Shaffer: Childhood, interrupted

NEW YORK — On Aug. 21, I finished moving in, and stared at my ceiling, and felt what I tried to feel after graduation when I wouldn’t smash my church pipe, and was too hurried to feel in the road trips and fellowships that followed — Yale and childhood were over. That night, down Manhattan and across the Hudson, my oldest brother Christopher fell over in his apartment in Hoboken and died.

Christmas Eve will be 29 years since my parents carried him from the hospital to their first house, decorated by friends with “To Mary and David a child is born.” Our childhood was Edenic (or maybe it’s the other way around and the myth universally fascinates because it retells every story of childhood lost). I was the fourth, a mistake — but my parents rejoiced in being overburdened. My father called us his “nice little pile of kids,” and, we were often literally in a pile when our parents came home at dusk and we ran to their knees. Our childhood happiness was that every single thing — our pillow forts and igloos and bike-jumps — was done for its own sake. In adulthood, parties become networking for Mammon, play becomes exercise for the body — everything becomes an instrument for a final end which is eternally postponed and never enjoyed. But for us, there was no future, only imminent joy, because we thought childhood would never be interrupted.

Why store for winter in endless summer?

Every day now is a new rupture. Christopher saw me born and held me through my first steps, so his living presence wasn’t so much a fact of the world as a quality of my universe. Every day now his death must be relearned, his name moved in my mental account from the column of the living to the dead. Every day the raw fact startles me, again.

I wanted them to have something to remember Christopher by, so I said something unusual in my eulogy, the opposite of what people usually say: Christopher’s death made perfect sense. Because it would make sense that before He put our souls in our infant bodies, God gave us a choice between an ordinary regular life, or a life of delirious happiness in childhood and being the hero of the swim team and best looking in high school and getting recruited by every college and being the coolest in the best fraternity at Cornell and being a professional athlete and dating girls from magazine covers after and then becoming a top young trader on Wall Street and finding an expensive fast car and the perfect girl — but the trade-off is that if you choose this life, you fall down and die at 28. And that makes sense because that’s a trade that maybe Christopher would make. At the wake, half a mile of old friends waited two hours to comfort my family for a few seconds, and I realized that Christopher had won the sibling rivalry, that his premature death was the stamp that he was the coolest Shaffer and could never be beaten.

My recurring dream is set 12 years ago, I think, because the old pine tree on the hill in the front lawn still stands, and Chris looks like he did when he captained the high school swim team. We four children are sitting in the front yard, at the base of the hill, and it’s early October, the trees are just beginning to blush and a brisk wind has taken some golden needles from the old pine above and laid them round us. We’re dressed up, though I don’t know why, and even though the dream has just begun I know we’ve been laughing for a while. We’re awaiting some important arrival, but of what I can’t remember. But then Pat’s face contorts, and Kathleen buries her head in her arms, and I see what they see — a black and wolfishly narrow van with opaque windows silently slouches up the driveway and stops the wind. I turn back to my siblings, and Pat and Kathleen cry, but Chris just stares at the van, motionless and pacific, as the sunset gilds his cheeks with slight regret, and he almost smiles. And then I remember what happened and what the van means, and I hug the grass and the dream ends.

Such dreams are actually a relief from the modern affectations requiring that grief be widely advertised for a few days, and, thereafter confined to a therapist, whose hourly rate, resplendent jargon and credentialed walls comfort modern man in the belief that his sorrow is managed with the clinical expertise of a Professional — a high priest of our secular age.

Perhaps it signifies lost innocence that I see new shades in the New York skyline. When I lived with Christopher last summer, I would go for runs around the reservoir in Central Park after work, as he would bike around the outer loops, and I thrilled to watch the sun set, as the buildings that hugged the park’s contours would go on humming with life and bright orange light into the night — what glamour, so different from my childhood. Now, I run that same, remindful loop and the pale reds of the skyscrapers are menacing and hateful for detaining parents from their families so late — what vanity, so different from my childhood. And the greatest city in the world is polluted as the city that killed my brother.

One of the old Buckley stories passed around the National Review office is about the letter an admiring boy sent Bill, requesting advice for growing up. The preeminent sesquipedalian replied, “Don’t.” I forward his advice to Yale seniors contemplating graduation from college, which, for good and bad, is extended childhood. Children think they want to grow up, but once we do we all want childhood back. Just observe young couples: As soon as they are comfortable, they begin treating each other like children. And then they get to the business of laying aside their own lives to make new childhoods.

(My adventure into adult life, I should say, has made me a political journalist. Politics is the depressing combination of the particular vices of childhood and adulthood each, the retention of neither’s virtues. Avoid it.)

After deaths, people become less political and more religious. Some attribute our invention of heaven to weak selfishness. There’s some truth there. (Who wouldn’t be weakened by death in the family?) But belief in heaven can’t be entirely selfish. We invented hell, too, because we would hug the fire if we could be with family again. Religious hope — replaced in the modern world by faith in plastic surgery and 30 years of well-pensioned retirement — is the hope that the world of commutes and “professionalism” and taxes and networking is only an interruption to childhood, and that we will be like children again and tumble and hide in the garden under the old pine tree on the hill, and parents will come home from work at dusk to find their nice little pile of kids still whole.

There is enough mystery — for me, Christopher’s promising smile in the uncanny dream — still, for us to hope for second childhood.

Comments

  • FailBoat

    Damn you, Mr. Shaffer, for making me cry at 7:45 in the morning.

  • penny_lane

    Now this is exquisite writing.

  • webster

    THANK YOU for sharing such a deeply personal reminder for us all…

  • Madas

    Magnificent

  • Spider09

    Matt, this is beautiful. As someone who was constantly opposed to you during school, this was both a shock and a reminder that politics don’t really matter in the end–it’s our common humanity that should be the starting point for our interactions. Thank you for being so open and willing to share something extremely personal. All the best to you and your family.

  • theantiyale

    Dear Mr. Shaffer,
    I too lost a brother named Christopher.
    Jaqueline Kennedy said that the only thing which gave her comfort after her husband’s assassination was this poem by A. E. Housman. You have already felt its wisdom as your tender tribute indicates. I believe that your writing gift will become his evolving memorial, as every word you write hereafter will be tinged with the pain and joy of his memory. It is art’s way of keeping him close.
    My sincere condolences.
    Paul Keane

    **XIX. To an Athlete Dying Young**
    *by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)*

    The time you won your town the race
    We chaired you through the market-place;
    Man and boy stood cheering by,
    And home we brought you shoulder-high.

    To-day, the road all runners come,
    Shoulder-high we bring you home,
    And set you at your threshold down,
    Townsman of a stiller town.

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away
    From fields were glory does not stay
    And early though the laurel grows
    It withers quicker than the rose.

    Eyes the shady night has shut
    Cannot see the record cut,
    And silence sounds no worse than cheers
    After earth has stopped the ears:

    Now you will not swell the rout
    Of lads that wore their honours out,
    Runners whom renown outran
    And the name died before the man.

    So set, before its echoes fade,
    The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
    And hold to the low lintel up
    The still-defended challenge-cup.

    And round that early-laurelled head
    Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
    And find unwithered on its curls
    The garland briefer than a girl’s.