On 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.