Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Only Light We've Got in All This Darkness—Thoughts After Reading REFUSE TO DROWN: A FATHER'S UNTHINKABLE CHOICE

"The grief of death ... can only be transformed by giving it its due in a story. Good deaths are passed to us as stories ready to be told. With bad deaths, we have to work harder, but it is even more essential that we tell their stories—and tell them with compassion—in order to redeem and transform them. We must tell such stories in order to honor the dead and heal the living.... Sometimes we must tell the story of death in order to save our lives. It is the story of our love and the grief for the loss of our love that both redeems that grief and makes our love transformative. Telling such stories is the only way that the emotional ghosts of bad deaths can be released—and the power of the good death inherited." (Madronna Holden)

"While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." (James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues")
I’d been living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for almost a year when I heard about the nighttime murder of a mother and father and their teenage son in their home not far from mine. Before moving here, I’d lived in a succession of major cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC) for most of forty years. It was already, and still is, deeply ingrained in me to lock the doors of my car, always, even if running back into my apartment for a minute to get something I’d forgotten, or when leaving the apartment to take out the trash. I was used to hearing about such crimes, maybe even jaded, or even expected them.

Weeks later, when I heard that the boy and his parents had been killed by one of his friends, I still wasn’t shocked. I knew, and know, that friendship and family relationships are no guard against violence, whether verbal or physical. As weeks and months passed, I didn’t follow the details of the story or the speculations made about it in the various media. It filed itself away in some corner of my mind.

A couple of years later, a man I had known and loved for thirty years (ten of them as his wife) died a tragic and accidental but self-induced death. Part of my grief manifested as physical pain, and I eventually sought help through massage therapy. The talented woman who became my ongoing therapist told me one day that while the disturbing local events were unfolding, the boy’s father had been her boss. She told me this as prelude to referring me to a website he had started to help others deal with and even prevent such tragedies. I checked it out briefly, and then mentally filed it away too.

Then, a couple more years later, she told me the man had co-written and was about to publish a book, not just about what had happened, but also about how he’d come through it. I linked to a Facebook page about the book and followed the authors’ posts leading up to its release. When I read that they were offering advance copies to bloggers, I sent a request. The book arrived a week ago. I read it, riveted, in two nights. It has taken me longer to digest it. Here, finally, is my offering.

Reading Refuse to Drown: A Father’s Unthinkable Choice, is like reading the book after seeing the Hollywood movie version—or in my case, after seeing the trailer. It doesn’t answer all possible questions about what happened, and certainly not about why it happened. What it does provide is far more valuable. It tells the story of a man who loves his son, unconditionally, but not blindly, and with all the human limitations to which we are all subject. It tells how that love was tested but not crushed, and holds out hope to readers confronting such testing in their own lives.

I can't say specifically why this story will be important to you, but I can tell you that it is important to me less because of what it reveals about the crime, the son, and the father, and more because that father wrote the book and published it, and because he wrote it with help from Shawn Smucker (not an insignificant detail in light of the book’s message that “you’re not alone”), and because of the reason he wrote it: because, as he writes in the Epilogue, “I had to.”

I’ve been helping other people publish books for more than twenty-five years, sometimes as production editor, sometimes as copy editor, sometimes as both and more (including encourager). The closest I’ve come to publishing my own story is this blog and another that I’ve kept sporadically for the past few years. I also brought to languishing life a book of poems a couple of years ago as a guinea pig for learning the CreateSpace self-publishing process. Reading Refuse to Drown has encouraged me to continue believing and hoping that I’m not finished yet, to not give up on taking steps forward, and to not be afraid of asking for the specific help I need, which is a tall order for someone whose default mode is trying to do it alone.

As I was rereading parts of the book in preparation for writing this review, I came across a sentence that struck me, at first, as contradictory. After emphasizing how important it is to ask for and accept help, after characterizing his son’s life as, in a sense, destroyed by the son's belief “that he had to handle his internal struggles on his own” (“he didn’t think anyone would understand what he was going through; he thought that if he did share his pain, people might ridicule him or think he was a freak”), and after illustrating that his own life was saved by seeking and finding help on every level, Tim Kreider states in the Epilogue, “it’s my responsibility not to drown, not to give up.” Isn’t this the very message his son, Alec, misunderstood, as Tim wrote in the Introduction?

After thinking about this for a while, the answer became clear: By telling the police about Alec’s confession, Tim was demonstrating to him that there were indeed consequences to the irreversible deed for which the boy was responsible. At the same time, Tim remained, and remains to this day in his son’s life as the father who loves him, has loved him, and always will love him. The final paragraph of the last chapter before the book’s Epilogue ends with these sentences: “There is a power and love available to all of us. That is the love and grace of Jesus. He wants to be there for you. He wants you to talk to him. All you have to do is trust him.” That, as I see it, is the very love and grace that Tim shows to his son. In that way, he reveals to his son, and to us, the love of the Father that His Son reveals to us.

What Alec, like us, does, in the end, with the love and grace offered to him—whether he drowns or not—is still his responsibility. But we are responsible for giving one another all the help we are capable of offering. Thank you, Tim and Shawn, for what you offer us in your book.