by Sarah Freligh
I’m driving home from school when the radio talk
turns to E.B. White, his birthday, and I exit
the here and now of the freeway at rush hour,
travel back into the past, where my mother is reading
to my sister and me the part about Charlotte laying her eggs
and dying, and though this is the fifth time Charlotte
has died, my mother is crying again, and we’re laughing
at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math,
how every subtraction is exponential, how each grief
multiplies the one preceding it, how the author tried
seventeen times to record the words She died alone
without crying, seventeen takes and a short walk during
which he called himself ridiculous, a grown man crying
for a spider he’d spun out of the silk thread of invention —
wondrous how those words would come back and make
him cry, and, yes, wondrous to hear my mother’s voice
ten years after the day she died — the catch, the rasp,
the gathering up before she could say to us, I’m ok.
* * *
A few weeks ago Jeff started reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to Esme at bedtime. I read the Chronicles of Narnia books more times than I can count in my childhood, over and over and over again, and definitely felt the birthing pangs of a deep faith in Aslan in the wellspring of my heart, so whenever I heard C.S. Lewis criticized, I am pretty sure I got my feelings really hurt. But I haven’t picked up the books for probably a decade or more. (And by the way, I really did not care for the movie versions that came out in recent years, and, being distanced from the books, I think they left me a little doubtful about whether or not I might have been mistaken about the Chronicles, after all. Maybe they never really were that good.)
But a few night’s ago I took over the reading at bedtime and it happened to be the chapter in which Aslan is killed. Lucy and Susan accompany him to his death through the dark woods, walking on either side with their hands buried in his mane. While reading, tears started rolling silently out of my eyes, and a few times, I really did struggle to keep my voice steady. Esme was next to me on the bed, half listening and half playing with a stuffed animal, and I could not gauge how much of it she was actually understanding. We usually only read one chapter, but of course I was not going to send Esme to bed without reading the next, in which Aslan comes alive again and explains to the children about the most ancient magic that the witch did not know about. It was here that I received confirmation that Esme was indeed getting it because she started practically bouncing up and down, kicking her legs, and uncontrollably shouting, “Aslan’s alive! Aslan’s alive! Aslan’s alive!” My cheeks were still wet and we looked at each other and started laughing joyfully. All of this totally exceeded my expectations of how we would experience this tattered old paperback from our lovable, outmoded, British, tweedy, chubby, Oxford professor of yesteryear, and I thought to myself, “Yup. C.S. Lewis still got it going on.”
Last night I got an email from The Sun Magazine (which is a great magazine, by the way). I used to have a subscription but let it lapse. I usually delete their email attempts to woo me back, but this time, for some reason, I looked at it and clicked over to their website, actually considering a subscription renewal. Then I found this poem, and it seemed like a gift. I relate to the children who understand nothing about the experience of loss, laughing at their crying mother, and now I also relate to the role of the careworn mother, crying over the death of a fictional spider. I realized even while the tears were rolling down my cheek over Aslan’s death that it wasn’t about Aslan, but it was about a lot of other pent up things which get thrown down the dark basement stairs of my heart because, just like that Iris Dement song, “I guess I’m older now, and I’ve got no time to cry.” You said it, Iris.
So, since I seem to have trouble eking out the tears over my own real life troubles, I suppose I need the help of these little fictional saviors like Aslan and Charlotte to usher me into the holy of holies in my heart where events like birth, death, love, and loss are waiting for me in their most pure forms, rarely visited. And it might be a good idea to tie a rope around the ankle of those wily characters like political correctness, conformity, concerns about image, and a lot of other superficial crap that passes through my mind in the average day, because they will likely be struck dead if they attempt to enter there.