|Three dudes, three radically different perspectives on most things,
let alone ultimate questions.
In rereading my post from yesterday on recovering from surgery, I was struck by the fact that, even in taking myself down a peg for my approach to illness and recovery – imagining what Nina would have made of it all — I was very much stuck in my own perspective. That’s not the post I meant to write. I guess doing a blog about myself, I’m creating a pretty big inherent navel-gazing risk. But it’s also hard to stand in other peoples’ shoes to tell even a simple story. That’s one of the things that makes good writers so amazing. The ability to conjure not only the voice, but the point of view of another person requires not only language skills, but a keen observational sense that goes beyond most people’s normal social skills (in fact, if my experience with writers is any guide, it may be detrimental to them ;).
One of the perspectives I struggle most to see, let alone adopt or try on for myself, is a kids’ point of view. I’ve always been particularly wowed by writers who can do this well: Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, et al. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a narrative failure. Seeing the world through a kid’s perspective is a hugely important parenting skill I lack. I don’t mean seeing the world with innocent eyes or some kind of cinematic childhood mawkishness. I’m talking about being able to summon the impact of events on my own children, anticipate their reactions to things – quotidian and profound – so that I can understand their needs and reactions.
Not to ruminate too much in the realm of ostentatious self-deprecation, but Nina was really good at this. She had a knack for understanding what would make for good kid times that I could never summon. I think in part this stems from her love of her own childhood.
Whenever Nina reached into her childhood memory bank, the contents were magical, wonderful. Her most powerful childhood memories were: 1. A grass fire by a California roadside that left her searching every room she entered for fire exits for the rest of her life; 2. A wolf that came to her parent’s house in San Francisco when she was 3 and asked for cranberry juice; and 3. A bear who approached her during her family’s cross-country move from California to Massachusetts – when Nina was four – and asked to share her scrambled eggs around the campfire (while, according to Nina, her parents had gone for ice cream without her). I leave it to you to decide which of these events were real and which imaginary – Nina swore they all felt equally real to her.
Consciously or unconsciously, Nina actively cultivated some of that, I’m sure – the mind remembers through the lens we use to sift through it, to a degree. But her access to childhood memories was also just dramatically immediate – like less time had passed for her than it had for me since our respective childhoods. I think she just stayed in touch with her younger self better. This made her a ready guide for the boys and a much more effective cultivator of childhood magic for our own family.
|Even through terminal cancer, Nina’s sense of childhood
magic was clearly undiminished.
I’ve missed Nina’s depth and facility as a parent a lot since she died. I never felt very good at cultivating the magic of childhood even when she was alive. But even on a more basic level – simply anticipating the kids’ needs or how some of the twists and turns of life after Nina’s death would hit them, I feel ill-equipped.
This week was a good example. I joked in my last piece about what a lousy patient I am and how recovering from surgery alone accentuated some of my negatives. But I totally left out how my surgery affected Benny and Freddy. When I wrote about my spider cancer dream, I failed to mention Benny’s pallid reaction at the dinner table, when he said “but they didn’t see any cancer on the MRI, right?” The look on his face was the most transparently anxious thing I’ve ever seen.
I also left out the moment a couple days post-surgery when Freddy came into my room, scorching tears of anger streaming down his face already from a disagreement with Benny, though it was only 6:45 am, and when I asked him why he couldn’t be nicer to his brother he blurted out “what difference does it make? You’re not even going to get out of bed today!” His anger, his frustration, always churning close to the surface in that kid, were boiling over after several days of seeing me gimpy and bedridden.
I realized that seeing me as a patient from their perspective was its own kind of trauma. Like my own experience, I’m sure it was tempered by the fact that it was just a knee surgery – no one talking about terminal disease or survival rates, no chemo, no radiation, none of the scary trigger words. But also like me, they must have been reminded, as I struggled to do everyday things, took medications that made me feel ill, and, yes, lay in my bed – babying myself probably for much longer than another otherwise able-bodied person would have done – of Nina’s two years of medical intervention that ended in her death.
|I find great joy in looking at pictures from the two years Nina was sick.
They remind me how much fun we still had, how much joy was still
in our lives. But what do the boys see, I wonder?
This isn’t a reassurance seeking post – I think my kids are fine and, ultimately, it may be good for them to see me as a patient. For one thing, if I’m lucky, they may learn what not to do themselves (is male pattern wimpiness heritable?); also it’s normal to occasionally get sick, even need surgery, or worse. Every medical intervention doesn’t end in someone’s death. Some do. But those guys have hopefully many, many years of sickness and health to navigate, and for us at this particular juncture, it seems right that occasional, non-terminal medical bumps in the road are something they learn navigate. Although my kids’ short lives have already been filled with far too many illnesses for my taste – Freddy’s club foot and diabetes, their mother and grandmother dying of cancer – the truth is that all lives are filled with illness and dying. To the extent there’s a “normal,” it’s normal.
|I guess I want them to remember the smiles AND the
loss of hair, the love and the sadness of losing that
love. But I need to learn to see what they see better.
Even so, kids don’t see illness and mortality the same way adults do – any more than they do cross-country camping trips. If I want to be a good parent to the boys, I can’t expect that. I have to learn to stand in their shoes a little more, peer up from the view of the Under Five Footers and conduct myself accordingly.
Do any of you have instances that stand out where you missed the kid perspective on something major that happened to your family? Have your kids ever reminded you that they’re kids just by, well, being kids? I’d love to hear about it in the comments if you’re willing. Sometimes having only one narrative voice can be a handicap, as any good writer would know…