I recently watched a documentary about a fellow who spends some time with children in an AIDS orphanage in India. One of the boys becomes very ill. His body becomes covered in sores and blisters that burst and stay open and seep and make him look like his skin is peeling away from his body. The doctors say the same thing is happening to the membranes and tissues inside of him as well. His lips look like God or the devil has taken a potato peeler to them. A compress is kept over his eyes, blinding him, in order to try and prevent infection from spreading there. He frequently spits or drools out blood and mucus and, I don’t know, the kind of fluid you think oozes from wounds.
He is in a lot of pain.
His name is Surya. He is about the same size as Charlie. Charlie, my son, Charlie, my beloved, Charlie my beautiful one whose hair smells like sunshine. Charlie who takes me by the hand and looks up into my eyes and tells me that I am beautiful and that I make his heart feel happy and then asks if he can sit on my lap and watch a movie with me. This Surya, he is also somebody’s son, it’s just his parents died, ya know? He is also beloved, it’s just that the people who love him aren’t wealthy or influential or connected, see? And I’m sure his hair also smells like the wind and childhood and earth and the wonder, and when the person who was with him got up to leave and use the bathroom, he also took him by the hand and, speaking for the first time in days, said, “No!” This Surya, this Charlie, this boy, this beloved child, he said “No!” because he was afraid that he would die in those moments when he was alone.
I watched all of this far away from where Suryas are too numerous to count. I watched it play out as a movie on a flat screen HDTV. And I cried awhile, and the gal who was with me, who loves me and whom I love, she cried awhile, too, and we held each other and later that night we made love and then the next morning the alarm went off on my smartphone (which, like most things I own, is made by children like Surya who live and die like Surya) and I went off to work and she went off to school.
And life went on.
And death did, too.
A year ago, I would have laughed at the idea of referring to sex as “making love”. Who talks that way? If sex was transcendental, it was simply because the nearly pure physicality of it could permit sad and lonely and broken and lost and angry and weary people — people like me — to momentarily forget all of these things. In sex, you can lose your self in touching and being touched, in giving and taking, in caressing, and in fucking. You can give yourself away, you can become absorbed in another — just as another can become absorbed in you — and in that forgetting you can also forget that this life doesn’t seem worth living. But, hell, all the reasons for dying seem like bullshit, too, and so, in this limbo between the living and the dead, there is, at least, la petite mort.
Funny just how much can change in a year.
In the documentary that featured Surya, the Charlie covered in sores, there was also a young girl who becomes very ill and comatose and is on the verge of dying. The father eventually tries to rush her to the hospital — he is sitting on the back of a motorbike, holding her in his arms — she is naked but for a blanket — and they get caught on the road waiting for a train to pass at a rail crossing. She dies then. We see her die — her head falls back, her mouth open, everything totally limp and the father cannot close her mouth. He takes her in his arms, the blanket falling from her body and turns and starts walking back into the night with her. “I am taking her home.”
What was her name? I don’t remember her name. But the film makers thought the scene was dramatic enough that they decided to include it twice — once at the beginning, without any subtitles or talking (what better hook for those of us far way watching this movie on HDTVs, right?), and once later one within the context of the story and with a voice over. I do remember this though: wrapped in a shroud, her body looked tiny, as did the grave they buried her in. When she was buried, she didn’t look any bigger than my Ruby, my beloved, my beautiful girl who isn’t afraid to say, “No!” to me when I tell her it is bath time, and who asks me to be a monster so she can sit me down and bring me presents in the closet, and who want to hold my head on her stomach when she is falling asleep. I watched the dad bury this little girl, I watched him weep and hit himself in the forehead when he looked at pictures of her, I watched him love his Ruby and lose her. Forever and ever and ever. And this is not uncommon. To cite just one, from any number of possible examples, around 2000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea-related disease. That’s two thousand Charlies and Rubies every day. That’s more than one every minute. Gone forever and ever and ever.
Welcome to the world we live in. Things don’t have to be this way. We all know that. It’s just that we haven’t wanted to love one another at least well enough to prevent the needless suffering and dying of children. And we never will. Things will always be this way with us. We know this, too.
Last weekend I went to my father’s wedding. I missed the first (wasn’t born then) and the second (wasn’t speaking with him then) but I made the third. It was a small ceremony in an old stone Anglican church with beautiful wood floors, and candles, and stained glass windows, and a pipe organ that I loved as much as all the other parts combined. Ruby thought we were in a castle, she thought the priest — who was wearing a white robe — was a ghost, and she thought the bride was a princess. She was pretty excited about the whole thing and stood on the pew the whole time so that she could “see the princess.” Charlie was a lot less excited about the actually ceremony but he played games on my phone and it kept him still and quiet.
And me? I don’t know what all I was feeling. Or maybe I do but I don’t think I can talk about the way it felt without, in that very act of talking (or writing), retroactively changing what happened. So I’ll say no more about that.
What a mess life is, eh? How often we hurt when we desire to help, how often we betray when we desire to love, how often we curse when we desire to bless. It is very hard to know what we are doing, regardless of what our intentions are.
And how often we get bogged down in our own wounds, our own cuts and scars and insecurities, and never see anything beyond ourselves. Even now — I watched a movie and I feel things about characters therein by comparing them to my own children, whom I will continue to love in practical ways (just as I will continue to ignore or oppress the Suryas and the girls whose names I forget in practical ways), so, really, am I even seeing anything beyond myself here?
After I watched this documentary, I wanted to be more kind. I wanted to never be angry at another person again. I just wanted to love… and be loved, too. I’m weary of anger and frustration and pettiness and violence, violence, violence everywhere. But, you know, after I went to work the next morning somebody was rude to the fellow who helps me out and makes coffee in the Resource Centre I supervise and so I decided to be rude back to the fellow who disrespected my helper. I didn’t say anything rude in words — but in my tone and in my body language, I basically told the fellow that he could fuck off and I didn’t give a shit about anything he might have to say about that. Then, that night, Charlie and Ruby were refusing to go to sleep and I felt frustrated, even after reflecting upon Surya and the girl whose name I forgot, even after thinking how I failed that fellow at my work, even after recognizing these things in the midst of feeling frustrated… I still felt frustrated and, after sternly telling the kids to be quiet and go to bed, I went to another room and dropped a number of whispered eff bombs as I washed the dishes (in an overly aggressive manner… fucking dishes).
Do I ever learn anything at all? Woe to me if I can watch a documentary like that and go on unchanged and unchanging.
But I will tell you a secret. A very exciting one. One wholly unanticipated. One I stopped believing in a long, long time ago. Are you ready? This is the secret:
I have already begun to change.
Ain’t that something? Because I was dead but I am now alive. And that breaking process, that slow inexorable shattering that drained me of my insides and filled me up with darkness inside? It wasn’t the final word. My pieces are coming together again. But I am not going back to being who I was before. I am being made new. I, too, have experienced the resurrection of the dead. Here and now, I have been born again — this time from the dead.
This is what love has done with me. How about that, eh? I wouldn’t trade this love for anything in the world. Not that I could trade it even if (for some unimaginably absurd reason) I wanted to do so. This love after all, is something I am in, not something I produce. It is more an event and an environment than a choice. At least for me. Perhaps the one who loves me, who introduced me to this love in which we are now situated, perhaps for her it was a choice. For me it was not. The dead don’t make choices. They’re simply dead. I could not choose myself back alive. I could not heal myself. My heart felt as though it had been broken into pieces, and the pieces had been burned, and then the charred remains had been wrapped all around with barbed wire. But when she first laid her head on my shoulder, when she first held my hand, when she first said to me, “I love you,” everything changed and the wires were cut and the ashes were swept away and the pieces came back together and, just like the motherfucking Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day… and it hasn’t stopped growing since. I’ve got a long way to go yet, my hair still stinks like the grave and I’m a bit of a mess and sometimes old feelings or reactions still surface, but a resurrection is more like an insurrection than a makeover. It takes times but, baby, it runs all the way up and all the way down and the fruit that it bears are a lot longer lasting than a tan and botox injections.
And the girl, the Ruby who died? Her name is Vembadi. I will not forget it again. She died but our time with her has not ended. Because we know her story now. We are responsible for it and we our responsible for ourselves and how we will live in light of it.
Whether or not this proves to be a responsibility we can handle will be determined, I think, by whether or not we are in love.