My eleven year-old, Caleb, asked me one afternoon if he’d ever cheated death. Caleb likes adventure books. He believes that even though people in Kansas don’t talk the way Johann Wyss and Jules Verne wrote, phrasings like “death-defying feat” and “brave young hero” are common parlance.
I remember when that ended for me. It was third grade, when I went to my teacher and told her someone had swiped my pencil. She couldn’t stop giggling at the word “swiped.”
Receiving no justice, I took another kid’s pencil. It was the only thing I’ve ever stolen. I like to think this is a caution about how literature’s decline (as opposed to the utilitarian civic religion of “literacy”) forebodes the decline of civilization. Deprive a child of the ability to say “swiped,” and pretty soon he’ll be swiping stuff.
Or maybe the lesson is just that when the universe denies me something, I strike back in anger.
But the point is that eventually we all learn the way the old books are written is not the way we speak. For all their labors at bringing modern fiction into a space where dialogue mimics conversation, and exposition the inner conversation with the self, sometimes I think what newer writers have done is unleash a rearguard action on Shakespeare’s great project, chewing up word after beautiful word like pigs let loose on the seed corn.
But here was Caleb not knowing any better, thankfully, asking for stories of his death-cheating self, because this is what our children look to from us, the first stanzas of the epic poems that are themselves. We were riding in my pickup with his three younger brothers, who took interest as well. Boys like death-defying stories.
I told Caleb about the time when he was two, and he fell from a second-storey porch to the hard-packed earth below. I told him how I turned too late, and saw his little rain-booted foot disappear from sight, and heard the thud. How I saw him lying face down, motionless.
I didn’t tell Caleb how I begged and cursed God as I hurtled down the steps. I didn’t tell him what I told God in my heart: if you take another of my babies I will never, ever forgive you.
I didn’t tell him that when you are a father and one of your children goes through the valley of death’s shadow, you would give anything—your very soul—for the right to hurl yourself at death and murder it with your own hands. There is no greater human rage than this, no more pitiable impotence.
Caleb listened with satisfaction, and his brothers with wide eyes, as I told them that he was crying before I reached him, that this was how I knew he had survived.
“Dad,” he asked, “did any of my brothers ever cheat death?”
I told about the time Isaac rode with me on the tractor, and I stupidly caught the roll bar on a low-hanging limb, and nearly flipped us over backwards. I told how I gripped him tight as the front of the tractor lifted into the air, and prayed.
“What would you have done if Isaac died?” Caleb asked.
“I would have died.”
Isaac smiled at this, his face like a flower in spring rain.
“Have you ever cheated death?”
I told them about the time I had a job cleaning banks at night, how my vacuum cleaner’s cord shorted and I completed the circuit by gripping a metal door handle. I felt my muscles constrict as the current surged through my body, and then I was lifted and carried. I was carried backward and then I was standing alone in the room, a few feet from both the handle and the vacuum cleaner.
“Was it an angel that picked you up?” my second son, Eli, asked. I told him I don’t know but I like to think so.
I told them about the time I refused to go to the childcare home where my mother left me when she worked third shift. That night it burned down, and children died in the darkness there. I told them about the doctor finding cancer when I was a teenager, and how they cut it out of me.
“You’ve cheated death a lot,” Caleb said.
“Not as much as many,” I said.
But we all cheat death every day, don’t we? We cheat it by crafting beauty, or loving someone, or making new life; sometimes we cheat it just by leaving the gun in the drawer, the liquor in the cabinet, the hateful word in our bellies.
We are all of us cheating death, right up to the very end, and then, by the grace of God, beyond that end. The first Adam was the death-bringer, the second Adam is the death-cheater, and now here are you and me, each of us faced every moment with the choice about which we will be, who we will be.
I sped down a country road with these life-bringing, death-cheating boys of mine, and I understood, maybe for the first time ever, that my cup overflows in the valley of the shadow.
It’s not an empty promise. Look into your own cup and see. Taste, and see.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.