The death of a child is perhaps the most senseless of all experiences. It is unnatural, wrong. The human mind, however, is wired to look for meaning, to make sense of things, and like most grieving parents, I've struggled without success to find an answer to the question "Why?" It has been healing for me to read memoirs by Isabel Allende and Donald Murray that search for meaning not by asking, "Why did my child die?" but by asking, "What is my relationship with my child now?" Or, as Isabel Allende asks at one point, "What do you want to teach us, Paula?"
Paula, by Isabel Allende. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Perennial, 1994. 330 pages, paper, $13.95.
Isabel Allende's memoir begins shortly after her daughter Paula falls into a coma brought about by porphyria—a rare disease that Paula inherited from her father—and ends a year later with her death. Because Allende's grief is immediate, her emotions are so raw she cannot analyze how she feels; she [End Page 189] can only show us how grief sends her on a sprawling interior journey, as she recounts her memories, her history, and the spiritual world that seems to surround her. Probably half of this memoir is the story of Allende's life, from birth in Peru to childhood in Chile to exile in Venezuela, from television personality to newspaper columnist to novelist, from newlywed to mother to adulterer.
Allende ties this interior story to the outer story of how she struggled to look after her daughter while learning to face Paula's impending death: "Until now, I have never shared my past; it is my innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed. But take it, Paula, perhaps it will be some use to you, because I fear yours no longer exists." These alternating narratives comment on each other as a kind of dialogue, reverberating back and forth—sometimes paralleling each other, other times contrasting—suggestive of ancient Greek drama's choral movement from strophe to antistrophe.
Paula's death forces Allende to let go of all of her previous selves—"the feminist I thought I was . . . the frivolous girl . . . the obsessive mother . . . the unfaithful wife . . . the fearless adventurer . . . the cowardly woman . . ."—which leads to a uniting of mother and daughter in the concluding paragraph: "As I dissolved, I had the revelation that the void was filled with everything the universe holds. . . . I am Paula and I am also Isabel."
I never felt that Allende's pages of reflections, even about the politics of South America, were a contrivance, a clever way for the author to add a memoir to all the others being written these days. When my own daughter slipped into a drug-induced coma before she died from a rare and virulent cancer, I began a four-day letter to her, trying to set down memories of my childhood, memories of my parents, and finally the history of the town in which I was raised. Allende is doing the same thing here: trying—with Paula's help—to redefine herself and her place in the world.
The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child, by Donald M. Murray. Ballantine Books, 2003. 193 pages, cloth, $19.95.
Donald Murray's memoir takes place 25 years after his daughter Lee's death from Reye's syndrome. His voice reminds me of my favorite counselor who facilitated group discussions for grieving parents: wise, able to tell his own story of grief in a way that made the rest of us realize, OK, if he can [End Page 190] do it, so can I. Writing 25 years after his daughter's death gives Murray the distance to look objectively at his emotions, separating them, identifying them, holding them up for observation. He wants, one feels, to learn from them, and in so doing to help other grieving parents to learn from their own stories.
In chapter 3, Murray describes family memories of Lee as a tapestry: not "a photo album arranged chronologically and able to be perused season by season . . . [but] woven into the lives...