The online NaNoWriMo writing support group that I belong to has lately been discussing character death, which leads naturally to a discussion of character pain. I can’t speak for my peers, but for me it’s character pain that fuels a story. It doesn’t matter if it is obvious and devastating or just runs through the life of the story like a single thread that shouldn’t be strong enough to hold everything together, but does. Tug on it and the character unravels.
Character death is sometimes necessary to the end goals of the story. Character pain to me is so much more interesting. As a reader, I mourn the characters that I love, sometimes violently. More than one book has been thrown across a room. But when I pick up the story again, ready to move on, my heart turns immediately to the survivors. How will they cope? How will they change? How will they digest a pain that is bigger than they are?
I think that pain fascinates me so much because I’ve hovered on that brink and been pulled back at the last minute so many times. It is often said that those who have children must learn to live with portions of their heart walking around in the world, naked and unprotected. It isn’t surprising, then, that some of my most formative experiences with near loss involve my children, even from the very start of their lives.
My first child’s heartbeat dropped during labor and refused to rise again. My perfect planned natural birth turned into an emergency caesarean. I was so terrified at the potential loss of my son when they put me under for the surgery that I woke fighting, pulling tubes from my body and lashing out until they put me back under again. When I finally woke, having lost an entire day, and they settled my son in my arms, I got in trouble with the nurse for unwrapping him. I needed to see his perfect body, to understand all that had been avoided. I took my first step away from the brink.
My last child, according to my obstetrician, should never have been born at all. At 20 weeks, my water broke. There was no way our long-awaited daughter would survive a delivery. The doctor told us our options, her dry dissertation of what would happen if we opted not to deliver as unacceptable to us at that moment as her youth. At the low levels of amniotic fluid in my womb, she told us, our daughter would suffer leg deformity, brain and lung dysfunction, and more. When we rejected delivery, she seemed genuinely put out. She dismissed me, scrawling out two prescriptions for antibiotics that might keep infection at bay and my daughter safely growing to viability for three more weeks. Instead, by some miracle, during the weeks of total bed rest and tears and frustration and prayers, my amniotic sac healed itself. The fluid replenished. And she was carried, safe and healthy, nearly to term. We got to step away from the edge of loss yet again to raise a little spitfire who still does things her own way.
It is the middle child, however, who taught us the most about that living on that edge and appreciating the life that comes afterwards. I fell at 27 1/2 weeks and suffered a total placental abruption. I was so sick that I wasn’t permitted to see my fragile two-pound son for a week after his birth. When they finally wheeled me to the NICU, my husband whispered in my ear again what to expect as I worked through the ceremonial cleansing — leaning my painful belly against the sink while I scrubbed my skin clean, pulled on the mint green plastic gown, donned the thin paper hat with the elastic that slid across my damp skin in the room kept over-heated for the sick infants. No words of warning or medical ritual could have prepared me for his thin, shiny red body, tubes snaking in through his umbilicus, through his arm to his heart, through his nose to his belly, through his mouth to his lungs. I didn’t process what I saw. I couldn’t deal with the knowledge that my precious sick child was no longer growing safe within my belly, and that all of these beeping, humming machines were keeping him alive. I focused on the small, physical details that I could manage like little bites of horror. Why were his ears folded over? (No firm cartilage had grown yet.) What was the line on his lower spine? (No, it’s not a spinal deformity, Mrs. Lang. The line is his bottom — he just doesn’t have any fat to form little cheeks yet.) What are those buds on his fingers? (That’s where his nails will grow from.)
We teetered on the edge of loss, immersed in pain, for two and half months. Finally, all of the little victories added up, and we were able to bring him home. We stepped away from that edge, even if only until the next hospitalization. And that crystalline moment when we loaded him, oxygen tank in tow, into our car for the drive home, my small hand spread across his body from chin to pelvis, was joy and terror intertwined. I huddled next to his car seat, hissing every time a car passed us. Too fast! Slow down! And once safely home, we curled up inside our house together as if we would never leave it again. The perfection of moving from that unstable, slippery edge to solid ground with our son in our arms was enough to sustain us for a long time.
There was more in store for us, of course. There always is. But for my purposes today, this is enough. Because the point is that as writers, we mine those moments of our lives, or the lives of friends, or the lives of strangers across the world brought to us via the news or the internet. Sometimes we use the details. Sometimes it is the emotions that we remember or imagine. We set our characters to teeter on the boundary between life and loss that we have witnessed or lived. We know that each time we feel the devastation of loss, the potential to be drawn over the edge and to fall down into a depth from which we cannot rise, we gain things, too, depending upon who we are. Rage. Fear. Anxiety. Empathy. Wisdom. Peace. If we are very lucky, grace. We may swoop away victorious and alive, but we are not unchanged. The change is what forms the story of our lives. And our characters are the same. Of course they are. Even a vengeful, fiery swamp monster with pebbled skin and a bad attitude is a reflection of some part of all of us.
So throw the book across the room, even if you’re the author. Mourn your favorite character. Sulk if it helps. But come back to the story. Because there is more to see. No matter how thrilling or devastating the edge or the drop was, there are characters crawling away from that chasm. And how they feel about it is where the story lives.