For fifteen years I have avoided The Road. Perhaps longer.
I did not need the book description to know that I would avoid reading it. I picked it up, held it in my hand, and I knew. It was Cormac McCarthy. There was a little boy in it. That was all it took.
I have avoided other stories too. I have never watched Blood Diamond or The Pursuit of Happiness. I stopped reading The Kite Runner during the kite battle, before Hassan finds the kite. I turned off The Walking Dead as the bullet sliced through the deer. The boy fell in dead leaves and I have never watched another moment. I did watch Life is Beautiful. I had to, and I wept in front of my students, as if a man can be broken by fiction.
There are probably more stories that I have left in my spiritual wilderness over the years. I cannot know. It was never a conscious choice, a mental category that framed my yes and no. It was just there.
It is not for the words themselves that I set The Road aside. Its sparse narrative, torn images of a grey world, reveal the skeins of a thousand untold tales. In those few words, a reader could learn to hate the sky, or love water, or forget the way forever. It is brilliant. It is hard.
It was never the words, or even the images. It was the story.
It is always the story.
And in 2006 Cormac McCarthy told the story that I have never had the courage to tell.
Seasons change by the slow arc of the earth. Lives change by the collection of postcards and phone bills and mismatched socks. Somewhere over the unmeasured, bending moments of life, my reason for avoiding The Road has itself bent. But where it was uncertain in seasons past, it is certain to me now:
It is my newborn son, wet and bruised and naked, skin turning blue because breath would not come, a sliver nearer to life than death.
It is my son, curious simian gate, tiny fingers slipping from mine in the crowd.
It is my son, at the breakfast table, cereal soggy because he has too many questions to ask.
It is my son, tender-hearted, curious, and artistic in a world that breaks hearts, crushes questions, and has moved on to better things than beauty.
Grief has a way of distilling life, so that the pixels of hard universal fact blur in the radiant palette of yellow to green to blue. So all of my life as a father is found on a single night, this night, when I was just a boy.
Smoke makes a sound as it suffocates you, exchanging cells of life for cells of death in your lungs. And I awoke.
I stood there in the darkness, rushing heat and smashing glass and thickening grey breath. I was inches from his door, my brother’s door. He would not wake on his own, I knew. He slept beneath heavy blankets, stuffed animals squeezed against his sweaty cheeks.
I could have touched that panelled door.
But I was afraid, and I turned away, trusting my father to save us. I knew he would do anything to see us live.
Fathers do anything to see their sons live, and live well.
My bare toes froze in the unseasonable cold. The front door closed to the flame and smoke. They remained inside, my father and brother. It was the end of their road.
And while I used to mourn my father and my brother, now I mourn my son, still living. If I were gone, what he would miss. What I would miss. My father missed so much.
So for thirty-one years I have avoided The Road. Perhaps longer.