Most parents don’t have to stretch far to reach a particular kind of memory. Certain memories spring easily,or rather, uneasily to mind.
I’m talking about the kind of memories that begin with a momentary—oh so brief—lapse in attention. During the time sucked up by distraction, a child vanishes from sight. Initial annoyance (Where did she run off to now?) grows from mild alarm (He was just here. Where could he be?) to gut-gripping anxiety (frantic calling of the child’s name) to full-blown panic and the early stages of the denial that lives at the border of grief. (No. No. No. No. No.)
In most cases, the child reappears laughing from a happy lark and parents respond with relief so profound it manifests as anger. (Don’t you EVER do that again!) But sometimes the happy lark has a tragic ending, and when that happens, a lapse in attention becomes a visceral before-and-after that defines the lives of the parents. The moment is the main feature in the highlight reel of their life story. The event gloms onto the parents like an extra unwanted shadow.
Leo Brent Robillard writes about such a moment in his new book, The Road to Atlantis: The main characters, David and Anne, lose their daughter, Nat, to drowning.
“Nat had been gone more than a year and her death was still the event that defined him. He suddenly knew it would always be like this. He, and everyone around him, would delineate his history as before and after Nat.”
Robillard’s book got me thinking about moments the define lives, and the way that people respond to them. Sometimes those moments arrive smack out of nowhere, and sometimes people’s bad choices lead to Atlantis-like sinking results: think Christopher Reeve, Tiger Woods and Richard Nixon. Their names trigger automatic associations with life-turned-upside-down incidents. We know the main feature in their highlight reels.
I can think of people in my community who have similar highlight-reel events as part their life story. I’m sure you can come up with some of your own too. And if I were to meet those people on the street—the parents who lost a toddler to cancer or the wife who shot her husband while he lay in bed—their tragic life events would loom like living things between us.
Robillard’s book relates how David and Anne navigate the “shoal of mud,” as Plato called it, that arises out of such a sinking loss, and how they manage to resurface. When life-altering events occur, a muddy quagmire of guilt, blame, denial, obsession, addiction or depression inevitably oozes in and rises around the feet. Those left behind must learn how to suck their feet out of that mud and keep walking.
Sometimes people do more than that. When 11-year-old Sandrine Craig was killed in an automobile accident, her donated organs helped other people, and her parents started the Sandrine’s Gift campaign to encourage life-saving organ donations. Two years ago, Rowan Stringer died after suffering a concussion during a rugby game. “Rowan’s Law” is now in the works in hopes of preventing other such tragic avoidable deaths. Since Terry Fox’s death, more than $700 million has been raised for cancer research, and the funds have led to otherwise unattainable advancements in cancer treatment.
Christopher Reeve showed us that moving legs aren’t required for valuable life, and his foundation is advancing research into paralysis and spinal cord injuries. Tiger Woods has never been the same since the upheaval in his life. Perhaps he’s still working his way through the quagmire. And Richard Nixon? He’s there to remind us that you never really make it out of the shoal of mud if you don’t own your actions.
All of these people show us that it is possible to craft a second even more important highlight for your life reel. The follow-up highlight is one of perseverance, open communication, family pulling together even when it’s hard, and work for the benefit of others.
Each of us has smaller versions of these Atlantis-like disruptions in our lives: getting fired, surviving cancer, losing a friend because we do something stupid. These aren’t newsworthy events—journalists don’t come calling—but they sink us for a while, nonetheless. The good news is, with perseverance, open communication, family pulling together even when it’s hard, and work for the benefit of others, you’ll end up with a really inspirational life highlight reel.
If you would like to meet Leo Brent Robillard and talk to him about the fine highlight reel he’s crafting for himself, you can find him and his books at:
The Kingston Writers’ Festival, September 26 from 9:00 to 11:oo p.m.
Word on the Street in Toronto on September 27
The Brockville Museum, October 8 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Octopus Books in Ottawa, October 14 at 7:00 p.m.
Chapters Kingston, October 17 at 1:00 p.m.