his tiny head falling limply forward in his car seat. I'm gasping behind my fist which is pressed against my mouth in misery, and my eyes feel as though they've got little homing devices that force me to watch even as they dart around the room desperately looking elsewhere but are drawn back and back and back again. I feel like I've been horribly manipulated, that each new scene has been crafted especially to drive me to the brink of complete hopelessness. I feel like I want to crawl into my son's crib, hugging him and rocking back and forth like an autistic, shutting out the world and miserable television shows like this one.

As a final insult, Marg explains to the distraught and hopeless couple, the son tested negative for Tay-Sachs. They had killed a perfectly healthy child.*

Then into the show's denouement, which I blocked out because I was now firmly in the grips of desperate misery. I sat there sobbing, wondering how life could be so cruel, but more, how could the scriptwriters be so cruel?

I realized then that I am too fragile for much of what passes for entertainment anymore. I could never swallow the reality shows, which rely on humiliation and cruelty for their entertainment value. I could at one time watch the crime dramas without always falling apart. Sure, every now and then there was one that dug in under the horny lizard scales into the fleshy parts of my heart, but mostly I could see through the plot devices and manipulations enough so as to remain more or less impervious to the ghastly fictional crimes people perpetrated upon one another.

But since it has been so long since I have watched any television at all, none of my protective armor was on and I was laid vulnerable. I was naked in the landscape of cathode razor wire, and I got snagged viciously. And I realized something else: I don't necessarily want the armor back. If these shows have to work so hard at getting an emotional response out of someone, I suspect that we're all the worse for it. Being bombarded week after week after week with sex crimes and murders and fires and tragedies of one kind or another can only make us less sensitive, not more, or more paranoid and not less, and I don't want to lose my sensitivity or gain more paranoia. I want to retain my sensitivity for when my own son comes to me confused about what he sees and hears about death, I want to retain it for when I hear some grisly statistic about war and famine, homelessness, environmental destruction. I want to be sensitive to the real events that affect real people.

I believe that there can be great art that comes from television. I also believe that the reliance upon ever-increasingly horrific crimes to keep us interested in watching is doing us all a disservice. I want to watch the shows where they can keep the balance between emotional resonance and graphic violence. I'm not sure it exists in many places right now, and so my six channels may remain silent for a long time.

I'm perfectly happy watching Monsters, Inc. on DVD a million times with the bun. *It is interesting that the writers chose to make the kid Tay-Sachs free. If they had really wanted to write a tragedy, they would have indeed given the second son Tay-Sachs. Instead, their ending was a little too convenient and created moral simplicities that they didn't have to explain: "See, even though the couple's situation is gloomy and you could relate, now you can see that they still deserve to go to jail because they killed an innocent and are monsters."

But if the son actually had Tay-Sachs and it had been a mercy killing, the line would have been a lot blurrier and the grey areas reached much further to the edges. They still would have killed their son, and they still would have gone to jail, but everyone would have been much more sympathetic and thus the tale much more tragic. The fact that the kid didn't have it, coupled with the total implausibility of killing a child without finding out quantitatively that he had Tay-Sachs made the resolution a little pat.

And in the end, if I'm going to partake in this kind of tragedy by watching it, I would rather have a morally complex or ambiguous tale than a simplistic one.

Life and death

In the last three years, my family has grown by a factor of ten or so, when my mother discovered that her long lost sister just happened to be living in the same town as us (with all of her daughters and all of their families). Since ours was more or less the epitome of the "nuclear family" before we discovered them, to realize that we were actually members of this gigantic clan that was hugger-mugger to the walls was a bit of a shock. But they're a fabulous bunch, and we're quite fond of them. But tragedy keeps visiting them. Last year a cousin's 18 year-old daughter was murdered by her boyfriend in a grisly crime which was all over the news. Three days ago another cousin lost her 24 year-old son in a Humvee accident in Iraq. A senseless death, made more senseless by the fact of his having finished his time in the Marines and was serving over there in a civilian capacity. The family is completely destroyed. A fresh scar being ripped open again, and they're all grieving to the extreme.

One expects the death of our parents; we don't like it, we don't wish it, but it is expected that they will die before us. But we aren't hard-wired to deal with the loss of a child--we are meant to pass the reins to them and our brains don't know how to process it when they die before us. When I heard the news about her grandson being killed from my aunt, I asked if there was anything I could do for them. She thought about it and said, "Take care of that little boy." I could feel the pain and anger in her voice, and the grief at having lost two grandchildren in a year. I can't imagine what it must feel like for her, to watch what has been her legacy, her own kin, dying prematurely. But looking at Milo, this amazing little person who I would love to take credit for but really can't because he's so perfectly unique, I can surmise a bit.

I've also uncovered what my greatest unspoken fears of parenthood were before we took the plunge. Last night Milo was a "panther in a tree," sleeping stomach down, draped over on my husband's arm, pudgy arms and legs slack with complete relaxation, and as usual we were gushing. "He breaks my heart," he said (or I said--we both say it so often that it's quite absurd). He looked down at Milo, this helpless trusting little person, and said, "I hope he doesn't really break our hearts." I knew what he meant. He was looking at the future, completely unknowable, and hoping that the sorts of terrible pain that has struck my aunt's family will be avoided by our little tot.

This, above all others, was my greatest fear of parenthood: that the joy of loving him would be so great that I couldn't handle it if something happened to him. It was the fear of having my heart broken irreparably, of taking that risk of having my heart broken completely and totally. A cowardly fear, but the most visceral one. And watching the fallout of two early deaths in my aunt's family, a tangible one.

And this is what parenthood is, I guess. The hopes that you can protect your little bun and save him from all hurt, but risking your heart in the process. We don't have much to give in this world but that, our most precious commodity. The biggest sacrifice.