Those of us with children with special needs and those of us with disease ourselves are probably more prone to looking for signs and symbols in casual events. I know that I am, and from the emails and comments I get on this blog, I know that many of you out there are as well.
I have just finished the novel Tinkers by Paul Harding, a slim and beautiful piece of fiction that won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I don't even want to think about the fact that the book is the first novel published by Mr. Harding, because as much as I'm impressed, overwhelmed even, I'm also madly jealous. Mr. Harding completely deserves the accolades, though, as I found the book beautifully written and deeply moving. The book is short and in often dream-like prose, describes the life and thoughts of a man named George Washington Crosby as he lies dying, an old man with his family surrounding him. Here's the beautiful opening passage:
George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster. The panes in the windows, once snugly pointed and glazed, stood loose in their sashes. The next stiff breeze would topple them all and they would flop onto the heads of his family, who sat on the couch and the love seat and the kitchen chairs his wife had brought in to accomodate everyone. The torrents of panes would drive everyone from the room, his grandchildren in from Kansas and Atlanta and Seattle, his sister in from Florida, and he would marooned on his bed in a moat of shattered glass. Pollen and sparrows, rain and the intrepid squirrels he had spent half of his life keeping out of the bird feeders would breach the house.
As George hallucinates, we are led backward in time to his childhood and introduced to his hardscrabble life growing up with a taciturn mother, a "simple" brother and two sisters. We are introduced to the voice of his father who suffers -- and here's the OF COURSE moment for me -- from epilepsy. This epilepsy and the terrible seizures his father endures, when a broom stick is shoved into his mouth so that "his tongue will not be bitten off" define George's life. Ignorant of the disorder and advised by the family physican, George's mother decides to admit her husband to an insane asylum, but when he discovers that this will be his fate, the father, the tinker of the title, runs away from his family and takes a new name. I won't disclose any more but urge you to read this beautiful book if you love Faulknerian prose and intensity.
That one of the main characters had epilepsy was obviously moving to me and shed more light on the history of the disorder. It furthered my understanding of the unique horror of seizures but also reinforced my feeling that despite the incredible advances we've made in treating seizures and educating the culture about them, there is still a darkness to epilepsy that is almost primitive, dramatic enough to make for compelling narrative and rich character study. I'm not sure if there isn't almost a romanticizing of the disorder, but I'm certain that mystery and drama is inherent in epilepsy anyway, and it's part of the reason why I just can't seem to "accept" or be at ease when my own daughter has seizures. My own writing has only begun to parse this out, and after reading this novel, I am galvanized to keep at it, trying to unlock the door that leads down the path and through the dark to another door and perhaps, even, light beyond.