December 30, 2015
When Jasper and I went to visit my brother and his family recently, there was some understandable concern about how I might react to meeting their seven-month-old, Finnegan. Because he’s a baby, but also because he was born on April 1, 2015, the third anniversary of the day that Balthazar died.
I don’t pretend to understand how an indifferent universe manages to serve up such a painful coincidence, but let me just say that Finnegan was born a month early because of a pregnancy complication. His due date was nowhere near April 1. And his parents weren’t given a choice about the date, because this particular complication is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth. As soon as he passed thirty-six weeks, he was out.
Could I have told myself a different story about the timing of his birth, seen it as a sort of symbolic reincarnation? Framed it as a lovely connection that honored Balthazar, a day that brought me a gift? No, I could not have. My turn of mind is not that generous or expansive.
Finnegan’s birth made this year’s anniversary especially difficult. On Balthazar’s actual birthday I went to the gym to work out and dropped a barbell on my face. The swollen bruise on the bridge of my nose reminded me that I was temporarily not in my right mind and that the best thing to do was absolutely nothing, at least until the day had passed. What I did instead is kind of a funny story.
For another time.
Turns out, Finnegan is just your basic infant, wonderful or awful birthdate notwithstanding. His presence elicited no deep grief or sadness. I walked him around the kitchen. He pulled my hair. We stood at the window and watched the movement of oak leaves in the wind.
His three-year-old sister Mae, though, was another story entirely. She took a shine to me right away. She wanted me to play Barbies, and she wanted our Barbies to take swimming lessons from the Little Mermaid. She wanted to examine all of my jewelry and tell me what I should wear. She wanted me to watch Mary Poppins with her stuffed bear. So, OK, the selfies were my idea, but she was enthusiastic about them. It was a little odd, really. I had the eerie sense that somehow she knew. Knew that there was a three-year-old-shaped space next to me, and she just snuggled right into it.
There’s an episode of the TV show Louie in which the comedian Louis CK is asked to pitch a script idea to a film executive. “Your life is going to change,” she proclaims. With one wave of her hand she can greenlight his film and take him from moderately successful stand-up act to star.
He launches into his idea, the story of a guy for whom everything goes wrong. It just gets worse and worse, and then the man dies. The film executive gets up from the table and goes to sit with some other people, leaving him there alone for the rest of lunch. In that moment he’s both making fun of himself for his unrelentingly dark vision and skewering a culture that requires a comeback story. He could’ve made his career if he’d pitched her the tale of a down and out boxer training to win one final bout, or a washed up spaceship captain enlisted to defeat the enemy in the make or break battle. He can’t do it, because he knows it’s total bullshit, and because he can’t his life stays exactly the same.
It’s not that I am now only interested in championing depressing stories about irreversible downward spirals. Ironically I think I’m more optimistic and positive now than I’ve ever been. It’s just that what’s a lazy cliche in fiction makes even less sense if you try to use it as an organizing structure out here in the world.
A comeback is a performance, whether it’s your life or an episode of Behind the Music. In order for it to work, there has to be some Greek chorus, composed of journalists and fans, friends and family, who don’t think you stand a chance. Who’ve written you off. It’s about confounding other people’s expectations. Or what you imagine those expectations to be.
If you’re not playing to an audience, what happens to you after a series of more or less devastating setbacks does not have a narrative arc. It’s just your life. If you pass through the world unnoticed by journalists or the public, do you cease to exist? Or, conversely, what if you accomplish something marvelous? You’re never going to arrive anywhere and stay, anyway. It only works that way in Sports Illustrated and on VH1.
Comebacks don’t just happen to you; they require herculean effort, which our culture celebrates. You have to run the stairs. You have to play the dive bars in Topeka every night for eight years. You make a comeback happen with the sheer force of your will. Things don’t come back around because there’s an ebb and flow.
A comeback does something weird with time. It assumes that time is linear and you have to go back to some ideal moment, not to stay, but to snatch whatever you had then that you don’t have now and bring it to the present with you.
Publishing books, having a baby: these things were the sine qua non of any comeback I might have made, but they are not answers to the questions I am asking now. Who knows where it will all lead, but whatever happens next won’t be a comeback.
But it won’t be a place entirely new, either. Recently I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which borrows from Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return to creative a narrative with a cyclical approach to temporality. Pieces of the story take place at various points in history, including the near future and the distant future, but the main character in each time period shares distinctive characteristics with the others. In that book, time liquefies like sand in an earthquake. Like a clock in a Dali painting. I’m no postmodernist, but it finally made sense to me.
Mae was very attracted to the snowy owl necklace I was wearing during the visit. My B necklace is being repaired, so I was wearing the one my roommate gave me for Christmas last year. My sister-in-law told me I could tell her kids whatever I wanted, and so after she had asked me about it and toyed with it for awhile I told her that it helped me to remember my baby who died.
“You had a baby who DIED?” she said incredulously. I said I did. She scrambled down from the bed and went to her father. “Daddy, she had a baby who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad, and did she want to give me a hug and make me feel better? She did.
One night I told her there were no girl children at our house in Portland, only boys. This was an unimaginable configuration to her. Did Jasper not have any sisters? she wanted to know. Did he have brothers? Only a brother who died, I said.
“Jasper had a brother who DIED?” She climbed down from my lap and accosted Scott. “Daddy, there was a brother who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad. Did she want to hug me and make me feel better? She did.
I suspect I will tell her this story many more times and in many different ways.
At the zoo she asked me to take her to see the polar bear. We left the others inside and walked to its habitat. Once she saw the bear she decided she was more interested in going beneath the exhibit to look at the fish, so I held her hand as we walked down the ramp. That’s when I felt Balthazar’s absence most acutely. He might have disdained a gorgeous predator in favor of the anonymous invertebrates which would be its lunch, or he might have come up with some other plan of his own. But that’s what I would have been doing with him: listening to him chatter and marveling at his strange and fascinating brain.
Maybe children are the best metaphor for the circularity of time. Children return. Not the same child, of course. A baby with red hair and hazel eyes. A three year old who likes jewelry and fish. Love returns. Not the same love, but many loves of many different kinds, again and again. Not a line, but a wheel.