Disaster Falls

A Family Story
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A haunting chronicle of what endures when the world we know is swept away

On a day like any other, on a rafting trip down Utah’s Green River, Stéphane Gerson’s eight-year-old son, Owen, drowned in a spot known as Disaster Falls. That same night, as darkness fell, Stéphane huddled in a tent with his wife, Alison, and their older son, Julian, trying to understand what seemed inconceivable. “It’s just the three of us now,” Alison said over the sounds of a light rain and, nearby, the rushing river. “We cannot do it alone. We have to stick together.”

Disaster Falls chronicles the aftermath of that day and their shared determination to stay true to Alison’s resolution. At the heart of the book is Stéphane’s portrait of a marriage critically tested. Husband and wife grieve in radically different ways that threaten to isolate each of them in their post-Owen worlds. (He feels so far,” Stéphane says, when Alison shows him a selfie Owen had taken. “He feels so close,” she says.) With beautiful specificity, Stéphane shows how they resist that isolation and reconfigure their marriage from within.

As Stéphane navigates his grief, the memoir expands to explore how society reacts to the death of a child. He depicts the “good death” of his father, which enlarges Stéphane’s perspective on mortality. He excavates the history of the Green River—rife with hazards not mentioned in the rafting company’s brochures. He explores how stories can both memorialize and obscure a person’s life—and how they can rescue us.
 
Disaster Falls is a powerful account of a life cleaved in two—raw, truthful, and unexpectedly consoling.

Praise

“This diamond-sharp book is both meticulous and breathtaking…While [Stéphane Gerson] takes us to the precipice of the fatality, it’s as if the accident itself is secondary to the larger story. This creates a narrative tension in the passage about the incident itself. Though we know the outcome, we hold our breath as he and Owen approach the falls in a raft: we hope that it will end differently...A beautiful book, even as it deals with unthinkable anguish.”
LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred)

“Keenly observed and deeply felt, this book is not only a powerful reflection on grief and loss, but also an intimately textured history of fathers and sons. An unflinchingly honest, moving memoir of loss and recovery.”
KIRKUS REVIEWS

Disaster Falls is a meditation on family tragedy, facing up to both the thing itself and its consequences, in language whose restraint paradoxically allows the reader access to great depths of emotion. An immensely powerful book.”
SALMAN RUSHDIE

“Stéphane Gerson's Disaster Falls is as deep and necessary and haunting as grief itself. I am a big fan of grief and someone who does not believe in the concept of ‘closure.’ I am even a bigger fan of people who wear their grief as a badge of how well they loved. Stéphane Gerson wears that badge, and without preaching he inspires the reader to do the same: to love fully even in the face of loss. This is a gorgeously written book that will stand the test of time.”
ELIZABETH LESSER, author of Broken Open and Marrow; cofounder of Omega Institute

“I resisted Disaster Falls—afraid to enter its world of very nearly unendurable pain—but once I began reading I was pinned to the spot. This is a spare, lucid, wholly unsentimental, tender, devastating and devastatingly beautiful book.”
DANI SHAPIRO, author of Slow Motion and Devotion

"Disaster Falls is a father’s grief-stricken book, a work of expiation, homage, and remembrance, and it moved me, as it will move many others, because it is authentic, resonant and true, deeply thoughtful, utterly real."
EDWARD HIRSCH, author of Gabriel: A Poem

“In 2002 I lost my five-year-old daughter Grace to a virulent form of strep. In the aftermath of that enormous loss, I sought books that talked about the grief parents feel when their child dies. Not just grief, but anger and guilt and love and mysticism and yes, even hope. Stéphane Gerson has written such a book. Disaster Falls is brutally honest and unflappable, brave and vulnerable. Read it.”
ANN HOOD, author of Comfort: A Journey Through Grief and The Knitting Circle

“One of the bravest and most breathtakingly honest books I have ever read, Disaster Falls is at once a rigorous exploration of language's power to limn a human life and an incandescent portrait of a family reconfigured by tragedy. Haunting, stark, unforgettable.”
PRISCILLA GILMAN, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy

“Out of the unimaginable loss of a child comes this stunning memoir. Disaster Falls leaps beyond death, avoiding the maudlin by turning toward connection. Stéphane Gerson meditates on how to raise children to be confident, life-living risk takers in spite of danger, and shares a generous portrait of a marriage in which husband and wife give each other space in grief and love. An astonishing book.”
CHRISTA PARRAVANI, author of Her: A Memoir

Disaster Falls is prismatic, fractal—it proceeds like an existential detective novel, beginning with a big bang of grief, after which the author begins to assemble associations, resonances, and clues, each a point of light guiding him and his family from death to life. The book's suspense emanates from watching the author piece meaning back together, creating amidst darkness constellations entirely new.”
THOMAS BELLER, author of J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist

 

Excerpt

9781101906699|excerpt

Gerson / DISASTER FALLS

One

Drew: Just a quick question: What is it like at home?

Owen’s former classmates—­Drew and the others—­sometimes asked us about the accident. More often, they recounted where they had been when they found out. This is how they told us his death had turned their lives upside down. Adults were not different, but most doubted that we wanted to know or else they feared saying the wrong thing so they tended to remain quiet. The few friends who took us back to that moment did so gingerly. They watched for our cues.

With Alison, they saw a distant gaze and hard features. She did not want to know what others were doing or what they had felt when we called with the news because such stories were not about Owen. They were solely about these people and the pain they had felt when the accident entered their lives. This was excruciating for Alison, who felt responsible for their suffering.

The signals I gave out were more conflicted. Throw it my way, they said. Give me another vantage point on this catastrophe so I can grasp its enormity. Owen’s death is too large to remain a private affair. I want this knowledge and I want this closeness. But do not tell me too much. Do not turn this death into a spectacle or a collective trial that taught us something and brought us closer together, even if that is true. Do not suggest that your grief resembles mine.

These were unreasonable expectations, I knew that.

One friend recalled that, during her first phone call, Alison had asked how she would go on living. Another told us she was in her car when her husband, who was standing outside, answered his cell phone. She watched him speak and then sob, though she did not know why. These are the kinds of recollections Alison sought to avoid. But I listened because our lives tipped over at that exact moment and I wanted to understand the world into which we had tumbled.

One day, a friend began describing the nervous anticipation that had filled our home in Woodstock, New York, as we made our way back from Utah, but she stopped midsentence because of Alison’s obvious lack of interest. I was disappointed. Though I never asked, I would have liked to hear what happened when friends and relatives converged upon our home the day after the accident. They had to respond to a situation they barely fathomed and at the same time handle practical matters. Someone had to drive to the Albany airport and find the courage to face us and say those initial words. Something else: what should the house look like when we arrived? I imagine that this entailed many decisions: where people would position themselves, whether food would be laid out, how bright to set the lights. There was a scene to compose.

I was only dimly attuned to all of this but did realize that people were stepping in and making decisions—­they were making decisions for us. This was one of the mental notes I kept during the early days, tabulating as best I could the widening gulf between the old reality and the new.

Two friends made the hour-­long drive to Albany. It was dark, I think, when we left the airport. I sat in the backseat, feeling already like a passenger in my own life. I do not think that we discussed anything substantive during the ride, though I could be wrong. A haze surrounds these days, with random moments of clarity etched into my memory.

Among these moments: the sight of my mother, the first person whom I saw as we pulled into our garage. She shuffled across the dusty concrete floor with tiny penguin-­like steps, ashen-­faced, arms half-­open. Though she moved slowly, I knew that she would reach me, grip me, collapse upon me. Behind her stood my father, smaller than in the past, my in-­laws, my brother-­in-­law, friends from the area and others who had already flown in, all part of a funereal receiving line that meandered from the garage to the entryway, the kitchen, and finally the living room, a line of still and silent beings who resembled embalmed corpses.

What happened afterward? Did Alison and I sit with one person or one small group at a time? Did we talk about the Green River? Did we plead fatigue and retire to our room? And Julian—­where did he go? All I know is that at some point that evening or the next day, lights went up, frozen bodies thawed, and waxlike faces regained elasticity. People began to move, first in slow motion and then faster until they were twirling from one room to another, up and down the stairs, onto the deck, into the garden. The house lit up with a circular energy that was manic and magical, an energy that surrounded us but could not touch me.

Alison and I began dating within months of moving to New York in the late 1980s, both of us fresh college graduates. We left for Chicago a few years later—­I began doctoral studies in French history, Alison planned events for nonprofits—­and returned in 2000, when New York University hired me. Having missed the early Giuliani era, we came back to a city that was cleaner and more affluent than the one we had known. We had two sons now, Julian and Owen, born three years apart in the late 1990s. Through their school and Little League games, we found ourselves in a universe of music producers, architects, account executives, film editors, academics, artists, venture capitalists, and foodies—­all of us wearing black jeans and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or later Wilco. There was something intoxicating about downtown, a self-­awareness of cool powered by a mix of prosperity and faux nonchalance.

New York also felt safer than the city we had known in the 1980s—­except of course on 9/11. We were living in a Battery Park City rental, a few blocks south of the World Trade Center and within the evacuation zone. When we returned to our apartment to collect our belongings a week later, the fire still smoldered, its odor pungent. Trees sported white leaves—­pages from memos, official letters, and instruction manuals shredded into macabre confetti. A dozen crushed ambulances and police cars were stacked outside our building like metal pancakes in primary colors. We left the neighborhood for the Upper West Side but feared that this would not be enough distance, not enough protection against the next attack.

This led us to purchase a home, for shelter and summers, in Woodstock, New York, two hours north of New York City. We met other urban refugees there, and also musicians and painters, onetime employees of a now-­shuttered IBM plant, retired schoolteachers, svelte yogis, butchers who also coach Little League, bow-­hunting carpenters, troubadour rabbis, and aging hippies who sometimes look the part and sometimes do not. Beyond the facile caricatures, it was an easy town to like. Our house was nestled in a dead end, surrounded by acres of forest. We had never lived among bears, snakes, and coyotes before, but this place felt oddly secure, as if, like giant cotton balls, the trees and bushes could muffle noise and vibrations.

This is where we spent the first weeks after the accident—­hidden away. Everything was filtered, freed from the weight of obligations, pity, and accidental encounters with well-­meaning acquaintances. Alison and I did not have to leave the house, not even to buy groceries, because friends and relatives took care of everything, preparing breakfast, answering the phone, welcoming well-­wishers, signing for deliveries, and making runs to the hardware store. One of them called the local tennis club, where Owen had been slated to begin day camp, and explained that he had died. Others brought Julian to batting cages, anything to maintain the semblance of normalcy. (Such outings left Julian exposed in ways we had not anticipated. He later told us that, when a camper asked if he had siblings, he gave a frank answer. Oh shit, the kid said.)

Another one of our friends placed sleeping pills in our bathroom to help us get through the night. Alison took one every evening; I never did, but we both opened ourselves to this spellbinding human alignment, these tiny gestures inside our own home.

We became the silent center of a micro-­society that filled the space Owen had left vacant.

The day after our return from Utah, I retreated to the small studio that serves as my office. Bookshelves cover all of the walls except for a section devoted to the kids’ drawings and a large bay window that opens onto the forest and a bluestone quarry. This is where I had written historical books and articles over the years, but that morning I sat at my desk to draft a preliminary version of our eulogy. Alison and I had taken notes on the flight home and agreed that I would show her something by midday.

Writing Owen’s eulogy was in some respects an impossible exercise, a confrontation with reality that proved so raw I had to turn my back to Owen’s art on the walls. But alone in this quiet space, surrounded by trees and traces of the path that quarrymen had followed decades earlier, I heard Owen for the first time since the accident. The eulogy flowed on the page, with ready-­made sentences and echoes of his voice. All parents must carry within them biographies of their children, unwritten but available at a moment’s notice.

Ours began with the joy of having two boys and the pain of living without one of them. Alison and I told anecdotes about a child who had memorized our credit card number and recounted some of his small victories that spring. We touched upon the accident and Owen’s absence. All that remained, we said, were recollections—­and something else:

Owen looked into himself and into the outside world with penetration and feeling. He sought understanding while remaining aware of his own frailty and limitations. He embraced the beauty and efflorescence of life while grasping its darker, impenetrable side. If Owen has left us a legacy, then this is it.

These words continue to ring true even if I now realize that legacy talk is what the two of us needed at that moment. Owen’s life had to harbor some deeper meaning.

Alison and I also felt compelled to speak against anger. We had both felt its pull within days of the accident, and so we pushed back. We would no doubt feel anger in the future, we said. “But not today.” An anger that was equal to the death of Owen would consume us; it would scorch the earth and the insides; it would preclude all other emotions, even sadness; it would make it impossible to truly see, to understand what had happened and who we were becoming. There was no religious belief or ethical framework behind our words, just the conviction that once we surrendered we would lose ourselves and lose Owen—­we would lose him again. This, too, we needed to say and hear that day, as if to make a public commitment, to ourselves and to the rest of the world. A life without anger, a life with as little anger as possible: this became almost right away our mantra and our daily practice.

The morning after writing the eulogy, I woke up knowing we would bury Owen that day. Every morning, there are parents who wake up knowing this is what they will do before sunset.

I dragged my legs to the side of the bed and raised my body, hoping to accrue enough momentum to overcome the inertia that kept me pinned under the sheets. As I stood up, I wondered how the day would unfold. I might sit prostrate on a chair, or sob uncontrollably, or fall on my knees in the cemetery. Or perhaps Alison would behave in ways I did not recognize. The images of bereaved parents that I carried with me suggested that all of this was possible. After losing her seven-­year-­old daughter, the friend of a friend screamed in bed every morning. This was terrifying, but her behavior seemed appropriate.

Alison wore a navy sleeveless dress with pleats and a short gray sweater. The rabbi recommended that I pick an old tie since, following Jewish custom, we would cut it (and Alison’s sweater) before the services. I chose my favorite tie instead; Owen deserved it. Afterward, we met our relatives in the synagogue library. I felt numb and restless, remote yet hyper-­present.

In the great room, quiet but full of static when we took our seats next to Owen’s coffin, people barely moved as the rabbi chanted and then summoned Alison and me to deliver the eulogy. We read paragraphs in turn while holding the sheets of paper between us, her hand and mine touching the words. Like a passing of the baton, this responsive recitation kept us in motion. It gave us balance. Julian watched from the front row though I do not know what he heard. I do not recall what he wore either (there are no photographs). Alison and I paid attention to Julian, but not as closely as before. He later told us that, for weeks, we did not concern ourselves with what he ate.

Alison stood tall, feet planted on the platform. At the cemetery afterward, she held my hand firmly. It was a bright day, with a big blue sky surrounding Overlook Mountain, a local peak we had recently hiked with Owen and Julian, climbing past the ruins of a Gilded Age resort that had burned down long ago. The rabbi asked the mourners to create space for the three of us to walk around the grave. Afterward, still within this human circle, we shoveled dirt onto the casket. Alison remarked that a gust of wind blew out of nowhere at that moment.

Before picking up the shovel, she stepped toward the black hole, as if to peer in. I placed my hand on her arm.

“You really thought I would jump in, didn’t you?” she asked during the car ride home. She smiled faintly, but I think that she felt slighted, as if I had doubted her strength. Perhaps I had: it was easier to focus on her potential breakdown than to face my own.

At the house, mourners overflowed into the garden. This was no longer an indeterminate mass, but familiar people who held our hands, squeezed our shoulders, looked us in the eye. One of them thanked me. Minutes later, someone else did the same. So it went as the afternoon blended into the evening and the sun lost its intensity somewhere beyond Overlook.

Thank you for your words, friends told me. We came to offer you strength, but you have helped us. Alison heard the same words and found them as jarring as I did. It took me months to understand the relief that people felt when we stood before them in the synagogue, spoke of a present without anger, and imagined our future alongside Owen’s. This is not what they had expected. We might have screamed uncontrollably or jumped into the grave.

Hardly anyone mentioned Owen in my presence that afternoon. I barely mentioned him myself; this made me feel ashamed, but it seemed easier that way. At one point, I ended up among fathers from the kids’ school who bantered about vacations and the like—­anything to fill the silence. I listened, then wandered off. Circling the small groups in dark colors, my eyes fell upon the couch where Owen had sat reading, legs crossed, a few weeks earlier. The book he had picked up on our coffee table that day—­New York Changing—­coupled Berenice Abbott’s photographs of New York City in the mid-­1930s with shots of the same locations sixty years later. While some spots had not changed, many are now unrecognizable. The Wanamaker’s department store on Broadway and Ninth Street—­razed. The block-­long gas tanks in Yorkville—­vanished. The Jamaica Town Hall—­replaced by a McDonald’s. Talman Street in Brooklyn—­now gone, all of it.

Later that evening, once everyone had left and we had put Julian to bed, I picked up the book and sat where Owen had sat to scrutinize the before and the after. As I pored over the photographs, I pictured him doing the same, feeling the force of catastrophic events that erase the past with coldhearted brutality. Who among us remembers Talman Street? And who will remember the boy who just the other day, just before he died, saw entire worlds vanish before his eyes?

The metaphor seems so neat now. But this is what Owen had read on that couch, and this is what I came to feel the day I buried my son, when the fear of jumping in gave way to the prospect of total erasure.

That night, Alison and I lay side by side on the bed. We talked about the day that had elapsed—­the day we buried Owen—­and moved closer. We needed to touch, but neither one of us said so, as if some taboo forbade carnal intimacy on this day of all days. Our cheeks touched, our lips met, and then we held each other with an intensity I thought had vanished on the river, an intensity without desire but sharp enough to cut through the night’s crystalline stillness. For an instant I stepped outside myself and watched our bodies interlock, but only for a moment because stronger forces took over and overpowered all doubling of the self, all thoughts of sacrilege. Alison and I came together and at that instant she began sobbing, quietly but for what seemed like a very long time. It was devastating and yet felt so perfectly normal at the end of this day that I could not tell what it said about our future together.

Is it necessary to say that during the weeks that followed, pain scorched our bodies, leaving us hollowed out? In the morning, I often woke to find Alison on her back, eyes wide open, mind churning. That was how we now began our days, trying to make sense of who we were. Once, Alison said that the hole Owen had left was so huge that she would have to wrap her mind around it in little bits. Otherwise she would drown. Soon enough, we would purge our language of aquatic metaphors (keep your head above water, the current is dragging me down), but that day Alison did not notice and neither did I.

For weeks, friends continued to fill our house. They made themselves available and tried to gauge our mood. All we had to do was receive their offerings. This proved easy for Alison, who accepted all invitations: get-­togethers on the deck, hikes, walks around lakes, afternoons on the couch. Companionship was the only way to get through the day, she said. Though she did not want to hear how people found out about the accident, Alison quickly concluded that entombing her grief would bring her down. And so she opened our home to all comers, close and distant. Those who gave her what she needed confirmed what she already knew about the generosity of human nature. Those who did not were outliers.

Unlike Alison, I had never expected people to act in altruistic ways. Trust was a leap of faith, more likely to yield pain or disappointment than solace. Nothing had occurred on the river to challenge this outlook, and yet I could not deny that people were now showing up for difficult conversations. This happened; it was real. During these early days, I followed Alison’s lead and grieved for Owen in the company of others.

Julian, eleven at the time, did so as well. But one day he told us he did not like living in a house full of strange voices. There were too many little kids requiring supervision and too many adults intruding on his space. “The B—­—­’s, where did they come from?” he asked. “They just showed up.”

It feels unseemly and almost ungrateful to say so, but the constant presence of others soon overwhelmed me, too. Our home had become a kibbutz, a Soviet kolkhoz, a collective with sounds and rhythms and rituals that were no longer ours. It was less about trust than space, silence, and the possibility of listening to myself and perhaps hearing Owen as well. So I volunteered for chores outside the house and checked the recyclables bin several times a day, hoping that there would be enough bottles to warrant a run to the dump. I took refuge in my studio, looking out the window at the forest and the wild turkeys that crossed the quarry path. And one evening, seeking relief from the strange voices that spooked Julian, I asked Alison for a day without visitors. We did little that day, but it was just us, groping our way through the stillness and a house that was not yet ours, trying to sense what it would feel like to become a family of three.

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