Richard Ford Makes Me Cry

No policy memo or psychometric scale can capture the tactile experience of private sadness, trauma, and loss. For that, we need the literary or the biographical imagination.

Richard Ford’s Sportswriter trilogy is ostensibly about many things. Yet as Stephen Metcalf observed in Slate, these books are really about the shattering (and then the gradual, only-partial reconstruction) of protagonist Frank Bascombe’s life brought about by the death of his young son from Reye’s syndrome.

In Lay of the Land, the third book of the trilogy, Frank’s life takes various twists and turns on the way to Thanksgiving. Sitting in a bar, waiting for a car to be repaired, Frank’s attention is drawn to a random stranger who has also lost a child. And so, Bascombe reports, “my son Ralph Bascombe, age twenty-nine (or for accuracy’s sake, age nine), comes seeking audience in my brain.”

…when you have a child die—as I did nineteen years ago—you carry him forever and ever after. Of course you should. And not that I “talk” to him (though some might) or obsess endlessly (as his brother, Paul, did for years until it made him loony), or that I expect Ralph to turn up at my door … (I’ve fantasized that could happen, though it was just a way to stay interested as years went by). For me, left back, there has been no dead-zone sensation of life suspended, hollowed, wind-raddled, no sense of not leading my real life but only some consolation-prize life nobody would want—I’m sure that can happen, too.

Though what has developed is that my life’s become alloyed with loss. Ralph, and then Ralph being dead, long ago became embedded in all my doings and behaviors. And not like a disease you carry that never gets better, but more the way being left-handed is ever your companion, or that you don’t like parsnips and never eat them, or that once there was a girl you loved for the very first time, and you couldn’t help thinking of her—nonspecifically—every single day. And while this may seem profane or untrue to say, the life it’s made has been and goes on being a much more than merely livable life. It’s made a good life, this loss, one I don’t at all regret….

Of course Ralph’s death was why Ann and I couldn’t stay married another day seventeen years back. We were always thinking the same things, occupying and dividing up the same tiny piece of salted turf, couldn’t surprise and please each other the way marrieds need to. Death became all we had in common, a common jail. And who wanted that till our own deaths did us part? There would be a forever, we knew, and we had to live on into it, divided and joined by death. And not that it was harder on us than it was on Ralph, who died after all, and not willingly. But it was hard enough.

Everyone–myself no more or less, particularly, than anyone else–experiences sadness and loss. Thank God these losses rarely stem from a child’s death in the year 2014. Still, we mourn now-gone parents, siblings, friends, and spouses. We undergo painful divorces and romantic disappointment. We lose jobs or experience economic hardship. We watch people succumb to cancer or AIDS. Someone we love suffers because of one, randomly awful, repeated genetic sequence.

These aching experiences sometimes strengthen us. They sometimes diminish us or leave us vulnerable in unexpected ways. Whatever they do to us, they become part of us, embedded in our lives. Although we might give anything to have avoided these misfortunes, at some point we can’t fathom what our lives would be like without whatever they’ve left behind.

CS Lewis informs us that this is the way God does his work. The blows of God’s chisel, which hurt us so much, ultimately sculpt something better in us. Maybe so, though I’m not much for apologetics. Like Frank Bascombe, I wish there were some other way.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.