March 5, 1999 – October 15, 2013
August was born in San Francisco and in 2001 moved with his family to Jacksonville, Florida, where he attended the Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center during the day and the DLC Nurse & Learn after school and during holiday breaks. A book about him, A Life Beyond Reason: A Father’s Memoir, will be published by Beacon Press in 2019.
My favorite section of A Life Beyond Reason (it is still my favorite although it is no longer in the book) was inspired by Pearl. The section appeared toward the end of an earlier draft and was my modern reworking of that medieval text. Pearl is a long poem presenting a dream vision, a common genre of the period. It was written by “the Pearl Poet” (in other words, the author’s name is unknown) who lived in the late 14th century in the midlands of England. You can read more about Pearl in Josephine Livingston’s New Yorker review of Simon Armitage’s 2016 translation here.
In the poem, the poetic speaker is a father, and he is mourning the loss of his three-year-old daughter “Perle” (Pearl). He falls asleep in a garden, and in his dream he encounters the ‘Pearl-maiden’—a beautiful and heavenly woman—standing across a stream in a strange landscape. In response to his questioning and attempts to hug her, she answers with Christian doctrine. Eventually she shows him an image of the Heavenly City. The Dreamer then awakens suddenly from his dream and reflects on its significance. The most relevant lines are the following (translator: Simon Armitage):
Endless sorrow I have suffered and endured
Since you slipped from my grasp to the grassy earth;
I am hollow with loss and harrowed by pain,
Yet here you stand, lightened of all strife,
At peace in the land of Paradise.
I also drew inspiration from Ben Okri’s short story, “Worlds That Flourish.”
My wise editor at Beacon Press advised me to remove this section because it doesn’t fit in with the book’s overall tenor. She thought it would work better as a stand alone piece. So, here it is, titled Body Heat.
It was in the wee hours of an early March morning that I had another dream vision. I was walking through tall green grass on a hillside, descending a steep and dusty trail. Near noontime of a warm sunny springtime day, the sky was pure azure from horizon to horizon, and a gentle breeze was blowing from the northwest.
These were the foothills above Palo Alto and Stanford, amber in summer and fall, green in the winter and spring. Close to the footpath, at the peak of their season, a sea of California poppies was in full bloom, a burst of orange as in Monet’s “Poppy Field In Argenteuil.” Tarweed and bay laurel grew thick in the distance, and in another direction stood a grove of oaks, and in yet another was a stand of acacias decked in yellow. As an adolescent I used to love roaming in these hills.
Making my way, I wondered if this was a place for before we are born or for after we die. I descended on the trail for what seemed like a long time before coming to a river. Because there was no other way forward, I jumped into the fast-moving cold water and swam across. I was glad when I reached the other bank, for on the opposite side I found August sitting in his Zippie wheelchair.
“Hey, dad!” he called. My non-verbal son was talking!
“You’re speaking!” I said. “How did you learn to do that?”
“The therapists here are the best!” He was communicating with me as if he were a grown man, clearly, with good articulation. It was very sweet to hear his voice, which was moderately deep, and he expressed himself with the confidence of a mature adult. I sat down in the tall green grass in front of his wheelchair.
“Did you have any trouble getting in?” I asked.
“In? Into where?”
“Oh. Is that what this is? The guards waved me through security.”
“Guards? No! Get out! There are security guards at the gate of heaven?”
“It’s like at the airport, with body scanners. They need them. Didn’t you hear? Just last week a bad angel wearing a suicide vest tried to—.”
“Stop, son!” I interrupted, holding up my hand. “You’re seriously freaking me out!”
I must have raised my voice because several heads turned. We must have been transported to a new place. The scene had changed from a riverbank to a sandy beach, and all around us were people lazing in reclining chairs. There were thousands—one hundred and forty-four thousand, to be exact. We were now on a beach in the Florida Keys. Here though there was no need for tanning lotion. The place felt womb-like. I found myself now sitting on the edge of one of these reclining chairs, facing him. He was still in his wheelchair. Many of those around me were sipping from glasses with little paper umbrellas poking up above the rims. Was everyone in heaven a parrot head?
“Why did you leave?” I said.
“I had to. I had to go away. It was my turn to go.”
I looked around at the vast sea of sunbathers. “Do you like it up here?”
“They play way too much Jimmy Buffett.”
“What would you prefer?”
“Really? No way! Linkin Park’s a bit angsty for heaven.” I changed the subject. “Why are you still using a wheelchair? Aren’t you supposed to have a glorified body or something? Be able to walk? The nuns in my grade school told me that’s how it’d be.”
“You mean like Jake Sully in Avatar? No way! I’m no Jake Sully. There’s nothing wrong with me the way I am.”
“You said it. Crip pride!”
As August was speaking I noticed that his arms and face had a heavenly glow, a luminosity, as though his whole body was an LED light stick. A service angel came through taking orders for drinks. We both declined. August told me that he had just learned a new term in the accelerated school they have in heaven for kids like him, coup de grâce. “It’s an act that brings to an end a bad or unpleasant situation,” he explained. “I’ve been practicing using it in a sentence. I wheel up to the people just arriving and I ask them, ‘Why are you here? Did you experience a coup de grâce?’”
“Do you crack a lot of jokes?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty funny. At least my friends think so. And humor keeps the bullies from taking my lunch money.”
“Shut up! You’re kidding me, right? Bullies?”
“The Bible doesn’t mention them.” I just shook my head in dismay. What was the world, er, I mean, what was heaven coming to.
August was to my right. To my left was a woman in her early thirties reclining on a lounge chair. She was wearing a very brief bikini. She was practically naked. It was kind of shocking. Her name was Matty or Mary Ann—I couldn’t quite catch it. The man lazing on the recliner beyond her had uttered her name. He was a young, handsome, well-built, dark-skinned fellow. Lifting an icy drink from a tray, he said, more distinctly, “It’s hot.” Mary Ann, or Matty put on dark glasses and agreed.
“Why don’t you move up here?” August said. “It’s nice. And you and me could be together again, all the time.”
“Thanks, I appreciate the offer. But I’ll pass on it for now. The time will come. And I’d like that very much. In fact, I look forward to being able to see you again every day.”
“Me too! I can’t wait! That’d be so cool!”
“It would be!” I said, and we high-fived on it.
“But dad,” he said, turning serious, “I’ve gotta tell you something. It’s important.”
“What’s that, son?”
“I want you to lighten up.”
I paused. “It’s very hard for me, son. Since you died, I see the mark of death everywhere. I see it on everyone’s forehead. It’s like I’m living in the Capuchin bone chapel in Rome.”
“That’s not good. That’s not the way to spend the rest of your life, living in a bone chapel.” He stopped speaking and looked directly into my eyes, as though to make me pay attention.
“Look here, old man, you’ve only got a few good years left yourself. Life’s too short. You’ve gotta move forward. Life is for the living.”
“It’s hard to move forward. You’re my only son.”
“I get it. But now it’s time to let go. It’s time to move on. When we next meet, I want to see you a cheerful man. It’s time to laugh again.”
“Laugh? You’re kidding me, right? That would dishonor your memory.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Dishonor me? Give me a break! Don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine. I’m worried about you. Since I died, you’ve stopped using your eyes.”
“I didn’t know I’d stopped using my eyes.”
Now came his tough-love talk—it was like an intervention. “You’ve stopped seeing, stopped moving forward. Your grief has made you self-absorbed. Since my death you’ve been consumed by sorrow and self-pity. My message is: don’t look back. Find where you can be happy.” He paused long enough for this to sink in. “Don’t make your life into a monument to me,” he continued. “Preserving my memory has become your religion. Lose it. Lose that religion. It’s time to let go of the past. Commit yourself again to the current of the world. Open your heart to the influence of the light.”
“What light?” I said despairingly. “For me, the light has gone out.”
“You’ll soon be entering the seventh year of mourning. Enough already! Enough mourning. There’ll be a new light. You’ll know it when you see it. It’ll be the right light. It’ll be a new blazing world. But in the meantime, until you do, learn to live again! Find where you can be happy. Be silly! Be playful. Be hopeful. Go back to being ironic.”
“No, no! No way! Those days are over. Irony is broken.”
“Is it broken?” he said, his eyes directly catching mine and giving me a knowing look, “or are YOU broken?”
“I don’t know.” I sat thinking about this question for a time. I really didn’t know what to reply. Finally I said, “yes, I’m broken. Maybe I’m too broken to do what you want me to do.”
“I don’t want my father to be a broken man,” he said firmly, the child taking charge. “Don’t be the sad guy. And don’t be the mad guy. Don’t roam the earth a seething malcontent.” He paused again. “Hey! I’ve got an idea. You’re writing a book, right? Why don’t you tell a humorous story about the death of your son?”
I remember thinking, “What? A funny story? Was he kidding? How would such a thing even be possible?” I just looked at him in disbelief. This is the kind of thing you would expect from a fourteen year old. Every adult knows that humor and the death of a child don’t mix. What kind of twisted logic would motivate a grieving parent to attempt to do something so unorthodox? In response to my incredulity he had a wise look on his face, as though he distributed Zen kōans by the truckload. It is so easy to give advice when you are already dead.
“Old man, it was your sense of irony that made the difference,” he went on. “Your irony and your silliness and your playfulness and your positive attitude made everything fun for the both of us. You were ironic even about being ironic. So, be ironic again. Or be sincere. Whatever. Sincerity, they’re now saying, is the new sarcasm. Or just be silly.”
“Silly? You want me to be silly?” For a second or two I pondered this. “Okay, I’ll try to be silly, if that’s what you want. It won’t be easy. But I’ll work on it.”
“You’re going to work on being silly!” he said in an arch tone.
I reached over and rested my hand on his shoulder, and that’s when I realized he didn’t have any body heat. He wasn’t cold, but he wasn’t warm either. He was room temperature, like a pillow. Realizing he wasn’t generating heat was eerie. A shiver ran down my spine.
“You know what I miss most about you?” I said. “Your body heat. When I used to sit you on my lap and play ‘Hands Clap’ with you, it felt so good. Do you remember? I loved to feel your warmth, your body heat.”
“I miss those times too,” he said and stopped, ruminating. “It’s been a while now. I need to remember how it was to feel alive.”
Apropos of nearly nothing I said, “I will love you, son.”
“I will love you too, dad.”
“Are you happy here?”
“This is happiness,” he said, using words that flooded back from an earlier time. “I can’t wish for anything better. Now I experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful for my life, which gave me so much.”
Hearing this, I broke into sobs. August moved his wheelchair closer, to give me a comforting hug. The sunbathing sybarites lounging nearby turned their heads to look. They were disapproving. People in heaven don’t usually cry, I guess. It wrecks the mood. Someone from several rows over, a dead hippie I think, yelled, “HEY, YOU! YOU’RE BUMMING MY HIGH!”
August burst out laughing, and there it was again—the laugh of Medusa. Then he yelled back, a lightning-quick reaction: “That was so funny the first time I heard that, I laughed so hard I FELL OFF MY DINOSAUR!”
I recognized the line from STEP BROTHERS, a Will Ferrell movie. I guess that’s the kind of thing they screen for the kids up in heaven. Does God really like movies with Will Ferrell? Can a God who likes Will Ferrell movies still be a just and loving God?
But wait! Something was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t the good place. I began to wonder if August had landed in the right kind of afterlife. What if he hadn’t? What if there’d been a mix-up, a bureaucratic snafu at the district office? Do parents have any say about where their children are placed? I began to add it all together: security guards, body scanners, a suicide bomber, 144,000 parrot heads, Jimmy Buffet on the sound system, bad angels taking lunch money, an angry dead hippie, half naked sybarites, a Will Farrell movie. Most troubling was the presence of Matty or Mary Ann. She shouldn’t have been here. She was the villain in the movie BODY HEAT.
NO! This wasn’t right at all!
Suddenly Mary Ann, or Matty, or whomever she was, turned to me. She looked me square in the face, her blue eyes radiating a strange light. They dazzled like a mirror. And then she shouted, “WE’RE GOING TO HAVE A BABY!” There was something about her mouth.
“What?” I replied.
“You better not try and escape,” she said maliciously, making an authoritative and self-affirming head bob, “because we’re going to use the vacuum!”
That was all I needed. Terrified, I got up from my chair and began running, fleeing toward the river. But I found that I was moving not forwards, but backwards. Somehow I made it to the water, but when I dove in, I awakened, and to my surprise, found I had been born into a new day.
“The strangeness of the medieval poem Pearl… magnifies its emotional power” (Josephine Livingstone, The New Yorker, June 16, 2016). Courtesy The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A. X, art.3, f.42.
Contact for this site: Chris Gabbard, firstname.lastname@example.org