So I wrote this essay last night for my first-year seminar. Originally, I was just writing a typical, analytical English paper. Then I hit that point - one I hit more often that I really want to admit - where I wasn't sure if I was talking about the characters or myself. At which point I emailed my professor and asked permission to weave in non-fiction. She gave me the go-ahead, and this is what I ended up with. At it's heart is an essay I've been writing, but failing with for a while. Somehow, it kinda fits in here. But I'm not sure how I feel about this essay - it might have been a failed experiment. I think that the braiding failed. But I like the way that nonfiction adds depth to the analysis. I'm not sure. At any rate, I'm glad I got to try it.
We Who Live: Children Who Become Orphans
This is how I understand what happened when I was three:
1. Our accident was twenty-nine days before Diana’s.
2. My first memory is the question I asked my parents after our car rolled over: “what’s happening?”
3. My first memory is my parents’ silence.
4. The tombstone is inscribed theirs was a life filled with love for each other and their children, Hannah and Samuel.
5. Once, when I was rifling through a filling cabinet at home trying to find my passport, I instead found insurance Polaroids taken in a junk-yard of a hopelessly totaled 1995 Toyota Landcruiser – the last red car we owned.
When I read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, I couldn’t hold my tears in. It elicited in me the reaction that one only gets from the literature that touches at the roots. I’m talking about the literature that resounds with the deeply human element within each of us; the literature that makes us weep as we see ourselves on the page; the literature which makes us unsure if we ought to use a character’s name or our own when discussing it; the literature that teaches us about ourselves and, above all else, about what it means to be human. I found all this in The Golden Gate, and particularly in the exhaustingly accurate description that Seth gives of the complicated, somewhat contradictory emotions that survivors – those who live while someone they loved does not – experience. Seth writes:
Are the dead, too, defiled by sorrow,
Remorse, or anguish? We who live
Clutch at our porous myths to borrow
Belief to ease us, to forgive
Those who by dying have bereft us
Of themselves, of ourselves, and left us
Prey to this spirit-baffling pain.
This affected me so profoundly, because Seth pinpoints the feelings that, perhaps universally, accompany a loss. He describes the anger over the unfairness of the suffering – that only it is the living, helpless to counter it, who feel it – and the anger at the one who died. He perceives the tendencies to cling to beliefs (so often religion) to cope. He understands the loss of self because this “spirit-baffling pain” morphs a person into something unrecognizable.
But Seth doesn’t just describe those devastating emotions that accompany death, he places them upon a child, five-year old Chuck, who is “the one survivor” of a car accident that kills his parents (13.2). Seth shows Chuck’s suffering in a way that is matched only by another novel written in verse, Elisabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which tells the story of Aurora, who loses her mother at the age of four and her father at the age of fourteen. In both instances, the authors portray the emotions of these orphaned children with the delicacy and preciseness that can only be demonstrated through poetry. Whereas in prose, authors are obligated to show and explain things to the reader, in verse authors are able to withhold tangible information that would constrict the reader. Seth and Barrett Browning allow their readers to connect with their characters on intimate levels as the readers work to understand the characters without the authors’ cumbersome explanations.
Chuck survives the car accident because he is “saved when [his mother] flung herself across / His body” (13.2). Even as a five-year old, Chuck is haunted by the knowledge that he is alive because his mother is dead. Sometimes when he plays, Chuck will “abruptly freeze / And – gasping, sobbing, wheezing, crying – / Relive again his mother’s dying: / The blood, the broken sleep, the scream” (13.5). The poetic form here shows how, as a five-year old, Chuck doesn’t really have the capability of understanding these events. The line breaks are short and interrupting, not spending too much time on any aspect of Chuck’s episodes. The abruptness with which the lines are broken mirrors the abruptness with which Chuck’s parents were killed. It helps the reader understand how quickly it happened for Chuck, how jarring it must feel. Furthermore, the two lists – one of verbs, the other of nouns – show the reader the way the Chuck is processing the changes in his life. He cannot understand the big picture, he can only grasp the basics of what has happened. Additionally, Chuck’s flashbacks are not of his mother, but of a death. Chuck feels a disparity between the mother he loved and the woman he watched die.
Aurora, too, finds it difficult to mesh together her mother and the person who died. She talks about a distinctness between two mothers, trying to understand which is her mother, “my own mother, leaving her last smile / In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth / My father pushed down on the bed for that - / Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss, / Buried at Florence (9, I, 164 -168). Aurora simply cannot reconcile the warmth of her mother with the harsh absence she left behind. Consequently, she tries to fill her mother’s absence with what her mother left behind. She writes that, “I, a little child, would crouch / For hours upon the floor with knee drawn up, / And gaze” at the “picture of my mother on the wall” (8, I, 37-49). Aurora clings to the portrait as if she will be able to conjure her mother out of it. She tries to replace her mother with the portrait because it’s the only thing she has left that hints of her mother.
Things I have left of my parents:
1. A Penn Law sweatshirt
2. A green sleeping bag my dad bought my mom when they got engaged because she wanted to spend money on a nice down sleeping bag instead of a diamond
3. The gold diamond-less wedding band he bought her anyway
4. A purple Patagonia fleece I wear in the winter
5. The yellow raincoat that my mom wears in my favorite picture of her
But the portrait obviously is not her mother, and Aurora still feels motherless. She writes: “I felt a mother-want about the world / And still went seeking like a bleating lamb” (6, I, 40-41). Though she tries to fill the hole, Aurora still feels her mother’s absence as an adult. It’s easy to think that Aurora would outgrow the need for a mother, as children who grow up with living parents do, but Aurora’s needs extend beyond basic mothering. Because she grows up without a mother, Aurora grows up without a sense of belonging. Aurora is criticized harshly by the family she has left, an aunt and a cousin and she has no base to rely on. Were her mother alive, she would be a source of acceptance and of essential-sameness. Aurora would have things in common with her mother. In some way, if that were true, it would give Aurora an excuse for those traits, and give her ease in the criticism she gets for them.
People don’t notice that I have my mom’s hair and blue eyes. Or that I am as deeply maternal as she was. Or that I care about people deeply and quietly, like she would. Instead, they say that I’m truly my father’s daughter. They’ve been saying it for years. I look like him, talk like him, argue like him, think like him, write like him, get in trouble like him (lots of it), and hell, I might even become a lawyer like him. My faults were his faults; his strengths my strengths.
Chuck can’t accept his parents deaths and is perpetually begging to go home. He seems to believe that if he can just get home his whole life will be back to normal. He can’t create a new life for himself without his parents. In fact, when he finally gets to go home, the first thing he says is “Let me in. / It’s my house – and I live here” even though he hasn’t lived there for more than a month (13.6). When he does get inside the house, he “bolts through the door / And shouting in a voice half choking / With fear and dust, “Mom! Mom! Dad! Dad”/ Runs through the rooms as if he’s mad” (13.6). The assertive tone in these lines shows that Chuck fails to process that time has passed. He ignores the dust that’s settled in the house, a signifier of abandonment and of things past. Nonetheless, Chuck is affected by the dust – it makes him cough. Though he tries to deny that time has passed and things have changed, those things have happened and they affect him anyway. He will call for his parents until he goes hoarse, but he won’t get an answer.
Deep inside, I think I’ve always, just a teaspoon, waited for my real parents. I’ve waited for them to come find me – to say they’ve been spies on a mission and they faked their own deaths so that they could save the world. Or that they were in witness protection. Or even that they’re international criminals hiding from the U.N. I’ve just never quite been able to believe that my parents died because a car rolled over.
Chuck’s inability to live life without his parents shows a lack of independence. Similarly, Aurora displays a lack of independence. She introduces herself as “still too young, too young, to sit alone” (1, I, 38). Aurora portrays herself as not quite an adult – not quite strong enough to stand on her own – though she really ought to be. Her repetition of the words “too young” show how deeply she feels this fear of independence. This represents a paradox of independence that these two characters display. When their parents die they, by necessity, become independent, but because they independence is thrust on them, rather than them being able to be eased into it, they don’t quite develop a full sense of independence.
The only time Chuck finds solace is when a nice neighbor takes him flying in her plane. Once in the air, Chuck “squints down, trying / To make his house out. Then with awe / He points: “That’s it back there. I see it – / With the red flowers. That must be it.” / And he laughs out loud with sudden joy” (13.9). The simplistic language here highlights Chuck’s simplistic attitude. He is happy when he’s not on earth, because in the air that he is removed from trying to recreate a new life. From this perspective of his house he can’t see the dust and he can’t see that his parents aren’t there. This perspective allows him the illusion of his life intact and as it used to be. The red flowers fill him with unexpected joy because they are familiar and comfortable relics of his old life. For Aurora, it’s not red flowers, but the English language, which she only ever heard from her father. She describes being on a boat right after her father died, and how “when I heard my father’s language first / From alien lips which had no kiss for mine / I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept” (12, I, 255-258). The repetition of the word “wept” interspersed with a contradictory “laughed” shows the intensity of Aurora’s reaction – a reaction somewhat similar to Chuck’s. The authors emphasize the emotional importance of minor details as ways to show children’s fragility. It’ the little things that affect them deeply. The children don’t have a capacity to rationally deal with death so the little things become deeply symbolic of the turmoil of suffering and of joy inside them.
Though we don’t get to see how Chuck’s story ends, we get to see that Aurora ultimately learns to deal with the loss of her parents through writing. She says early on, “I lived, those days / and wrote because I lived” (32 line 960). To Aurora, living and writing become interchangeable. It is only through writing that Aurora finds life, because writing gives her the medium through which to process her life. In writing, Aurora finds a way to believe that what she has gone through is not meaningless.
All the cells in a body are replaced every seven years. The cells in my body that my parents touched, loved, and cherished have been gone for two cell-replacement cycles. Like the paradox of the ship of Theseus, this leaves me wondering if I can then be their child. The only answer I have is this: writing allows me the briefest moments of feeling like their child. And for whatever reason, that is enough.
* * *
Day 9: Today I am grateful for honey. Honey in my tea makes me swoon.