Purpose and Perfection: The Many Roads to Paradise.
I read somewhere – perhaps at an art exposition years ago – that Jan Saudek, one of my favorite photographers – believed that his purpose as an artist was to bring beauty into the most wretched corners of existence. As he spent a memorable part of his childhood in Terezin, the Nazi “show” camp in Czechoslovakia, it’s easy to see how he could view the monstrous and the holy with the same, adoring eye.
At least it’s easy for me. Others have called Saudek’s work “disturbing,” “violent,” “deviant” and “shocking.”
And certainly, a photo like the one above – a man angrily slapping a woman who seems to be enjoying it – can elicit some pretty strong emotions.
That’s precisely what I love about it.
If we strip “The Slap” of its obvious sexual undertones, of its politics, of its sarcasm, what you see is not just the wreckage of some sort of relationship – a husband and wife, adulterous lovers, perhaps, or a John and his harlot. You see two people holding on to something. Just barely, maybe. But it’s there in her smile. You can’t escape it. Her expression visits you over and over again – long after you’ve gone home and tried to put the photograph out of your mind. You might keep asking yourself what the hell she was smiling about?
I always thought I knew.
My mother endeavored to have a child – me – while in a wretched marriage. She didn’t do it to try and save her marriage. That ship had sailed years before. After the shouting matches and the violence and the blackmail and the affairs. She most definitely wanted out.
What made my mother approach my father about having another child – even when she knew that her marriage was utterly doomed, and she could hardly stand to be in the same room with him – was grief. Plain and simple.
My brother died about eleven months before I was born. His was a sudden, unfathomable death. He was only four, and died essentially of stomach flu. Only a couple of days before his death, he’d been climbing trees and picking berries from a neighbor’s garden, collecting bugs. Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, he became sick, then dangerously dehydrated, and ultimately drew his last breath.
He would remain four years old forever.
My mother says the only thing that kept her from taking her own life at that time was that my then seven year-old brother needed her. He was also grieving and looked to my mom to get them through that horrible experience. To bring hope back into their lives. And the only thing that gave my mom hope for the future was the prospect of bringing another life into the world. Not to replace my brother, but to bring joy back into hers and her surviving son’s lives. She needed to do something – anything – to the fill the black hole that my brother’s seemingly senseless death had left behind. The one that was sucking the life out her, crushing her spirit.
So, you could say I was born of lies, broken dreams and most of all sorrow. Grief was the sole purpose of my conception. Perhaps not surprisingly, grief – in one form or another – has become the purpose of my life’s work.
Now, I don’t mean to be a downer here. My books, stories and essays are not all about gloom and doom for heaven’s sake. I think more than anything they’re about hope. About the fragile, shimmering, silver lining that forms around every puff of smoke we see rising from the ashes of our latest heartbreak. What’s beautiful to me is that it’s always there – no matter how bottomless our pain seems to be. It can take the form of an unexpected gesture of kindness from the least likely person under the least likely circumstances, to a revelation you could have never imagined otherwise, to the fundamental relaunching of a life – the reinvention of an identity.
And it’s contagious.
When my youngest daughter was born with a catastrophic illness, I remember a conversation I had with one of her care givers – a doctor or nurse, I can’t remember which. But I think I remember her name. It was Diane. Diane told me about how working at the Children’s’ Hospital of Philadelphia – where my little girl was born – had expanded her own definitions of love. How before her job there, she could not understand the connection between a parent and child with severe brain impairment, for instance.
Diane recalled how one day she watched a mother as she brushed her teenage daughter’s hair. The daughter had been born with such low brain function that she was deemed a vegetable and needed help with every aspect of her care. And she just laid there all the time. She could never smile, hold her mother’s hand with intention. Her eyes didn’t even follow as her mother walked around her hospital room.
But here was her mother – every day – washing her, fixing her hair, filling her feeding tube, giving her dignity.
“It made me understand love on such a deeper level,” Diane told me. “It’s not about them – all of those kids with really big problems. It’s about us. How they change us and make us better.”
She then leaned in to me, like she was afraid of being heard.
“With genetic testing, we now have the ability to manage so many terrible problems out of our lives – and that is such a great thing. But we also lose something as we get closer to perfection.”
I’ve always thought perfection was overrated. Perhaps because I was born of so little that could resemble love, and during the worst time of my mother’s life. Diane’s words resonated so deeply with my own perceptions of purpose – my purpose. The grief without which I wouldn’t even be here.
And no, I want to be clear. I don’t think that couples shouldn’t get genetic testing, or try to cure their children not only of major illnesses, but even relatively minor issues – like allergies. I’d do anything for my kids. It is our biological imperative, at least according to both Charles Darwin and the Bible, to reach for the stars both literally and figuratively. To improve our lives and the lives of our children in every possible way we can. To crawl out of the swamp and grow legs to stand on and arms with which to make tools, and snatch apples off of trees, and hold our loved ones. To leave Egypt and spend forty years in the desert until finding the promised land. To enter heaven, or nirvana, or whatever kind of utopia you believe in.
It’s just that my purpose, I believe, is to remind anyone who will listen that there’s more than one way to get to paradise.
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