When my father was five, his heart stopped beating. My grandmother had taken him to the doctor because he had sparked a high fever, something he’d experienced sporadically and inexplicably since birth. From nowhere, he’d break a heavy sweat, his skin would turn red, his eyes would roll back. Totally unresponsive, sometimes he’d convulse. That day, the fever didn’t come down and finally, with his heart stopped and stopped and stopped, the doctor pronounced him dead.
Eight months ago I gave birth to a healthy girl her father and I named Harriet. When she was about three months old, I set her down for a diaper change and a sharp wheeze escaped her throat and her chest stopped moving. And then it stayed stopped. Her body went stiff, and her eyes locked into mine. I went hot with panic. I scooped her up and she gulped an enormous breath of air and then screamed a terrific, terrified scream.
About 1% of babies will stop breathing for any number of reasons. Although it isn’t common, it isn’t always reason for enormous concern. But still. My baby was breathing and then she wasn’t and then she did but I was scared. I rushed her to the doctor who ordered a few tests but assured me it was most likely just reflux. We’d been treating the issue with bi-daily doses of Baby Zantac since she was born, but she grows quickly and it’s hard to keep the dosage growing with her.
“The acid will back up and close off the throat so that the airway is constricted,” the doctor told me. This explains why she breathed again when I lifted her. This explains why I struggle to let her out of my arms.
Now, months later, Harriet and I go about our day—nursing, reading, playing—but in the midst of all this ordinariness, I am never far from that moment: her eyes fixed on me, her chest raised and stuck. So I give her more solid foods, more meds, I keep her upright for thirty minutes after she eats. With Harriet full-bellied and swaying against my shoulder, my mind often lands on my father, fifty-odd years ago, how he laid in that hospital bed, a doctor sliding a stethoscope around, listening for a heartbeat and hearing nothing. How my grandmother watched idly—what could she do?—as the doctor declared a time of death. How I am sure that moment lasted and lasted and she felt like there would never be any other moment to occupy ever again until, from nowhere, he breathed a deep, full breath.
Like so many family narratives—especially the mysterious, hard ones—no one has told me the story of my father’s death top to bottom (for example, I am not actually sure how he came back to life: if he was resuscitated, if he spontaneously breathed again; if the details of this story inch toward myth; I don’t know.). It’s only told in bits and pieces. I can’t even remember the first time I heard it. But after I returned from the pediatrician, I phoned my family to assure them Harriet was okay and my grandmother told me she knows how scary it is. She remembers how his fevers would spike and she’d hold him in bed, soaking him with cool cloths, and he’d convulse until the whole bed shimmied against the floor. Once she was home alone and his fever boiled and then he went limp and turned blue and she bolted down the street calling for help until a neighbor gave him to mouth-to-mouth and there, in the middle of the street, his eyes shot open and he gasped.
As a new mom, I think of the life/death dichotomy a lot. I worry—like we all do, I’m sure—and these worries are always fixed squarely on my daughter. In the first trimester of my pregnancy, I worried about miscarrying. Closer to her due date, I worried about lungs pumping and her heart closing without holes. In labor, she was twisted in the umbilical cord, as many babies are, and at each contraction her heart stopped and after the contraction ended her heart stayed stopped, and stayed and stayed. A doctor did a small procedure that worked, but for the rest of the labor I thought of that flat line, a sluggish dash ticking across the screen, not rising or falling, just staying stopped. Now that she’s here I worry about food allergies. About fevers. About SIDs. About oncoming cars swerving into our lane. About tripping down the stairs with her in my arms. About icy sidewalks and fractured skulls. About reflux squeezing her airway shut. All this to say, I worry about death.
And so, maybe unsurprisingly, I’ve gravitated to David Shields’ The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead.
Like me, Shields looks at his daughter and realizes how peculiar it is that the act of giving life makes the reality of our death all the more pressing and inescapable. Early in the book he relays a story about his father landing on the third rail in a
subway and how, improbably, he lived. We are
both obsessed with the girls who will outlast us and the fathers who have
cheated death—a skill, we know, they haven’t passed down. New
It’s a fine book, pastiching family stories with startling data on the body’s inevitable decline. But the lyric essay, “Death is the Mother of Beauty,” is the book’s heartbeat. Here is Shields’ showstopper. While much of the book seems to demand that we think about death (as though this reader isn’t already doing that all day every day, as though Didion’s line “Life changes in the instant…” doesn’t circle in my head each time I put my daughter in the car, feed her a new food, let her out of my arms), this little essay does something different, something quiet and powerful. It’s brief enough that I’ll reproduce it here:
Neither my father nor I could sleep. We finally figured out how to work the remote for his new TV—a present from my sister and me on his 95th birthday. At 2:00 AM:
On channel 2, a movie detective revisited a murder scene.
On channel 4, Retin-A entrapped tretinoin in Microsponge systems.
On channel 7, college girls on vacation in
Cancun removed their T-shirts.
On channel 8, the Civil War was reenacted.
On channel 10, Bobby Abreu won the Home Run
On channel 11, Double D Dolls mud-wrestled.
On channel 12, a university lecturer explained gravity.
On channel 13, the Faith, Health & Prosperity bracelet glittered in the light.
On channel 17, a woman did leg raises.
On channel 20, taffy and ice cream production facilities were profiled.
On channel 22, fat-free desserts tasted as good as regular desserts.
On channel 24, 79 people died in a plane crash; an infant was the lone survivor.
On channel 29, Hercules tossed an enormous boulder.
On channel 30, Miss Teen USA was crowned.
On channel 33, you developed smart abs in just two minutes a day.
On channel 36, Dr. Ellen’s Light His Fire and Light Her Fire programs helped your marriage by increasing your energy.
On channel 38, a woman whose teenage daughter died in a car crash found solace in God’s love.
On channel 41, a murder victim’s body was autopsied.
On channel 42, the CrossBow system offered compound resistance.
On channel 47, Aquafresh toothpaste removed stains.
On channel 49, the Cancer Treatment Centers of
you harness your power to fight cancer and win. America
On channel 55, two buxom blonde women explained to a thin, balding man why size matters.
On channel 59, the Slim in 6 fitness program helped you lose 20 pounds in 6 weeks.
On channel 63, the Ultimate Chopper was the ultimate time saver.
On channel 64, the Esteem by Naomi Judd System reduced wrinkles, lines, and blotchiness.
On channel 72, the Arthur Ashe Award was given to a terminally ill coach who advised the audience to never give up.
On channel 77, a woman was penetrated from behind by one man while she performed fellatio on another man.
On channel 80, the Youth Cocktail gave you sharper, clearer memory and more flexible joints.
On channel 84, two behemoths competed to pull an enormous ball-and-chain across the finish line.
On channel 85, a suicide bomber killed himself, two civilians, and two
soldiers in Ramadi. U.S.
On channel 87, Hair Color for Men got the gray out.
On channel 89, with long life you will satisfy Him and show Him your salvation.
On channel 90, you could have the makeover of a lifetime.
On channel 95,
celebrities paid $24,000 for Mari Winsor’s body-sculpting program.
On channel 99, a horror movie ended with a white curtain blowing in the breeze against a black night.
On channels 2 through 99, we sought but couldn’t find a cure for the fact that one day we would die.
The essay (which, as you see, stands alone just fine) is a real ass-kicker. First, it’s the only section of the book that has this kind of punchy, pop-culture vibe. And while much of the book is built of lists, those lists are nearly all strings of statistics about the body’s failings, or quotes from great thinkers about the body’s failings. So “Death is the Mother of Beauty” is a content shift. It resists staring squarely at the subject of death (which after 172 pages of death-gazing is a nice switch-up). At first, I’m lulled by the fluffiness. I am in that room, my face reflecting the TV’s neon glow, bored and interested all at once. For a second, my mind wanders away from all those worries—the constricted airways and failing hearts; for a second I forget.
What’s more, this averted attention is particularly powerful because by the time we get to that last line, I’m not only reminded of our imminent death, I’m stunned by it. I’m stunned that I was so easy to distract—if only temporarily. And this temporary relief only underscores how insufficient the distraction was.
I’m stunned, too, by the final line’s candor. Instead of telling me to think about my own death (and hasn’t this been the charge of so much art for so long? From Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Shields; Picasso and Van Gogh; shoot, even Six Feet Under) which, as confessed above, isn’t something I need to be asked to do, this essay says something else. It says, “Well, shit. Try as we might to forget the fact that we’re all dust, nothing cuts it…not for long, anyways.” We couldn’t find a cure. It acknowledges the downright stickiness of the issue. It calls it out for being the big, hairy mess that it is. It doesn’t offer a quick solution. I appreciate this.
This is a particularly stellar move because in the discussion of death, everyone (including Shields, sometimes) offers (faulty) solutions. Earlier in the book, he quotes Zola: “As I grow older, I feel everything departing, and I love everything with more passion.” It’s a familiar sentiment; understanding that life is short, death imminent, we appreciate everything more fiercely. I remember holding Harriet just after she’d arrived. The sun fell in long swaths into the hospital room and I watched her sleep. I remember telling myself that giving birth is totally pedestrian. Literally nothing is more common. Don’t think yourself too special. But still, this little person grew all the right pieces and was here now, healthy. It felt improbable. Impossible, even. And so I cherish each second with her because her existence is a wonder, and it (and I) won’t last forever. So yeah, Zola. I am loving passionately.
But I’m not 100% sated (or as Shields might say, cured), because loving passionately doesn’t save us from death. It doesn’t keep me from thinking about how much of Harriet’s life I will miss after I’m gone (best case scenario) or how fragile her life is (worst case scenario).
Shields offers other, equally inadequate solutions, too. Much of his writing suggests that immersion therapy is the ticket. If we just focus on death enough maybe we’ll become fast friends, thus the onslaught of death data in the earlier pages. But in “Death is the Mother of Beauty” he calls himself out. He knows the jig is up. Here he concedes that we can focus on death as much as we want; all that obsessing won’t fix a thing. Channels 2, 24, 41, 49, 72 and 85 prove this.
In the same vein: religion won’t cure us: channels 38 and 89. Resistance won’t cure us: channels 49, 59, 64, 80, and 87. Sex won’t cure us: channels 7, 11, 36, 55, and 77. If these are fixes, Shields, and I, aren’t buying ‘em.
So I’m spurred to look deeper. For all the piece’s candor—how it resists the quick-and-easy solutions—it doesn’t merely throw up its hands in dissatisfaction. Shields tells us he’s found no cure, but quietly, beneath the layers of all that TV chatter, he offers us something else.
“On channels 2 through 99, we sought but couldn’t find a cure for the fact that one day we would die.” Here, the heart of the essay that’s the heart of the book. Here, a distinct and audible beat; here, a gasp of air. For all the moments we can’t seem to escape—the second when our baby stops breathing, when the doctor’s stethoscope picks up nothing, when the chest stays stuck—here’s one moment Shields will always occupy, I hope. Because here, faced with the sobering hard truth that the cure we so desperately long for doesn’t exist, he is not alone. We sought…we couldn’t…we would die. There’s power in that slim, two-letter word, power in its repetition.
I imagine the scene at 1:45 A.M. The whole house is silent. Shields turns in bed, readjusts his pillow, rolls onto his back. He stares at the ceiling. He woke from a dream, something about his daughter, and though the details are hazy, there’s a boulder in his stomach, some vague worry he can’t place. Or he woke because his back, which nettles him more and more each year, is tightening up. Or he woke because he heard his father fill a glass with water, heard him sink into his armchair, heard him futz with the remote control.
Realizing that sleep is hopeless, he kicks off his blanket and wanders to the living room. His father leans forward in his chair, jamming buttons on the clicker. Outside, moths flit around a patio light. They land on the screen door and flex their dust-colored wings. They lift and vanish. Shields holds out his hand and his father gives up the remote. He points it at the TV. Nothing. He shakes it. Points it lower, higher, re-inserts the batteries, points again and the TV flicks on. His father takes it back and turns up the volume. He offers his son a swig of his water; the son accepts. They flip and flip. Then a highlight reel flashes on ESPN. A Yankee rounds third base, then home, and the scoreboard rolls over. Cut to a girl in the stands catching a pop fly. Cut to the Celtics and the Nets in double overtime. Cut to a game-winning three from way downtown. Cut to
bench flooding the floor. Cut to a commercial for Red Bull; it gives you wings.
Cut to a parent and child finding solace if not a cure. Boston
Bethany Maile received an MFA in creative nonfiction from
Her essays have appeared in some places, including The Normal
School, Prairie Schooner, and River Teeth. She lives in University of Arizona Alaska with her husband and baby and teaches creative
writing at the University