An uncommon consolation for the soul and the body.
I know only three side-doors to the cathedral of consciousness, through which we can bypass the bewildered mind to enter the heart of the most unfathomable, shattering, and universal human experiences, emerging a little more whole: poetry, children’s books, and Bach.
No human experience is more shattering than the vanishing of a loved one into “the drift called ‘the Infinite,’” in Emily Dickinson’s haunting phrase — especially a parent, and especially if one is still a child when the unfeeling hand of chance smites.
French author Charlotte Moundlic swings the side-door open into a portal of tenderness and healing with The Scar (public library), illustrated by one of my favorite picture-book artists — Olivier Tallec, who also illustrated the exquisite and kindred-spirited Cry, Heart, But Never Break.
A century after Rilke wrote that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” the story radiates the subtle and sensitive reminder that love, though its external objects may be made of atoms, is an inner abstraction that exists entirely in our own hearts, a figment of our own consciousness. And so, in some deep sense, our loved ones — both living and dead — are figments of our love, existing only relative to our consciousness of them.
Mother died today.
It wasn’t really this morning.
Dad stated that she was killed in the course of the night.
But I fell asleep in the middle of the night.
This morning, I lost her.
When the shock of the first incomprehension strikes the young boy and his father, it is clear that the difficult problem of selfhood softens in the aftermath of the loss.
It was very quiet when I woke this morning. I couldn’t smell coffee or hear the radio. I came downstairs, and my dad said, “Is that you, honey?”
That was silly, as I didn’t think it was. I wasn’t the only person in the home, other than Mom who couldn’t get up from bed and Dad who asked the question.
I said, “No, no, it’s not me,” which I thought was pretty funny, but then I noticed that Dad wasn’t laughing. He smiled a very small smile, and said, “It’s over.” and I pretended I didn’t understand.
After moving through the initial wave of fury at the universe — the kind of fury that, if not fully given the feeling-space it demands and not properly integrated, can lodge itself into the marrow of being as a lifetime of pent up rage at life — the boy takes it upon himself to salve his father’s sorrow.
He won’t be able to manage without her.
Luckily, I’m still here, and I can explain everything to Dad.
I told him, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
And I cried a little because I didn’t really know how to take care of a dad who’s been abandoned like this.
I could tell that he’d been crying, too —
His appearance was that of a dirty, crumpled washcloth.
I don’t really like seeing Dad cry.
Days pass, nights. He can’t sleep. His stomach aches. He is unable to care for his father.
He is anxious not to forget his mom and plugs his ears in order to hear her voice.
Dad yells at me because it’s summer, because it’s too hot, and because he doesn’t know how to talk to me anymore.
I think it hurts him to look at me because I have my mom’s eyes.
Running in the backyard, he accidentally cuts his knee. He recalls that his mother always took him to her, told him that it was only a small scratch, that he wasn’t strong enough for anyone to harm him and then the pain went away. Her voice suddenly returns as she is standing in the garden, with her bloodied knee.
Aching to hear it again, he waits until a tiny scab forms, then scratches it off again, trying not to cry, trying to invoke his mother’s voice. The scab becomes his secret way of keeping her alive — an embodied memory, a testament to poet Meghan O’Rourke’s observation, upon losing her own mother, that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”
Soon, grandma — his mom’s mom — arrives. He worries that he now has “two sad adults” to take care of while tending to his scab.
Grandma moves through the house in a silent stupor, “like she’s searching for something or someone,” embodying Nick Cave’s observation of the central paradox of loss: how when a loved one dies, “their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains… a luminous super-presence.”
The little boy is finally able to let go of the numbing feelings that he had been experiencing by the gentle illusion of taking care for his grandma and the open windows.
That’s too much for me. “No!” I scream and shout. “No! Don’t open the windows! Mom’s going to disappear for good…” And I fall and the tears flow without stopping, and there’s nothing I can do and I feel very tired.
He is worried that grandma will think him insane, but she comes over to his side and places her little hand on his heart.
“She’s there,” she says, “in your heart, and she’s not going anywhere.”
This simple gesture of bridging between the body and soul is a great help.
The little boy soon runs everywhere to hear his heart beat.
Grandma leaves eventually. As the days unspool for the loom of time — the time-outside-time into which loss thrusts us — he begins smelling coffee again downstairs and hearing the radio forecasting clement weather.
He shouts “It’s me!” from the top of the stairs, just to make his dad smile, and his dad does smile, and opens his arm, and his small son runs into them, feeling his beating heart.
In bed, under covers, he rubs his injured knee with his finger, feeling the skin feel smooth. He sat up and took a closer look. The scab had disappeared, but he didn’t notice it.
For a second I think I might cry, but I don’t.
I am lying back with my hands against my chest. I fall asleep with my heart beating peacefully and quietly.
My growing collection of picture books about loss, The Scar, is an excellent addition to the Scar.
If you are lucky enough to be an adult when you lose your parents — and, lest we forget, death is the emblem of life’s luckiness — complement it with Mary Gaitskill’s superb advice on how to move through life when your parents are dying, then revisit The Magic Box — a whimsical vintage children’s book for grownups about life, death, and how to be more alive each day.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.
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