How Having a Child Made Me Face My Own MortalityThomas Beller
One of the most unexpected things about becoming a parent was the surge of mortality that accompanied the baby. I had prepared myself for a generational pang. Now there would be a new generation coming up. But that is a variation of a feeling that would exist anyway, whether you are a parent or not.
The mortality I felt was totally unexpected. It had to do with a fear of my own death, but the fear was not on my own behalf. There was something about the dependence of this little baby that provoked in me a sense of responsibility (A cue for the choir to sing, with booming, celestial impatience, “At last!”) and by extension a fear that I would not live up to my responsibilities, literally, by dying.
Joan Didion conveyed this birth/death paradox with typical concision when she wrote: “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” Rachel Sherman elaborates on it elegantly in her essay, On Death and Daughters. It begins with what could be mistaken for a tongue-in-cheek lead: “When my new baby, after months of feeding off me from the inside, was born and reached out to me for nourishment in the world outside, I knew I would die.”
I now have to mention, somewhat reluctantly because it feels so overdetermined (a word I just learned to use recently and I can’t stop using) that my dad died when I was ten. So I am perhaps a bit sensitive to this line of thinking, both: I am going to die, and my poor kid, what happens if I die?
What set me off about all this was a passage in Blake Bailey’s enormously absorbing biography of Richard Yates, “A Tragic Honesty.” I can’t think of an author as compelling and also depressing as Richard Yates, who is best known for his novel Revolutionary Road (later turned into a movie with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio). The book is much better, though I am glad for the movie, which made him posthumously famous. (The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness are also great.)
I was reading Bailey’s biography very late at night, the one time I can think. It’s almost like everyone else in the house being asleep is a prerequisite for thought … I don’t know why. I was reading the passage where Yates gets the news of his own father’s death. His parents had long been divorced. His father was a recessive man stuck in a boring job. He had once been an aspiring opera singer, but was now a remote figure browbeaten by his ex-wife’s unreasonable demands and wishes. Some of her demands are folly, but one is very good — the desire to send their son to an eccentric, expensive, progressive boarding school in Connecticut, where Yates would be the weird poor kid but would still benefit enormously.
Bailey, in setting the scene, relies in part on Yates’ story, “Lament for a Tenor.”
In that story, as in life, a high school-aged boy in boarding school is summoned to the headmaster’s office, told the news about his father, and given a few hours to pack.
“It was oddly enjoyable to have a secret like this,” Yates wrote, but, “you couldn’t very well cry over a man you hardly knew.”
I don’t know why this made me stop and reflect, but it did. The first thought was, “But they know me!” The second thought was a line from my own youth: “Where Kate?”
My grandfather’s second wife, Kate, died in a freak accident when I was a little over two years old, the same age as my son now. I have no recollection of her now, but my mother told me that I used to ask for Kate, specifically when I was visiting my grandfather’s house. I had wandered around saying, “Where Kate? Where Kate?”
For some reason, this lodged itself in my memory. I felt sorry for that kid and all the adults who had to hear that cute little refrain while knowing what they knew. “Where Kate?” I guess I really liked her, but I don’t recall.
The Yates scene sent me into a reverie about the enormity of being a father. Such thoughts tend not to occur in the thick of the actual being and doing, but rather in the small, private hours of night. Though sometimes, in the midst of all the chaos, I make a point to focus on a tiny patch of perfect skin, or a bit of hair, or the way the light enters their eyes. I stare at some tiny detail of sound of color and think, “Now now now this is what it is like now.”
But mostly I tend to marvel at the whole enterprise at night, when they are asleep. Or when we are apart and I am not so barraged by everything. So that night I looked up from my book and felt sorry for Yates and for his father, too — which, I admit, contained pity for myself and also for my father. A big old pity party. And very enjoyable.
I was at the kitchen table, sitting in the nice office chair my daughter is constantly trying to usurp from my mother, who is entitled to sit in the one nice chair. Maybe we should get more. But it’s an office chair — it would seem weird to have four office chairs around a little kitchen table. There was a terrible heat wave. The day had been jaundiced and still. All afternoon the sky threatened rain. It finally came. They were paltry, depleted drops, though, and tapped feebly on the window pane on and off like some bedgragled stranger wishing to be let in. In the story, Yates’ character starts thinking about how hard it always was for him to call his father “Dad.” Bailey cites one of the novels, A Good School, in which the narrator recalls once having managed “Daddy,” but never “Dad.”
Those words — Dad, Dada, Daddy — float from my children in moments of joy, anger, fatigue, vexation — the whole gamut of feelings. But they are so young and will not remember any of that music. That task is left to me, which I suppose is another burden one feels as a parent. It feels important to be around to tell your kids the story of their lives. To tell them of their grief at age two, when they walked around saying, “Where Kate?” about a woman who had been hit by a car and was dead. To tell them they felt confused and bereft for a little while but that they moved on. To tell them that they survived to tell the tale.