The other morning I finished reading Ann Patchett’s novel, “Taft”. The book is unusual in that the white author imagines the life of a black man who imagines the final days of a white man. You could accuse Ann of taking liberties in writing about an experience beyond her culture and gender, but she appears to have done her homework and makes her characters convincing.
I nearly abandoned the book about half way through. I got depressed reading about two families suffering through a death, abandonment, addiction and estrangement, but held on to the end. The author succeeded in bringing her book to a satisfying conclusion, and ended it with a flashback involving the white man fourteen years before his death. He is twenty six and is looking after his young children. He is sure of himself as he tends to their needs and protects them from harm. He does not know that he is fated to die young and leave his boy and girl behind when they are teenagers. He doesn’t see the consequences his early departure will have on those he loves dearly.
Those final passages brought to mind moments when my boy and girl were young. I feared for their future and hoped that I would be around long enough to see them properly launched in their lives. I’m pleased to say that they are making headway and are relatively happy.
Patchett stirred up a few more thoughts before I put the book down. It occurred to me that my choices in life were a series of risky ventures that could have ended badly. It was a mistake to love someone dearly and tie my life to her (all the eggs in one basket). It was foolish to bring children into the world and take on the responsibility of raising them (so much time spent preventing disaster). It was stupid to make friends with fellow travelers I met at church and in my profession (so many hypocrites and users mixed in with well meaning people). What was I thinking?
Some of my loved ones are going to leave me, and I’ll hurt the remainder when I go. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. This is terribly obvious to any one who has ever lost a loved one, but has become relentlessly evident now that I am approaching sixty.
I know that I would never trade away the richness of my family life and the sustenance I gained from my friendships. I’ve met people in the later stages of their lives who never committed themselves to anything beyond narrow self interest, and their accomplishments seem dry, dusty and somewhat barren. But sometimes I wonder if the coming pain of separation and loss will equal the joys I received years ago.
It’s a bigger mistake to even think about trying to balance the accounts. I would have had nearly no life at all if I hadn’t taken all those risks. And my time here would certainly have been boring and dull. But gamblers generally lose in the end even after a long run of good luck.
Sometimes when I’m feeling down I recall scenes from when my children were toddlers. I call to mind a moment when my little girl ran to me across our lawn after I returned from a trip. She shook her golden, red hair and laughed, and she jumped into my arms and hugged me.
The comfort of that recollection is bittersweet: I was loved wholeheartedly by a child; that moment is gone and can only be partially reclaimed in memory. I feel blessed to have been given such a gift, but I long to go back and relive it in vivid, tangible reality.