Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 81-88
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A thrush passed a few weeks of his introverted life in our backyard in Virginia last June. Over breakfast, classical radio, and the high-decibel chatter of my children, I heard the bird's song, liquid, reverberant, and melancholy, issuing from the fen behind our house. I had been rereading Whitman's great elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and on a poetically inspired hunch, I flipped to the thrush in my Peterson's. Then, behold, the bird kindly presented himself on the railing of our deck. He sang while in plain sight, as if he knew the birding tyro he was dealing with. He was a wood thrush, and Whitman's is a hermit, but the technicalities in this instance made no difference. His song was elegiac, and elegy was to be the mode of my family's summer.
One of my wife's closest friends, Erica, died later that month. She was a young mother, capable, bright, gracious to a fault. She was healthy and out for her routine run when she went into cardiac arrest. A child saw her fall and sought help, but the minutes without oxygen left her unable to recover. For a week she lay in a coma—a netherworld, in which her friends and family wavered between hope and despair, between chatting with her about the day and accepting that only her unresponsive body remained alive. Her mind, her self, was no longer there. Soon her body, too, gave way. She died, peacefully and too soon.
Under the circumstances, death is often considered a mercy, and who, in imagining her own death, doesn't wish for a peaceful departure? But the death of a young parent, like the death of a child, is cataclysmic. A void opens, and all light bends into it, leaving those who grieve in darkness and putting the order of things permanently askew. Among a parent's greatest fears is that her young family will be broken by death—that her children will never really know her or recall her smell, her feel, her love for them. [End Page 81] My wife and Erica had discussed these fears on sunny days at the playground, when the sun itself and the bliss of their children made mortality remote enough to discuss with candor, even self-effacing humor. How silly, after all, how egotistical, to imagine what a loss your own demise would be! Yet at Erica's death, we mourned deeply for the experiences that she and her children would not share.
On the morning after she died, I rose before sunrise to run the hills near our house. Erica haunted that run, as her memory has haunted many of my morning runs since then. Taking across the long hill by the city high school, I recalled a chance meeting with her on a run five years earlier. On a Saturday morning during my first year as a public school teacher—that storied year from which no teacher emerges unscathed—I was out running hills to clear my mind when she jogged up, pushing a stroller. A model elementary school teacher, Erica had been an instructor in a class that I took to get my teaching license; she had been pregnant at the same time as my wife, and we had planned to get our new families together. Recognizing me, she stopped, smiled broadly, and put a hand on her hip. Erica always stopped, and she had the broadest smile.
"Derek! How's Caroline and that little Sammy?"
"No one's sleeping a lot," I said, bending over to peek at Max, then only a few weeks old, "but everybody's basically content."
"Well, sleep, who needs it really," she replied, gesturing toward Max, whose blue eyes were wide open. "How are things at Walker School?"
I grimaced. I told her that I had been brooding on my fitness for teaching urban, public school kids and had concluded that, while it had been a noble idea, I really belonged in...