My father was a difficult child. Already I forget where I learned this. I can almost hear my aunt telling me in her matter-of-fact way. But then I see the tiny, cramped script of my grandmother’s journal. But, no, the phrasing is not hers. Your father was a difficult child.
I think about this from time-to-time, imagining my dad as a young boy—photos around age two or three and then later, perhaps age six and seven, helping me in this endeavor. A sweet smile adorns his face—confident, amused, the slightest bit secretive—the smile I’ve seen in certain photos of myself, the smile I sometimes see on my older son, his eyes lit up with a plan.
But it’s my younger one I’m thinking of now, who I occasionally worry over like a stone in my pocket, the fingers troubling the surface, looking for cracks, crevices, chinks in its smoothness. A movie star smile he has, and a love for the paparazzi. Sitting here, thinking, writing, about my boys draws forth my own smile, and that fuzzy warmth in the torso we get when we dwell on our children, angelic in their absence. My feisty little one is an angel (tender, considerate, inquisitive), many remark on it—but he has the shriek of a banshee. This boy can scream. He has an impatience, at times, that astounds me, all the more so because his older brother has always been remarkably patient, even as a baby. But my younger one’s scream…it makes my ears like clothes-pinned explanation marks, my brain like the center of a five-alarm fire. A kettle’s shrill whistle—amplified to some new extreme—and I want to rush to turn off the burner. Quick, quick. The sound-minded parent cowering there, inside my brain, knows she should not respond, not with such haste or attentiveness. Attention, that’s what he wants, of course, and to run the show. And so, the pinned-ear parent breathes, breathes again, locates the I-am-calm-and-not-buying-it voice and the dance continues. A special dance most often performed à deux. Fortunately. For I do not want this spotlight—and thus most mortal ears are spared.
My little one’s intensity amazes me, exhausts me. Sometimes worries me—back to that. If my father had not suffered from…what in fact did he suffer from? Poor choices, alienation of those he loved, self-alienation, self-isolation, an over-charged intellect, love. A few ailments that come to mind. And depression, don’t forget depression. Likely bi-polar disorder too, though he never sought treatment, never sought diagnosis, never sought help—well, not much, not in earnest. So, if my father had not gone through life like a ticking time-bomb, one that should have been defused, but instead exploded…would I then find this niggling worry about my son? No, he would be an active two-year-old—they don’t call them the terrible twos for nothing. But if not this there would be something else. And yet—
Heredity plays a role in depression; suicide runs in families. This is research I hate to read. It makes me angry, as though the researchers and data gatherers were to blame, rather than the insidious nature of suggestibility and the mostly-invisible role of heredity. Which genes did you get?
When I learned of the suicide of Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ youngest child, Nicholas Hughes, two years ago, I walked around shocked, angry—at whom?—stunned. Angry at suicide, furious with a disease. And angry with my father, too, for bringing this legacy to my family, angry with myself for deluding myself, thinking I could ponder the subject, immerse myself in it for two, three years, write about it—and then it would be done. I could shut the door. But that door has no lock. The wind can blow it open; even the hint of a breeze can sometimes tease it, trick it, and the latch slips out, the door suddenly ajar. The past is a deceptive term; we think it means that what has already happened is done. But memory teaches us otherwise.
If we worry, remember, read life like a story, keeping in mind that the best stories so often eschew the straight path—they are not linear—we might, in part, control—that’s what we do. What we try to do: comprehend, share, look for connections, a bigger picture alongside the too-specific details. Suicide is isolating; for the dead and for the living. The subject still frightens us—and of course it should. But giving in to that fear, hiding in silence, in shame, leaves the power in the hands of the disease, fractures the present from the past, leaving a gulf to fall into.
There is so much more to explore here. But, for now, here is a morsel from the fabulous Polish poet Adam Zagajewski that I came across the other night:
From “If I Were Tomaž Šalamun”:
“…I’m an eternal student of stenography,
Struggling to understand how death enters the house
And how it leaves, and then returns,
And how it is defeated by a small freckled girl
Reciting Dante from memory”
The whole poem appears in the January issue of Harper’s. Since this is only available online to subscribers, I’ll point you to another wonderful Zagajewski poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which, though not written for that purpose, appeared in the New Yorker following 9/11, the day on which my father would have turned sixty-seven.
We find beauty and reassurance in small things.