Why I decided to read an article by a father telling the story of his nine month old daughter’s cancer is beyond me, but I did. The Aquarium, by Aleksander Hemon, was in an issue of the New Yorker last summer.
Naturally, I have mixed feelings about it. It was singularly heartbreaking, and I had to exert huge effort to keep from bawling completely in the middle of Caribou Coffee. As it happened, my eyes welled up and a few tears did leak out. But because I can have a hard time separating things, I also read the article for its style and voice; I am for lack of a better term a writer and that’s always going to be a part of how I read. I have read one of Hemon’s novels and a book of his short stories and this man speaking to me from this page was like nothing I’d heard from him before. Like in the best stories of intense pain, the voice was clear and nearly unemotional. This is what happened, this is how it felt. I’ll leave a few block quotes here for you.
1. “There’s a psychological mechanism, I’ve come to believe, that prevents most of us from imagining the moment of our own death. For if it were possible to imagine fully that instant of passing from consciousness to nonexistence, with all the attendant fear and humiliation of absolute helplessness, it would be very hard to live.”
Interestingly enough, that “instant of passing from consciousness to nonexistence” was an obsession of mine when I was a (younger) child. I think of it as the light-switch moment, the moment when the switch drops back down to “Off” and where there was everything is instantly nothing at all. I used to run back and forth over the moment in my head, sometimes when I was trying to fall asleep, sometimes in church if the readings were particularly bleak. It was always accompanied by an deeply felt emptiness in my chest.
2. “One day at breakfast, while Ella [Hemon's older, healthy daughter] ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). Much like Ella, I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives. I, too, had needed another set of parents, and someone other than myself to throw my metaphysical tantrums. I’d cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me—they did what I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do. Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories was deeply embedded in our minds and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language. Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.”
And that’s the nut, isn’t it, that last sentence? Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in my presence, or even a few minutes if I’ve been drinking, knows that I can’t shut up about my mother. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I’ve been dealing with her death relatively well, and I fully believe that the best thing I’ve been doing in that respect is telling stories about her life constantly, vocalizing her memory so that I’m not the only one in Pittsburgh who has those stories. If, god forbid, something should happen to me, be it death or some memory-traumatizing injury, I know that there would be someone else with the memories. I unburden myself of being the only one out of the people I see every day with her memory, so that I don’t have to be constantly mourning, I can go back to just loving her like I did when she was alive.