You are reading Fiddleblack #16
In the hours before Lauren Hunter-Aikens got the news she was stuck trying to revise a story she had written in her creative therapy group.
In the story, the narrator imagined that the news of her son’s death would come by phone. She would be at work drinking coffee, clicking with intense focus through documents on her computer screen. Her phone would buzz in her purse. Not wanting to disturb the office silence, she would answer right away and keep her voice low out of respect for her colleagues on the other sides of her cube.
The voice would ask if she were sitting down. She’d say yes, why? The person who’d called would say the preliminary things she had feared for so long. Then the voice would tell her that there had been an accident. Most often she imagined the voice telling her there had been a car crash, but also very frequently it was an accident at home, where a nanny watched the boy until she and her husband got back from work around five-thirty. The boy had died in a fall down the stairs or been poisoned with household chemicals. A few times she imagined the boy had choked on something she and her husband had neglected to clean up, such as a penny or a tire from a broken toy car. In any case, in that scenario an everyday object in their home had somehow killed the boy. In the story, the woman would wail when she got the news, slamming her phone against the desk, causing the people in the cubes next to hers to jump up and look over the wall, asking what’s wrong, what on earth has happened?
Before Nathan Hunter got the news, he sat at the computer desk in the upstairs study, a floor above his wife in the living room, trying to decide if he should send an e‑mail to his younger brother. He had written it after clicking through an album of family photos. As he looked through the photos they had satisfied, for the most part, the suspicions he wanted them each to satisfy. Some of the photos reminded him of true, happier times and others reminded him, by the joy on his wife and son’s faces, of immense pain and sacrifice he had hidden from everyone.
Since the baby, beyond the years of lost sleep and the exhaustion that other parents joked about at his office and on blogs he read at work, Nathan felt he had experienced particularly deep concessions to silence and distance at home. During their son’s early years, after coming home from his cubicle in a building not far from his wife’s, they spent their evening hours cooking dinner and cleaning up, feeding and bathing and putting the baby to sleep, washing and folding diapers, then went immediately to sleep.
Feeling tired and removed from his wife, Nathan began to sense that a coldness had settled into part of their home. When he entered certain rooms alone to store away clothes or toys his son had outgrown he could feel its presence just before he turned on the lights. He would wonder if his family’s joy was being stifled by the necessities of finance and housework, imagining in these recurring hidden moments that his true role was to adjust to the fact that the richness he had wanted to feel over time as a father and husband was somehow, by nature of modern life, well in sight but out of his reach.
As Nathan clicked toward the last photos in the album, taken the day his son was born, he saw himself growing more innocent and unaware of the difficulties to come. The person in the photos had no idea of the new pain that would soon demand confrontations with intense doubt and anxiety. This new pain would give his thoughts a strange contour, a tension that Nathan used to think was only drama, a device people used to make a sad book or movie more entertaining. And that kind of tension used to seem funny. But as Nathan looked at the photos the fact that he had taken the tension so lightly before seemed ironic.
While staring at the images of his family, he wished he had done some things differently, not to have avoided the work and sacrifice required by life as a father and husband, but to have prepared somehow for the coldness, to feel less bitter about what had been taken out of him by this unforeseeable silent tension.
The nameless protagonist of Lauren’s story had started to write to try and help curtail the visions of death she had involving her four-year-old son. She imagined that the world would change forever if her young son died. She would no longer be the same kind of person. Nothing for her or about her in the living world would remain as it had been before. Her past would become myth. Who she had felt forced to become in her marriage and at work would no longer matter. Transformed by loss, her fury at death would make it impossible for people to look her in the eye anymore. Her posture would signal to the world that she was at war with the fragility of human beings.
Lauren’s creative therapy group leader had encouraged everyone to write down their thoughts without structure whenever it felt like their strongest personal fears were closing in. By using this technique they would amass a chronicle they could read objectively later on.
Lauren hadn’t liked this idea very much. She wanted her writing to have a charge to it that captured the dark immensity she could feel when she imagined her son dying. She could sense death nearby as part of herself in such moments and see how the objects and the buildings around her would disintegrate over time. To write about that, she wanted language with form, not words that could go anywhere at once. By using a story she could have distance between herself and the character, then watch the character struggle to capture the contours of her most gruesome daydreams in writing.
The story had burst onto the screen of her laptop, a large catalog of morbid possibilities created through the layer of fiction between herself and her character. The length and depth of its gruesomeness astonished Lauren when she finished the first draft. She doubted the writing exercise would help at all, but it yielded more than fifteen thousand words.
She revised and improved the story for weeks without telling the leader of the group that it was finished. The leader encouraged everyone to share their writing no matter how flawed they thought it was and not worry about perfecting what they wrote. She later reiterated this to Lauren during a one-on-one session. She said that sharing the writing meant facing fear that would give Lauren better perspective to control the visions Lauren had mentioned to her regular therapist, who’d recommended creative therapy. With this new sense of control, the group leader said, a person could avoid ideating a future based on tragedy. She could stay focused on the fact that nothing bad had happened, that everyone was still alive and well. By reminding herself that this dark ideation often led nowhere productive she could focus on healthier pathways, imagining a great life for herself, a positive future based on love and togetherness with her son and her husband. With this confidence she would be able to see the good parts of life and cultivate them. Even if those good dreams never happened exactly as she imagined, strength gained through the habits of positivity would lend her endurance during any hard times ahead.
Lauren had smiled politely as she listened to this advice. It sounds like a good plan, she told the leader, but said it would still be a little while before she could share the story. When she smiled she’d really been restraining a small laugh. It wasn’t that her story had flaws. The problem was that even though the story was long and incredibly gruesome she had grown attached to it and admired what she thought was perfect about it. It had done exactly what the leader hoped it might. Yet it had also helped her voice things she’d very rarely heard anyone talk about. The fears seemed universal to her but intensely private, as if other people’s deaths marked the limit of who she was and who she might have become under different circumstances. The darkness of this new understanding seemed too intense to belong to the balanced sort of life the leader thought was best for her.
Nathan had spoken about his feelings a few times with friends at holiday parties and a few colleagues in the hall. Even when the other person seemed to agree and light up to hear him talk so bluntly about how he felt during these hard times, the moment of camaraderie later seemed small in comparison to the rest of Nathan’s life and he worried he sounded silly confiding in others. Whatever goodness the moment held seemed to dissolve as soon as the chat ended and the other person walked away.
Clicking back through the photos on the screen, Nathan found several of his entire family that his younger brother had taken. Seeing the photos, he remembered having spoken about these feelings at his brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner the year before.
His brother, almost four years younger than Nathan, had asked with a smile if being married and having kids was as tough as people sometimes said it was. Of course, Nathan had said, then felt it best to laugh. His brother had laughed, too, then looked at Nathan, pressing for more than humor, hoping, Nathan knew, for a more concrete explanation. Looking in his brother’s eyes, Nathan had said, It’s worse in some ways, but much better in other ways. He sipped his wine to give himself a moment to think about what to say next.
The size of what Nathan hadn’t seen coming in his life seemed colossal. He wanted to sum up and sound wise like an older brother is supposed to. The pause grew longer as Nathan thought of how to tell his brother to prepare to struggle during what might feel like an intolerable stretch of time, to cultivate a new, deadened way of hoping to fight the coldness and learn to trust in an unknowable goodness during the years ahead.
This was of course too much to say at a dinner celebrating love. So Nathan said, You just have to find your balance. Come to terms with what it takes and remember what family is really all about. His brother had stared at him, happy to hear this. Nathan could almost hear his brother’s mind locking these encouraging words into his memory. Worried he’d told some terrible lie at a moment when honesty was imperative, Nathan felt relieved and guilty when someone loudly proposed a toast and his brother had to walk away to go stand beside his smiling young fiancée. Nathan had watched his brother closely, trying not to let the moment dissolve.
Lauren had no intention of taking the final step and sharing her story with the leader of the creative therapy group. This was partly because she’d started to wonder if the leader became a therapist due to some deep and troubling mania of her own. If so, then the nature of Lauren’s story might trigger the leader badly and affect her advice as a professional. So in a way it would be better not to complete the writing exercise the way the leader wanted to. Let her have her own struggle, Lauren thought. Let her live perhaps without feeling that her techniques were of any use to me. Let her gain something for herself by worrying about me a little while longer.
Lauren had her narrator do the same thing and the story ended with her feeling triumphant, leaving her unspeakable fantasies hidden for the right person to read it in another decade.
A few weeks later, Lauren got tired of the creative therapy class and left. She never shared the story she wrote by following the leader’s advice in her own way.
The day of the news approached without Lauren’s knowing.
Before she found out, she started to revise the story. She sat on the sofa in the living room, leaning over to reach her laptop on the coffee table. Her son was at a play date down the street. Her husband was upstairs. Reading what she’d written since leaving the therapy group, she began to think that the words released by writing the story had acquired a strange power. By writing all these things down, rather than freeing herself from the visions, she had given voice to something forbidden, an intensity that led toward a nothingness that was taboo to women like her, with a husband and child.
The last thing Lauren did before she got the news was attempt to add a layer to her story. It didn’t go well. She revised to see if she could make the story honest and have a happier ending, one where the woman in the story and her therapist found a middle ground, and the fears that she wanted to write about could be explored safely, so the therapist wouldn’t feel bothered by her client’s creative expression. Then she could take the steps she needed to gain control over her visions and cultivate a life she might enjoy.
And as she tried to revise, Lauren thought that if this peace could be achieved in the story it would counterbalance the darkness she herself had written about at such great length. Fate in the real world would then forgive her for not sharing the story with her therapist and if she were forgiven her attempt to understand the dangers involved would save her and her family from pain.
One of the things Nathan had not yet said to anyone else was that he used to see himself doing something more than working and raising kids. Didn’t most people hope for such things, picturing their efforts as part of the greater good, or perhaps God’s plan, and so on? Nathan’s goal now felt more dutiful and crude. All he wanted was to defeat anxiety long enough to keep the peace in his family and not let it break up. It was something he would’ve scoffed at as a younger man, before he’d come to understand the doubts and anxieties that arise after a person decides to fold their life inside a family’s fate.
Nathan had to let his brother know as soon as possible what else to do besides think about balance or whatever else he may have said at the rehearsal dinner. He started to write a good e-mail to make up make up for his earlier lack of courage. It needed to happen now. It might not survive as truth when his son needed it decades later.
He took a breath before he started to type, trying to remember that he didn’t want the message to sound too dire or too deep. Then he wrote for twenty minutes without pause.
When he finished typing he scrolled up and read the whole e-mail, correcting typos here and there; by the time he reached the end sweat had soaked through his shirt. The message seemed perfect and terrifying. It would shock his brother, he thought. But maybe in its way that would be for the best.
Nathan almost hit send. He wondered if it would be easier to talk to his brother on the phone or wait until they saw each other again. An e-mail might look too strange or come off wrong. It might be better for his brother to learn about doubt and sacrifice for himself. If his brother’s life also had this coldness, he could face it on his own and have his own victory over it.
Nathan decided to think it over a little more, so he saved the message and closed his laptop.
The news came soon after. Nathan’s message remained and went unread in the draft folder of his e-mail account, buried with other photos and memories beneath the avalanche of grief that struck his family that afternoon.
The terrors of children during birth, life, and their mortal pain grow into legend in the minds of many adults. Inklings become obsessions, then transformative fascinations for countless fathers and mothers across time. The pain of not knowing how a life together might have been, of feeling damned by the end of so much love and possibility, drives some to see endless night in death’s all-too-common closure.
So much was crushed in their son’s fall a short height onto concrete, after which he never woke again. When the news came that Saturday afternoon and Lauren and Nathan found out, the effects were manifold on them as husband and wife, as father and mother to the four-year-old boy.
When they understood that their son was gone they felt as if their actions before the news was evidence of their failure as parents and good people. It was as if, despite their efforts and harrowing concern for their son, they had somehow developed tragic blind spots and fallen into the trap of narcissism.
Among Lauren’s guilty thoughts, innumerable as a bed of nails, she felt that by putting fiction between herself and reality she had been a stubborn fool, rousing the demon who stalks the stupid, too distracted by her own obstacles to notice the greater stillness creeping toward her family. She scorned the concern from her therapist, colleagues, and the leader of the creative therapy group, deleting what she had written, ignoring calls and emails until they stopped.
Among Nathan’s suffocating thoughts of regret, he felt his fear of coldness had been a mirage generated by sickening pride, blinding him to the shadows reaching in from the corners of the family photos he had stared at like some desperate moth. He refused to speak to his brother or friends at length about any of it, shutting conversation down as quickly as possible.
That they had been distracted by fear and hardship was like legend and superstition come alive to teach them a great truth they should have respected. It was as if by failing to be happier since their son was born they had set off a fuse of unknown length burning invisibly behind their lives as self-fulfilling prophecy. The humiliating sting of this cliché would, they thought at the time, and later, with the pleasure of self-loathing, torment them until they died. Their torment would also likely bring them to early deaths, or so they wished. Only an early death would justify and announce to the world the full depth of their pain and be an example to those who knew what they’d been through. If only they had done a few things differently, all could have been saved—went the cliché.
Yet their guilt over not being able to prevent what happened only masked a deeper suspicion: that in their short number of years together as a family, an invisible layer of life and effects existed that only other people could observe. While other people could see the family, they were actually as distant from the man and woman and the child as the moon, and the separation was something other people had wisely acknowledged for their own sanity and safety. Because of the agony the news caused, they felt that someone somewhere had been calmly watching the events happen and not warned the family simply because they were insipid, wasted sorts of people. It felt to Lauren and Nathan as if the fact that tragedy had struck proved their worthlessness.
The boy’s death stuck a hot knife into various scars they thought time had healed. Their separate lapsed religious faiths seemed too much to contemplate as their families huddled near them in tears, saying prayers with the curiosity-seekers at the boy’s funeral. Their fury at themselves made them feel scrutinized in the full reveal of public grief. Their judgment of themselves was remorseless. It would not tolerate pity. Feeling they had failed as parents and people, as if they had tried to distance themselves falsely from mortality, they hated their human weakness beyond all sense.
It seemed crass that they had ever believed that together their efforts would insulate them from tragedy. If only they had spent more time with their son somehow and created a more protective harmony, death would not have trailed their boy so closely. If they had opened themselves to others more, loved more deeply, they could have learned how to entreat the mysteries of danger and ruin, sacrificing certain joys to achieve a better fate for their son and their family line.
In their kinder hours to themselves they loathed life a little more philosophically but no less brutally. They felt they had let themselves be swindled in a false bargain that transcended human frailty. They were it seemed the kind of people who were allowed to be aware of such danger, and know it is their responsibility to help their son avoid such suffering, but it was their lot to serve as an example of the kind of family that strives hard and fails. Fate had determined years ago that they and their child were marked for anguish. Hoping and yearning now that they might be able to recover from such hardship was unfortunately not enough. Of course we will recover! they could see themselves shouting if ever called by the world to disclose their feelings. But the cost of such a recovery was so high that death was all they could dream of for years after the news. To live one day and the next seeing nothing ahead that could ease their rancor at death, rising and waking under the banner of parents of the dead boy, that was the trouble with continuing to live. The nature of it was unbearable: to know it had happened, to hate that it had happened, to hate life itself after injustice. No friend or cherished place listening to them on earth could understand such trouble riddling their hearts.
They no longer wanted fiction or pictures. It did them no good to hear a voice in the garage singing; a whisper at the office promising; to imagine the sky and the earth and the deities of consciousness living as light in their dreams of the unknown; to imagine their boy dying as he had been born: in water, foreign to gravity, alien to agony, most alive again in the moment he was unmade. Dark logic would allow no such relief. Grief became a weapon, one they sharpened endlessly, to scare the living, and perhaps one day to shame even death itself. They refused all help, sneering at the old ways people had learned to comfort the bereaved.
All this describes one corner of what they suffered and it is what kept them living apart forever after the news, sunken people wandering a barren zone of divorced territory, kept alive like parasites by their fascination at the disguise of silence they had always tolerated, the cloak of respect for life they felt forced to wear whenever they had to look another sickening alive human being in the eye for even a moment, and be reminded how separate they now were from their son.
Matthew Jakubowski has written for Music & Literature, The Kenyon Review online, gorse, The Millions, Necessary Fiction, Corium Magazine, and 3:AM Magazine, among many others. He is the Interviews Editor for Asymptote, a journal of literary translation, and lives with his wife and son in West Philadelphia. He is at work on a novel.