There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~Ernest Hemingway
I work in a hospital district. About the only decent food to be had is in the cafeteria of Boston Children’s Hospital just up the road. It’s cheap, nutritious, fresh – the whole deal. So I go there a lot.
Every once in a while, though, I see something in the lobby that makes me wish I hadn’t gone there. If you’ve ever spent any time around seriously ill children, you will understand what I mean. For those who don’t, let me give you an example of one such scene. Picture this:
A little boy, five or maybe six years old, happy and smiling, full of boisterous energy. He has both parents on either side of him, each holding one of his hands and letting him swing between them. The parents, however, have grave expressions; their eyes seem hollow, their steps reluctant, their shoulders stooped. Their gaze is fixed on some distant point in the future, and they barely hear the kid when he asks, still smiling, “The doctors are going to fix me, right?”
They don’t answer. They just march their kid deeper into the hospital.
Let that one sink in for a second. Now, I ask you, is a good lean pork loin worth that image? Knowing that, somewhere deep in the bowels of that (blessed) institution, some poor kid is in for the fight of his life and nobody except him thinks highly of his odds? I gotta say, that one hurts, like deep down. My breath catches every time I think about it.
One of the things with being a professional writer is that you need to improve your craft. You need to get better. In order to do this, you clearly need to know where you need improvement. For me, the challenge has always been writing stories with legitimate emotional impact. I strive to do this, of course, but I’m not naturally adept at jerking tears from my audience. I prefer to make them laugh, make them rage, make them shudder, or make them cheer. Pity, pathos, and grief are emotions I find hard to evoke sometimes. But I have to try.
I think part of my trouble lies with the death of my brother, Preston. He suffered from a unspeakably cruel degenerative neurological disease called Batten Disease, which is essentially something like ALS except in children. My brother was born apparently normal and lived the early parts of his childhood like a normal kid. He learned to talk, walk, he went to school, he and I were best buddies, as brothers ought to be.
And then he gradually went blind. Then he slowly lost the fine motor control needed to write (and in first or second grade, too). Then he had seizures – little ones at first, then bigger and bigger and bigger. His gross motor skills decayed. He had trouble walking. He couldn’t get to the bathroom anymore and I, his roommate, was responsible for taking him in the depths of the night. He lost the ability to speak. To eat on his own. Year after year, little pieces of my brother were carved out of him and lost forever. Finally, after over a decade of this, he finally died just shy of his 22nd birthday. He had been in a wheelchair in a pediatric nursing home for almost a decade. I cannot remember the last words he spoke to me, but they had been in our shared bedroom sometime before he lost speech, probably about a decade before he actually died. I cannot explain to you how much it distresses me that I cannot remember those words.
My brother’s death has had a pervasive effect on me. During my adolescent years, when everybody else was wallowing in self-pity, I had a tangible, visible, daily reminder of how much my stupid teenager problems did not matter. When I read The Catcher in the Rye, I fucking loathed Holden Caufield, the miserable wretched coward, who I saw as cutting out on his family in the wake of his brother’s death. I still loathe that abominable prick and cannot stand to read the book again. My brother’s death has had a severe impact on my belief in any kind of benevolent deity (which I find very hard to accept), has tempered my general sense of cynicism and gallows humor about the world, and caused me to have a fairly comfortable relationship with the idea of death as a release.
The other thing my brother’s death caused is my poor reaction to sick children. By “poor reaction” I do not mean I fear them or hate them or anything. I don’t sneer at kids in wheelchairs. But the sight of them makes me angry – makes me angry at a world in which children are struck down with horrible diseases for no reason whatsoever, or angry with adults who are so careless and clueless and selfish that they fail to care for the children they love. Saw a woman in line at the cafeteria once glare at a little girl (who was two shades shy of a ghost, mind you) cheering loudly over the soft serve ice cream maker. It took all my willpower not to slap her (“If some sick kid who’s just spent who knows how long in a hospital bed wants to cheer over ice cream, YOU LET HER FUCKING CHEER, YOU MISERABLE WITCH. So help me, I will fight you…”).
I’ve basically got a big, scabbed over wound on my heart. I don’t like to prick it much and, for whatever reason, I don’t tend to bleed at my keyboard. This, though, is a weakness. If I wish to become better, I need to imbue my words with the pain. I’m working on it.
In the meantime, you’ll all have to settle for me making you laugh and rage and shudder and cheer.
If you wish to maintain your positivity and innocence in the face of certain children’s shows, I would warn you to stop reading. I’m about to make one kid’s cartoon very, very sad.
As a father of young children, I watch a lot of children’s cartoons (and by the by, it is interesting that, in this day and age, I must specify). Anywho, one of my daughter’s favorites is Justin Time – a show about a little boy who imagines that he goes back in time to various places around the world and learns lessons while there. On the face of it, the whole thing is pretty tame and basically educational. My primary critique would be that very little effort is made for historical accuracy, unfortunately, but it is clear that such is not the show’s purpose – it uses imaginary environments to teach our protagonist, Justin, lessons about responsibility, honesty, manners, and so on. In that regard, it does a fine job.
What is curious about the cartoon are the characters. Justin is a stereotypical imaginative little boy living in the suburbs somewhere with his Mom and Dad (who barely feature in the cartoon at all). Justin has an imaginary friend, Squidgy, who is some kind of blanket/shammy that Justin carries around and who takes on various shapes and talks while we adventure in imagination-land. Third, and most perplexing, is Olive – the slightly older girl who lives wherever back in time Justin travels. She acts as guide, friend, and assistant through Justin’s adventures.
What I find peculiar about Olive is how she differs so completely from all of Justin’s other imaginary creatures. Squidgy and the denizens of the imaginary past are all caricatures – silly, one-dimensional, and peripheral to Justin’s struggles. Olive, however, seems like a real person who is engaged in Justin’s conflicts in each episode directly and who, unlike most of the other characters, has a direct emotional impact on Justin’s mood. Justin cares how she feels and always works to help her and she does the same – they are a team. Furthermore, she is everywhere Justin goes while in the past. She is there waiting for him, every time.
So, why would a boy who already has an imaginary friend who travels around with him feel the need to create the same, fully realized, slightly older girl in every historical period he imagines? Why not shake it up? Why is Olive so central to the plot every time?
To answer this, I enjoin you to read this brief article by Ronald Pies PhD on PsychCentral.com. In it, Pies explores the phenomenon of hallucination and delusion as a response to grief. This explains Olive and Justin. Olive is Justin’s older sister. His deceased older sister. What we are watching in this cartoon is more than just a boy’s imaginative adventures through personal development – we are watching one little boy’s dealing with complicated grief.
Now, of course, this could all be just me projecting my own always-simmering grief over the decease of my own brother and I will readily admit that my evidence is entirely circumstantial, but the theory does fit. Consider this: if Olive is, indeed, the image of Justin’s dead sibling, then a lot of other things fall into place, too. Consider her name: Olive, as in Olive Time, as in “All of Time” – the same kind of play on words as her brother. Consider her role: supportive, wise, friendly, very older sister-ly.
Justin’s parents don’t mention or discuss her, true, but this, in fact, may be an indicator of why Justin’s grief has become so complex. The parents, bereaved at the loss of one child due to accident or disease, shelter their other, younger son. They explain Olive has “gone away” and then cannot bear to discuss her further. Justin, imaginative as he is, invents an “away” for his sister to dwell in – a place where he can visit her and be with her without upsetting his parents (whom he must know are upset). So, there we find Olive or, perhaps more accurately, her shade – there in the past, waiting to guide her brother towards maturity, trapped in limbo for all of time – until Justin, at some unknown point in the future, can finally release her.