Friday, September 7, 2012

Pre-orders are open on Amazon for a book called The Still Point of the Turning World. Its author, Emily Rapp, is the mother of a boy named Ronan who was diagnosed at nine months of age with Tay-Sachs, an ultimately-fatal degenerative disorder. Her son, though dying, is still alive, and this is her memoir.

This may sound too rough a read for a young mother, and yet I can't help feeling that this is a book that every mother should read. Even if we have never experienced grief, we all know that grief is an inevitability. We will all experience it. If we haven't yet, we know that it lies in wait for us. Only perhaps a sociopath has the luxury of getting through life without grief, and possibly not even he/she. 

I don't know about you, but I have found that, in my own life, the event of motherhood was the single factor that put me instantly and directly in the path of grief. In spite of having gone through my own mother's battles with cancer (twice), and my own (once), in spite of having lost a father to a lengthy battle with alcoholism, I have been a pretty carefree and happy-go-lucky person. For the first 40 years (yes, I became a mother after 40), I rarely cried. I did not hold a great deal of grief. I have always been a pathological optimist. But when my daughter stopped breathing four times in my arms following her second surgery, just eight months into my tenure as a mother, I learned what it means to live in fear of loss. Much to my own surprise, I sobbed, keened, howled and wailed until the anesthesia team had to come out and remove me from the hall of the recovery area, lest I frighten others in the waiting room. My husband said afterward that it was the first moment he realized that I had fully bonded with our (recently-adopted) daughter. I guess it was the first moment that I realized it as well. I have lived with that desperate and vertiginous fear every day since.

I discovered Rapp's writing only a year or so ago through an old college buddy, writer Robert Wilder, author of Daddy Needs A Drink and Tales from the Teachers' Lounge. I became an immediate follower of Rapp's writings, both via her blog Our Little Seal, and via the numerous columns she has written for and various other venues. I find myself continually compelled by her writing, and by her story. 

As personal as her story is, and as rare the disorder of her son, her writing is both accessible and universal. Grief is universal, and as an intimate part of the human condition, it is essential that we contemplate it. There are no answers in Rapp's writings, no should there be. There is no solution for grief, no anodyne for loss. In her position, as the mother of a dying child, she is in a rare and prolonged process of anticipatory loss and constant grief. Many of us will not be in a position to experience grief in the way that she is experiencing it, and yet it provides some rare insights into the process and nature of grieving. 

As mothers, we all live with the desperate, overweaning fear of losing a child. We see it around every corner, at every turn of the road. We anticipate the rogue virus, the unsuspected genetic flaw, the errant driver, the serial killer down the block. Every mother can imagine a million scenarios per day that might lead to the "untimely" end of the being that we hold most dear in all the world. Most of us will not face that reality as early as we fear, but every single one of us, mother, father and child, will face it some day. How soon is too soon to die? When is a life "too short", and when is it "time" to "go"? There are no answers. And that's kind of the point.

As angry as Rapp clearly is, and she is righteously and unabashedly angry, she also has a wicked sense of humor and an infectious joy that balance the depths of despair and raw emotion that her situation implies. These factors, along with her deep intelligence and talent as a writer, make her the perfect vehicle for the necessary evil of the intimate contemplation of the entity of grief as it affects the human soul.

That's all for tonight...just read it.


  1. Sigh.

    I should really read this, your description makes it sound dear and grievous. But I can't. I just can't.

    I've lived it.

  2. I know, John, you have already lived it. No need to revisit. You of all of us know the other side of this topic.