Monday, August 2, 2010

Of course

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.


  1. When my daughter's speach didn't develop "normally" I blamed myself in part because I named her after Maya Angelou (whose character doesn't speak for months or however long in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). How much sense does that make?

  2. Let me first say that Faulkner is my favorite author. In fact, I think he is the greatest American author to date. I once visited his home and drove by the, then, home of John Grisham in the same afternoon. Needless to say, at Rawanoak (sp?) I felt close to the muse. At Grisham's house, I felt close to money! I will seek out this book and, perhaps, recommend it to my Muse reading group. I have only personally had one close friend who suffered from epilepsy. We were in high school together. We were friends. Most of the high school students were aware of Myra's situation and knew how to help her. We lost touch when we left for separate colleges but I like to think that, despite her limitations, she continued to do well in life. I do so wish that for your Sophie. I wish comfort and peace for your family who love her so and deal with her epilepsy on a daily basis.

    Thanks for sharing this read.


  3. I've just been leafing through Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase, through which the influences on her life of T.S. Eliot, Catholicism and epilepsy are woven...

  4. "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."

    I'm thinking you can't accept the seizures because you seem them slowly destroying your daughter's mind. There is epilepsy and there is epilepsy. Sophie's epilepsy is slowly destroying her and you are being forced to watched, daily. I can't imagine. It would be like having an invisible murderer in the house.

    I'm sorry sweetie, I don't mean to sound harsh. I'm not myself these days. Or perhaps I am.

  5. A beautiful review of a book which sounds well worth reading.
    Bless you, Elizabeth. And no, I doubt you'll ever be comfortable with Sophie's seizures. And why should you be?

  6. You've whet my appetite! Must find that book. You know it had me at "hallucination." ;)

  7. thanks for your compelling insight into a book i have made note of.

    sending you love, peace, pause...

    you are so right about the looking deeper...from my time ticking illness i see each day as hallowed ground.

    i am so grateful you are part of what comprises my days....


  8. Just tonight as I was sitting down to read yet another old issue of National Geographic, I vowed that I needed to get my hands on some good new fiction. And then I turned on my computer and read your post. Of course.

  9. and it continues to amaze that words do this...
    words from other minds and hearts,
    words that give hope or validation or a name to something.

    the picture of Sophie , with the art and the textures, the light,
    I cannot find words though.

  10. Thanks for the fantastic review, Elizabeth. You've convinced me to read the book.

    As for epilepsy, I'm not surprised this book has such echoes for you.

    I hope that one day you might, through your writing and experience, get to a still deeper understanding this mysterious disorder, which has entered into mythology and folklore, in spite of its harsh reality today.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  11. Thanks for sharing this one, I'm going to seek it out.

  12. Lilith -- I rarely respond to comments, but I felt compelled to respond to yours. I was taken aback aback by your statement that seizures are destroying Sophie's mind. On the contrary, the seizures are NOT Sophie in essence, and I personally consider mind/soul, whatever you want to call it, inviolable. I know your comment was meant to be "blunt," but I felt it erroneous as well.

  13. Acceptance is over-rated. In Nobody's Perfect: Living & Growing with Children Who Have Special Needs, Nancy Miller says basically the same thing. She says the process is not grieving, but living and growing. So it's not a process toward acceptance, but a process of adaptation. And you cycle through the following four stages repeatedly as your child grows, needs different medical treatments, enters school, etc.: surviving, searching, settling in, separating.

    And your vacation sounds a little like mine, although we can get out with Robert. We need a vacation together. Some place with good drinks and little cocktail umbrellas.



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