The Haunting Death: Lewis, Buechner, and Me on the Loss of my Parents

Mom GraduationOn Friday, February 12th, I watched my mother finally succumb to cancer. She was only 61. In her death she taught me a great deal about how to live. You can read a brief story of her life here.

I am now an orphan, having lost my father in house fire in February 1990 (see my post here). I have written a lot during February, trying to process these events, but nothing that I have really been able to feel was complete. I keep coming back to this post–one of my first here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. Rereading it makes me wonder how I will be shaped over the next few years in my writing. 

Lewis in Letters

I’ve read, now, more than 3000 pages of C.S. Lewis’ letters. This is just a small slice of the letters that I’m sure he wrote in his life, but it is enough to begin to see patterns and to witness themes arising. In his younger letters, I see the pretentious teenage prig developing toward being C.S. Lewis, the eminent literary scholar. In his Letters to an American Lady, I see the other end of life, the finishing of a career, the failure of a body, the discovery and loss of love. As I come now to the end of his letters, I’ve come to understand C.S. Lewis more and more, finally finding a sense of the man through his pen.

What was surprising to me early on his letter-writing project–perhaps as far as his teen letters, and in his Letters to an American Lady, was how seldom he referred to is mother. Little “Jacksie” Lewis absolutely adored his “Mammy,” Flora Lewis, who died of cancer when he was just a little boy (about nine years old). She was the centre of all life and love and imagination for Lewis. She was very dear, so that much later, as Lewis reflects on the shape of his early life, he says of her:

With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis (Surprised by Joy, 7).

As his world shattered with the loss of his mother, his broken father retreated to a world of public service and work. Despite the lack of evidence in his letters, the abandonment of Lewis by his parents has had an enormous effect on his literature. Most of the children in his Narnia chronicles are orphaned: Eustace Scrubbs is abandoned to a vacuous self-centred education, the Pevensie children are sent to the country away from their parents to escape the bombing of London, and Prince Caspian is literally orphaned by his uncle, the usurper King Miraz.

The Orphan Motif in Literature

Certainly, the orphan motif is a strong one in English literature. Think of the orphans that we have collected in our literary imagination: Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Heidi, Lemony Snicket’s unfortunate Baudillaire siblings, and the James of Giant Peach fame. Each of the books in Lois Lowry’s The Giver trilogy feature notable orphans of various kinds, and, curiously, Lowry spoofs the entire orphan-nanny motif in her 2008 book, The Willoughbys—see my here. As I think back to my own writing, I realize my children on the page are all in someway orphaned or abandoned.


harry and hermione emma watson daniel radcliffe
And who could forget the great orphan of the last generation, Harry Potter, the boy who lived, the orphan who was subjected to the cupboard under the stairs, and whose own boundless luck and stuttering humility is the deus ex machina of each book. The orphan motif is particularly strong for single mom J.K. Rowling, not just in Harry’s parents’ death—and the discovery and loss of a parent in Sirius Black—but all throughout the books. After all, it was Neville Longbottom, the hapless Hogwarts orphan who, all befuddlement aside, really saves the day. In the end, it isn’t so much that Neville takes his courage in both hands and faces evil as much as it is that he is mad that his parents are dead.

More than a Motif

With Lewis, though, I think there is more than a literary motif at play. Take, for example, the character of Digory Kirke. Like Lewis’ own story, Digory’s mother is dying, and he has begun losing her to the sickness even before death has come to take her away for good. As the story goes, Digory is drawn into the magical worlds of Narnia—or chased there by a self-centred uncle who had cursed his friend, Polly, into the dark unknown. United, Digory and Polly explore the Narnian gateway and land in a dead world. Despite objections from Polly, Digory rings literally a bell that cannot be unrung and raises the Satan character, Jadis, from her eternal nothingness. This act of curiosity unleashed a demonic power that follows them into the universes that contain Earth and the nascent Narnia.

Aslan, the melodic creator of Narnia, confronts Digory and gives him a chance to earn redemption. Digory’s mission is to sneak into a garden and take a magical apple that can right the great wrongs that he has wrought—unring the bell, so to speak. As he smells the fruit, the evil Jadis appears and consumes one of the apples, becoming immortal herself. Unlike Milton’s Adam and Eve, Digory is able to resist the temptation to eat the fruit. But there is a greater temptation that confronts the boy: Jadis promises him that if he takes the apple to his mother, her illness will be healed. Digory’s mother could live, if he will only disregard Aslan.

It is not difficult to imagine that, for the orphaned fifty-year-old Lewis writing The Magician’s Nephew, that Digory’s situation is the ultimate mental temptation. Would Lewis bring his mother back to life if he could? Given the outcome of Digory’s story, it is hard to imagine he wouldn’t.

Given the great weight that her life and death had on him, mention of Lewis’ mother is conspicuously absent in his early letters. Truly, it isn’t until Lewis’s father dies (when Lewis is 30) that Flora Lewis returns as a character in the correspondence—a full two decades after her death.

Thinking about the un-self-reflective power that Lewis’ mother’s death had on his life and work, I am struck by the power that haunting death has for all of us who have lost a parent as children.

Frederick Buechner and His Father

I have set to reading Frederick Buechner’s memoirs again, a spiritual ritual I perform every two or three years. Many don’t know his work, but I have found both his own story and his unusual books to be transformational in my life.

Buechner had a happy, comfortable family life growing up, though he expresses a sense of displacement by the frequent moves he experienced as his father drifted from job to job. As his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, moves along, you can feel the haunting death gathering strength on the horizon of the narrative. An orphan story is building in the pages.

While “Freddy” Buechner was still just a boy, a little older than Lewis, Buechner’s father killed himself in their garage. A few days later, they found a suicide note written on the back page of a new novel, Gone With the Wind. It said, “I adore you, and I love you, and I am no good.” In his memoir, Buechner writes:

“For many years if anybody asked me how my father died, I would say “‘heart trouble.’”

It was true, after all.

The fatherless theme emerges here and there in Buechner’s novels. It is prevalent in his brilliant tetralogy, The Book of Bebb—it might be that the whole Bebb series is a desperate groping for fathers–not just Anthony, the protagonist, but each of the men and women who find themselves around the conflicted Bebb.

I even see the parental death motif in his retelling of an old saint story, Godric, and Buechner admitted that The Return of Ansel Gibbs deals specifically with his father’s death in narrative form for the first time. Poignantly, though, the implications of his father’s suicide ebb and flow all throughout his four memoirs. Even now, halfway through Now and Then, his memoir on vocation, I can feel that storm of implication building in the storyline. And it isn’t until, after years of therapy and reflection, that he can write about his father directly:

My father was a fine swimmer and a wonderful dancer. He was at home everywhere, but in another sense, he had no private home inside of himself. Therefore, when trouble forced him home, there was nowhere to go. He had no home, or if he ever had one, he had forgotten the way to get there. I suppose he died of astonishment as much as anything else. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say he died of homesickness.

And I think that even such a self-reflective writer as Frederick Buechner would be astonished to really understand how important his father’s death is in his work, and how that haunting death visits every other literary world. Like his father, he too is looking for a home.

Does My Father’s Death Haunt Me Now?

Thinking of these two great writers, not to mention the Lois Lowrys and Jane Austens and Roald Dahls of our orphan literature heritage, I wonder how oblivious I have been to my own father’s death. He died when I was fourteen. Our home caught fire in the middle of the night, and Dad went into the burning house to get my little brother. I never saw either of them again.

I’ve told the story dozens of times. I’ve written about it, I’ve preached it. I’ve told the story with lights low and brought tears to the eyes of an enraptured audience. In my mind, I’ve been the master of the story.

But I wonder if the story has actually been mastering me. I wonder if my own dad’s death is haunting as it does in the literary tradition of Lewis and Buechner.

The thought occurred to me recently as I, for the first time ever, put together what my dad did that freezing, fateful night in February, 1990. I was reflecting on the work of John in the New Testament, and I realized that my father “laid down his life” for us, the greatest gift that a person could give (John 15:13). And in 1 John, the laying down of one’s life is both the evidence of true love and, significantly, an echo of what God has done in Christ. For John, God’s self-sacrificial love on the cross is the model of all love in every part of life.

It is no wonder that the gospel made sense to me, encountering the idea of the heavenly Father’s self-sacrificial love just a few months after my earthly father demonstrated the same.

celtic cross shoreIt seems obvious, doesn’t it?

Recently, I mentioned this connection to someone who has heard my story of the fire in one of my talks. For her the connection was obvious—she thought my talk was actually intending to draw the connection of self-sacrificial love out. Meanwhile, I was clueless.

The haunting death goes further. I’ve written two poems in my journal that parallel my father with God in the themes of love and absence. I’ve taught on the absurdity of self-death in Albert Camus’ work, most famously in his “The Myth of Sisyphus” essay. I’ve written an entire novel, The Drive, about self-death as represented in the metaphorical giving of one’s life to another and the literal decision to commit suicide. The children’s book I am shopping around, Hildamay Humphrey‘s Incredibly Boring Life, is an urban orphan tale turned on its head. This was happening so much I finally gave in and wrote a philosophical novella, “Wish for a Stone,” that was some attempt to struggle with the real questions I was asking.

It is even in my academic work. My first peer-reviewed academic article was on an emerging death cult out of Mexico, and the second was on the theme of dying to the self in C.S. Lewis. And, on top of all that, the work of Watchman Nee on the theme of Galatians 2:20 has been the preeminent reflection of my spirituality for two years now. What does Galatians 2:20 say?

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20, NIV)

Could it be any more obvious?

But that is the nature of the haunting death. These themes emerge in our lives, unbidden, called by the echo of a forgotten voice, by the voice of those who have long ago left us behind. Yet, their voice lingers on in the poetic imagery and the living characters and mundane chores of our everyday lives. My father’s sacrifice is written all over my life. Buechner’s father’s suicide is spelled out on every page. And consciously or unconsciously, Flora Lewis’ death shaped the lives of those earliest pilgrims of Narnia.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to The Haunting Death: Lewis, Buechner, and Me on the Loss of my Parents

  1. Beth says:

    Thank you for sharing this provocative and gracious reflection.

    Like

  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Dear Brenton,

    First I want to express my profound sympathy over your mother’s death. Sixty-one years seems not nearly enough. I read your loving and beautifully written obituary posted a week ago, and I see that she accomplished a lot of good in those years. Long ago in graduate school I encountered Ben Jonson’s Pindaric ode with its memorable stanza that begins “It is not growing like a tree / In bulke, doth make man better bee” and ends, “In short measures, life may perfect bee.” Yet that Stoic sentiment I find not nearly so satisfying as what Bach so wonderfully set to music a century later, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.” That says all that really needs to be said.

    In the obituary I especially enjoyed your account of the good cheer in the hospital room, mingled with the grief. That is as it should be. The grief is there and cannot be denied. All the more, then, do I admire this post a week later in which you are bravely able to place that terrible reality in the context of a larger truth and a heavenly hope. I feel privileged to have had you share those things. In this Lenten time (liturgically and, for you, existentially) may you find joy in looking to the promise of that glorious consummation.

    Sincerely,
    Charles

    Like

    • Thank you for this kind and perceptive note. I still haven’t worked through the full meaning of all this for me, but in none of it has there been despair. God’s timing is always peculiar to me, but so is the shore to man at sea so long.
      I am in recovery on the calendar–the year always came at me in either relentless, oppressive rhythm, or accidental pattern. To find in it echoes of grace and frameworks of hope and memory is nice. I suppose that is part of Gottes Zeit.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Prayers for you and yours in this time of grief.

    Like

  4. My father and I loved each other but never understood each other. He was kidnapped as a child for 6 months. Now I find myself wanting to visit all the places he mentioned. Algiers, Londonderry, Pocatello, Idaho.

    After reading this, I think I’m still trying to find him.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for this note, Rhonda. My mother and I certainly never saw eye to eye, but it has been good. I only realized too late the mysteries of her life, and I am feeling that loss with my mother and father. I’ve begun, actually, to fictionalize my father’s life. It’s what I do, in any case.
      You know, you might be the first person in history to put Pocatello next to Idaho!

      Like

  5. I am so sorry for your loss; my heart aches for you. You have certainly thought through death a great deal- I would love to read some of your work, particularly The Drive. Death confuses me more than anything. No matter how hard I try, I don’t understand it and I have a really hard time accepting what I can’t understand. Thank you for sharing your heart and mind in this post.

    Like

    • Thanks so much, Jessica. “The Drive” was written on a 3 Day Novel Weekend, and isn’t much good (but with good bits in it). A good first attempt, I think. A lot of the plot is wrapped around the idea of a viral social media revolution. This was a decade ago, and now that idea has come true. So it would need a lot of work.
      Most of my work has been coming to terms with Death’s reckoning. I’m not sure I understand very much.

      Like

  6. ChrisC says:

    Very sorry for your loss.
    I don’t know if this is something that will help, however if it does, then, well, at least I’ve done something.

    In terms of the themes you mention in this post, I’d suggest you look up to the following (only if you think it’ll help.

    Gary M. Ciuba’s “Walker Percy: Books of Revelations” discusses the work of Southern Gothic author Walker Percy, a writer who seems to fit the mold you describe above, especially Buechner. Basically, Ciuba uses the final book of the New Testament as the rubric through which to view what might be called “potential change” in both the fiction of Walker Percy wrote, and in the subject’s own real life. Percy himself was a very funny writer, or at least that’s how he struck me.

    Another critical text that may or might not come in handy is “The Harvest of Tragedy” by T.R. (Thomas Rice) Henn. It’s online at the Internet Archive, and can be found here:

    https://archive.org/details/harvestoftragedy030449mbp

    One concept Henn mentions seems to be the idea of the “Fortunate Fall”, which seems to posit the idea, or the sometimes crazy fact that something good can emerge from bad circumstances.

    I don’t know if I’ve done anything right by making these recommendations. However, if they give even just a bit of help then maybe I didn’t entirely screw up.

    Like

    • Much of my work in literary criticism, such as it is, is really looking at biblical patterns in literature and popular culture. I think the Revelation leaves its pattern in many ways. We are a culture entirely shaped by the story of “no more tears,” after all.
      I have wanted to get at Walker Percy, but haven’t crossed that threshold just yet. I don’t know American literature very well, just Buechner, Marilynne Robinson, and the SF/fantasy writers. I like the myth of Hemmingway better than Hemmingway, and I keep returning to the poets and playwrights.
      On an off-hand note, this made me chuckle: “Percy himself was a very funny writer, or at least that’s how he struck me.” Imagine if he really isn’t funny and you just missed it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. wanderwolf says:

    I am sorry for your loss of your mother, and for the loss of your father and brother. I’ve never thought to think of a grown man as an orphan, but it’s true that this state can affect your present and all future development. But it looks like you are not without guidance, and for that I am glad for you. I am amazed at your father’s sacrifice those years ago and your way of learning to deal with it. I imagine that is a life-long task, as perhaps fitting to respect his choice and his life. At least it does not seem like a curse to you, and I hope it never does (even if it may have in the past). All the best. I’m grateful for your words and connections, as they may find their way to me one day when I need them, too. All the best.

    Like

  8. Pingback: That Awkward Conversation in the Face of Death | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  9. Hey Brenton, having an eldest son, an only sibling, an only nephew and a father go over that threshold, I feel we are in a multi-million strong club of “over our quota” where death is concerned. My mum is 90 and I am going to be orphan pretty soon. Thank God for adoption. One of the main things that keeps moving me through is having eternity to explore those “untravell’d” worlds of the ones we love and didn’t get to know so well, and no ‘clouds of unknowing’ anywhere, ever. Much love to you.

    Like

    • Thank you for sharing … I think the life that you have been giving has a kind of richness most of us wouldn’t want. I find attractive the idea of thinking more about heaven–an idea that’s never struck me much before.

      Like

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  11. Leaves me full of wonder and that glorious ache in my chest. “What, you too?”

    Like

  12. Pingback: The Women That Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life #InternationalWomensDay | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  13. Pingback: On Listening to Your Life in Frederick Buechner’s “The Sacred Journey” | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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