Plight of the Goldfinch

I never announced my pregnancy on Facebook. Maybe after battling for so long to final inhabit that sacred space of cultivating life within my own body, it just felt gross and overtly public to formulate some kitschy post to inform the masses, and I wanted this magical thing just for me, my husband, my boy. I did, however, have a harebrained moment the other day in which I effectively announced my ‘stillbirth’ on Facebook. My beautiful cousin who, in earnest, offered to carry our child posted this on Friday morning, a tribute to her two lost older brothers:

deathAnd I reposted with the caption, Thinking of my father and my son. It stayed up for about an hour before I frantically dug the phone out of my purse to delete it, feeling immediately overexposed once anyone ‘liked’ or commented with strings of heart-shaped emojis. The alternate motive behind my feverish ‘poster’s remorse’ was that I don’t think I really believe this, and it seemed suddenly trite, these sugar-coated platitudes about death – “All is well” and such. I mean, it most certainly does “count.” He is not “in the next room.” “Everything” most definitely is not “exactly as it was…untouched, unchanged.” That’s stupid. Losses like these – fathers, sons, brothers – create fissures in the bedrock of ourselves as they rumble through. We patch, heal, rebuild, but we are fundamentally changed. That is the plight of the survivor.

So if you’ve read it, then you might understand why it was so satisfying to book-end the weekend with the first hundred pages of The Goldfinch, the novel that won the Pulitzer last year, which I cracked on the beach yesterday morning, sinking into a more realistic tale of death and the experiences of those left behind. This is the namesake of the novel, one of only a handful of surviving works from a Dutch master whose entire catalog was otherwise destroyed in a gunpowder factory explosion that also claimed the artist’s life:

Image from The Daily Beast

And herein lies the first unflinching truth about death: that it often strikes so unexpectedly and gratuitously, that despite the disconcerting platitudes people like to dispense, it doesn’t always happen “for a reason.” The mother in the story laments,

People die, sure…But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness (28).

Like a microdeletion, not even a whole chromosome, just a random error where the most microscopic piece of information was lost in all the merging and dividing, a missed signal, a chemical disruption, a diaphragm that never closed, and the human tragedy that unfurled from these seemingly trivial seeds of happenstance.  Reconciling the gravity of the impact against the capriciousness of the cause has proven to be one of the greatest challenges of this journey through grief.

The second truth pertains to people’s utter clumsiness and self-indulgent avoidance of the grief-stricken. In the novel, Theo (the protagonist) heads back to school after loss and catches the same strain of leprosy that scattered my friends and family and co-workers to the fringe when I needed them most. Tartt writes,

‘Sorry.’ People I knew said it, and people who had never spoken to me in my life. Other people – laughing and talking in the hallways – fell silent when I walked by, throwing grave or quizzical looks my way. Others still ignored me completely, as playful dogs will ignore an ill or injured dog in their midst: by refusing to look at me, by romping and frolicking around me in the hallways as if I weren’t there (90).

That said, it’s simultaneously hard to say whether anything anyone could have said or done would have made any difference. Theo talks at length about the numbness and “the part of [him]…so glassed off…[he] was practically in a coma” (80). He describes it best in this paragraph:

I accepted all this counsel politely, with a glassy smile and a glaring sense of unreality. Many adults seem to interpret this numbness as a positive sign…And maybe I was coping awfully well, I don’t know. Certainly I wasn’t howling aloud or punching my fist through windows or doing any of the things I imagined people might do who felt as I did. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead (93).

I don’t yet know where the rest of Theo’s trajectory through survival is headed, but, where I left off with him, he was a minor with no discernible guardian in temporary housing, unmitigated uncertainty stretching out infinitely before him, much like my own story. I keep thinking of our frosties through the lens of this Kerouac line from On the Road that showed up in my Twitter feed:

And that is really the final component of the plight of the survivor, which is at once terrifying and lucky: I am still here, breath in my lungs and blood in my veins. Somewhere on the other side of that mysterious horizon lies unrealized possibility, pain, delight, love, heartache, the beginnings of something as of yet undefined. With my hand on an empty womb and skin electrified with both hope and terror, my feet shuffle in the general direction of forward.

19 thoughts on “Plight of the Goldfinch

  1. Beautiful–heart-wrenchingly, truthfully, beautiful. I loved that piece about Theo walking glassy-eyed through the “I’m sorry”s. There is nothing that upsets people more than when you are grieving, visibly grieving, and they grasp onto any idea that you might be coping in a way that makes them more comfortable. You write so beautifully about loss. I also loved the Kerouac quote. How lovely to think of frozen embryos as a handful of crazy stars.


  2. Everyone is back at work. The horse isn’t dead. Who can say what you have said so well? The best response to music isn’t always abrupt applause, but silence.


  3. The most intense ending to a post that I’ve read all week. I have been avoiding Goldfinch, and I don’t know why. I feel like I keep skirting closer and closer to the story through other stories. Maybe this is the post that nudges me forward.


    • It’s kind of a doorstop, so I could see avoiding it – big commitment. I don’t think I’ll finish it before I leave for Oregon (our summer getaway) so I might table it while I rip through Wild and come back. We’ll see. It is a great story so far though.


  4. I read–or rather listened to–the Goldfinch last year. It’s a powerful book. Dakota didn’t deserve his fate–the capricious cruelty of the universe shouldn’t land on a child. The Kerouac quote sums up so eloquently how one moves forward after such a horrible loss.


  5. Beautiful and thoughtful. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were just next door. And although I agree with your feelings on that it’s not nothing at all (at all), I do wish people would speak their names a bit more easily. It is hard to find something to say that actually helps, but pretending nothing has happened is worse (for me).
    Wishing you all the best on the path to those crazy stars.


  6. I’ve written and deleted several comments because there is nothing to add to this – it’s amazing. So I’m just going to stand back and appreciate what you’ve written here.


  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and heart in such an intense way. I have not yet lived through the loss of a close family member but I have watched other family members do so. I appreciated posts like this because I want to understand what they are going through and also acknowledge our common humanity and vulnerability.


  8. The Kerouac quote reminds me of my friend Lysanne Sizoo’s book about her Small Sparks of Life (Lysanne Sizoo).

    I’ve read Goldfinch, and I like the quotes you’ve highlighted. To me the only way I can reconcile impact with cause is that there is no correlation. That makes it easier to bear, for me at least.

    Your last line is truly beautiful. It speaks so well to your grief and loss and sensitivity, as you make those essential but so very difficult first moves forward. Thinking of you.


  9. Pingback: Zen Purgatory | The Empress and the Fool

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