What we came to call the accident occurred on the Green River, near the border between Utah and Colorado. Life was good—filled with its daily conflicts and anxieties and unmet expectations, but good. Afterward, Owen was gone and we remained. Such things happen every day. Accidents, losses, and separations are the texture of human existence. If the circumstances are dramatic enough to appall or fascinate, the story makes the paper. A few years ago, the New York Times devoted four columns to a family caught in a flash flood in New Hampshire. The parents and the oldest child escaped from the car, but the seven-year-old daughter drowned. The father could not get her out in time.
Owen’s death did not make the Times. The following newspapers ran articles: the Greeley News, the Craig Daily News, the Denver Post, and the Salt Lake Tribune. Also, the Daily Freeman in upstate New York, where we spend a lot of time.
These articles, which I read days after the accident, contained the same material, taken from the same wire report: eight-year-old boy . . . family vacation . . . turbulent waters . . . aggressive search . . . truly tragic. There is nothing to be drawn from these pieces, neither new information nor the comfort, however contrived, of obituaries and immortalization. My son’s name is shorn of its meaning, its flesh-and-blood content, its humanity. It has been plugged into a template that journalists put together in ten minutes and readers digest in two.
In reality, it happens like this. You wake up one morning without knowing that a disaster will take place that day. You do everything right, you plan ahead, chart the course, ask the necessary questions, examine the situation from all sides. You do what parents are expected to do, and yet things still break down, they come undone, they slip away, an eight-year-old slips away and dies. There is no destiny at play. This death comes at the end of a string of decisions small and large, steps taken or not, resolutions made too long ago to leave visible traces, and behavioral patterns that, like canyons in forsaken lands, sediment so slowly that they seem eternal.
Things could have turned out differently. But they do not. And when a child slips away people tell you that your loss resembles no other. They say that they cannot imagine what is happening to you, which also means that they cannot imagine it happening to them.
A doctor pulls in close and explains that the hurt will last a long time—perhaps forever. A rabbi confides that he has never seen anything like it, not once in twenty years on the pulpit. Friends write that losing a child is a hole without end, beyond the map of human experience. You are living every parent’s worst nightmare, they say.
This is what you become: a walking reminder of the nightmare that haunts all parents nowadays. In a world that promises children safety and happiness, such deaths become personal failures, crimes against civilization, an affront to our collective aspirations. What previous generations were simply unable to prevent now falls somewhere between aberration and delinquency. The loss of a child is intolerable and unthinkable.
I had become my own worst nightmare, intolerable and unthinkable. But I also sensed the banality and cosmic magnitude of Owen’s death, at once a ripple in the flow of everyday life and a disruption of the universe. Apart from that, everything eluded me. I could not understand the events that had taken place the day he died. I could not grasp how the ordinary turned extraordinary. And I could not imagine what would now arise within our family, what might transpire between Alison and me. We had to find a way forward, with Owen and with our older son, Julian, mourning his only sibling and the parents he used to know.
Two weeks after the accident, I began writing about Owen and our life without him. There was no plan. I simply picked up my laptop one morning and started chronicling my infinite shifts in mood, what Alison and Julian and the people around us said and did not say, what we and others did and were unable to do. I wrote at all hours, seized by a graphomaniac impulse that left me confounded until someone told me that, while those who have lost a parent are called orphans, there is no word for those who have lost a child. I wrote because there were no words. This is what I told myself at the time, I write because there are no words. But it was not only that.
I wrote to understand how, despite their best intentions, people end up in catastrophic situations.
I wrote to dispel the notion that no one, not even us, could imagine what we were going through.
I wrote because banal yet cosmic disasters require stories for the dead and the living. When Hester Thrale lost her nine-year-old son, in 1776, her friend Samuel Johnson wrote her, “I know that such a loss is a laceration of the mind. I know that a whole system of hopes, and designs, and expectations is swept away at once, and nothing left but bottomless vacuity.” When Alison and I lost our eight-year-old son, an acquaintance told us that “there is nothing worse than the death of a child, and this is truly, as you know of course, a horror story for anyone who hears it.”
It is also against such words that I wrote. When our hopes and designs and expectations are swept away, something has to endure besides horror stories and bottomless vacuity.