A few months ago, I carried a glass of red wine into a room full of women, most of them mothers. “I can’t stand to watch a show where something bad happens to a child,” one friend said. I nodded. Even a movie preview depicting a boy pushed from a ledge haunts me years later — that small body, that slip into an abyss, a quick cut to leafy trees on a river bank flickers at odd moments in my mind. Later, as I walked home beneath the moon and stars, I wondered, what if I stop looking away from misfortune?
As a virus named for its crown of spikes disrupts the lives of so many around the world, my early winter musing seems like a premonition. Then, I had only thought of my small family, my husband’s struggle with a chronic disease, my 5-year-old’s emergency appendectomy this past spring. The next morning, darkness lingered while I set bowls of oatmeal dotted with blueberries on the old oak table, and listened to my son talk of the weather wheel at school.
That afternoon, I pulled curtains tight against a too bright sun, and laid his baby brother in the crib. I read the first chapter of French writer Lise Marzouk’s just published If: A Mother’s Memoir. The book begins when she asks her son Solal to sit in a rush-seat chair at the kitchen table and open his mouth. She sees a tumor. And the world spins away from her.
I read If in two days. Often, I glanced up at the bright faces of my boys while they played, then dipped back to read of the harsh pace of Solal’s chemotherapy; soon his hair fell out in clumps at the slightest touch. A professor of classical literature, Marzouk hints at the great sweep of time: the origins of civilization, Genesis and Exodus, birth and loss. When she writes about Solal’s body and mind, I glimpse ancient seas, sun-bleached columns.
In a moment of desperation, Marzouk prays to the full moon.
I understand the impulse to seek in the celestial a focal point for hope. I decided to write to Marzouk, if only to find myself however distantly in her orbit. Unexpectedly, she wrote me back. Over the course of a few emails, she talked of myths and the imaginary, and how the death of a child is taboo — “unspeakable, unutterable.” She talked about her son’s hard-won recovery, and her daughter’s wisdom.
Months later, while the coronavirus limits my family’s movements, and shrinks the daily circle which we roam to our house, the yard, sometimes a wooded path behind the now empty school, I return again to Marzouk’s words.
Works of art, she says to me, “[a]pproach what is forbidden or indescribable, helping humanity deal with its own condition.” Throughout the day, I turn off the news reports of countries closing their borders, people being asked to “shelter in place,” and I read books to the children. We return often to Mem Fox’s Whoever You Are where a man dressed in a suit covered in clouds floats in every illustration. He states truths: “Joys are the same, and love is the same.” I turn the page and sing out: “Pain is the same, and blood is the same.”
On the last day our local library is open, I check out a book about the bubonic plague of the 14th century, often referred to as the Black Death. I turn to a print: A man holding an apple sits on a pedestal and peers at the sky. Stacks of clouds mirror the architecture. Down below, cracked bones embedded in the sturdy block of his pillar, memento mori, remind the viewer to seek salvation in God. Unsure why this image comforts, I look again at Marzouk’s emails. She says, “The representation of death is man’s eternal issue. Consciously or not it is a basso continuo that paces our lives and drives our choices. Every society has created its own rituals and beliefs, trying to cope with that unbearable truth: we are doomed to die and we do not know why or what for.”
I read about when King Philip VI in 1348 asked the Medical Council of Paris to find a cause for the Black Death. The physician astronomers turned their gaze to the heavens, consulted star charts, seeking instances of unusual planetary alignment. As the plague continued to spread with every cough, they blamed a lunar eclipse and the malignant forces of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars for deadly vapors arriving on currents of air, passing into the blood stream. They hypothesized that this “corrupted air … penetrates to the heart” and “destroys the life force.” From where else could this curse have come? A product of “divine will” they decreed, and urged the people “to return humbly to God.”
Tonight, my husband comes into the kitchen when I prepare dinner, and we compare what we’ve heard on the news. The children at our feet use blocks to build their own civilizations, making ruins where they will. The sun sets beyond our windows, the clouds burnished pink. As the sky darkens, winking points shine through holes poked in a black fabric draped over the world. The moon is a waning crescent. The heavens appear much the same as when this season of sickness first began. I want to pray, but I can’t. For now I just look.