Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Journey to the Edge of the World

I begin with the end of the story: my six-year-old son returns to school tomorrow, having been genuinely ill for only a day. He is sleeping soundly as I write this, his forehead cool and his breathing normal. My daughter’s forehead remains similarly cool for now, although it’s impossible to know what tomorrow will bring. Since it’s inconceivable that she hasn’t been exposed, I’m anticipating a trip to the clinic with her any day now. But I hope not.

My son’s trip happened on Sunday. He was diagnosed with the flu. The test results were consistent with the H1N1 virus—that is, the so-called “swine flu”—and since that’s what’s going around at his school, that was the presumptive diagnosis. Because of his asthma and his history of pneumonia, he was prescribed Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug. The policy right now is to reserve anti-virals for the most at-risk cases. I believe this is in part because they worry about the evolution of resistant flu strains, and in part because they worry about Tamiflu shortages as this new strain of flu sweeps through the country.

The Tamiflu worked miraculously. On Sunday afternoon, before taking it, he was burning with fever. His cough was becoming increasingly croupy, his breath increasingly wheezy, and I was anticipating a night in the ER watching his little chest heave as he struggled to suck air through constricted lungs. We’d been through it before with him. The epinephrine breathing treatments they administer in the ER make his heart beat wildly in exchange for turning terrifying respiratory distress into merely scary respiratory distress.

At bedtime that same night, some five hours after receiving his first dose of Tamiflu, he was already breathing easier. And the ibuprofin we gave him was not merely taking the edge off his chills for a couple of hours, as it had earlier in the day. It was eliminating the fever altogether. By the next morning he was practically normal.

But for a little while on Sunday afternoon, before the miracle drug did its work, I was frightened. Partly this was a product of the media hype surrounding swine flu, but it was also rooted in observing my son’s distress. He had no memory of being so sick, of enduring the chills of rising fever and, more generally, the anguish of existing for a time in a body that’s a source of nothing but misery.

The ibuprofin helped, but it didn’t help for long. Between doses we’d supplement with Tylenol, but that was largely ineffective. And so, in the hours before we could give him the next dose, I looked for a way to keep his mind off his misery.

For bedtime reading over the last few months we’ve been working our way through C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Yesterday we finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the fourth in the series, at least if you begin with the prequel, The Magician’s Nephew). On Sunday, we were nearing the end of the book: King Caspian’s ship, the Dawn Treader, was sailing ever closer to the end of the world. The heroic mouse Reepicheep was anticipating his own private and irreversible journey beyond the edge, into Aslan’s Country.

As my son burned with fever and shivered uncontrollably, complaining that he couldn’t get warm no matter how many blankets he wrapped himself in, I sat next to his bed and read about the ship’s journey. He became still within his blankets, listening raptly as the ship sailed into the Last Sea. Whenever I paused in the story, either because my daughter bounded into the room to climb on my head or because my son asked a question that set me off on a rambling tangent, my son would rise for just a moment out of his flu-induced lethargy to issue a one-word order: “Read!”

And so I read. I read about Lucy seeing the minarets of the undersea city and the sea people astride their giant sea horses, and about Reepicheep leaping into the water to discover that it was sweet. And then, at last, the Dawn Treader came to the sea of lilies, what they came to call the Silver Sea, that lay just before the very edge of the world. And because the water was too shallow for the ship, the boat was launched, and the children from our world set out with the Narnian mouse, drifting through the blooming lilies towards mystery and wonder, towards the very end of the world.

And I looked over at my son to see that, at last, he’d fallen asleep. And I kissed his hot brow and breathed in the scent of him, and lay with my head against his, imagining that he was drifting through his own Silver Sea, blossoms all around him, towards the very end of the world. And I blinked back tears and shook my head, rejecting it even as I saw the beauty of it. And my fear made me try to wake him, but he wouldn’t wake.

And then I stood, and I said what I always say to him at bedtime: “Sleep well, little man, and dream of all the people you love and all the people who love you.” And then I stood over his bed for a long while, watching him breathe, seeing the serenity on his face, before turning away.

Half an hour later he bounded abruptly out of bed and staggered dazedly into the living, asking for soup.


  1. Thanks for a beautiful post. I look forward to reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my son when he's a bit older. Of course, I will keep The Magician's Nephew in its proper spot (NUMBER 6!) ;)

    I hope your son is feeling better.

  2. Hi, Eric-

    I find it curious that you would refer so glowingly to the "gift of celibacy" in previous posts, yet here be so eloquent on the fruits of its opposite. Perhaps celibacy is the curse and fertility is the gift- the fount of so much art, the source of so much power, and that which brings us as close as one ever comes to knowing (even being) god and love.

  3. Burk,

    Hmm... I guess if you aren't familiar with the ways in which "gift" is used in the history of Christian discourse, then you might think that my use of it is supposed to connote some sort of glowing admiration of those who succeed in being celibate that I don't extend towards those who do the exhausting, challenging, and extraordinary work of rearing the children that result from their non-celibacy. I mean no such thing, and indeed I'm not at all convinced that celibacy is worth the trouble for most people who might consider it.

    In using the phrase "the gift of celibacy," I am following Luther's language. Luther was no fan of the requirement of celibacy in the priesthood, which is why he said, "The gift of celibacy is a gift given to few; hence, it is a gift given to few priests." Following Luther, I say, "The gift of celibacy is a gift given to few; hence, it is a gift given to few gays and lesbians." (A hidden premise here is that having this "gift" on the one hand, and feeling drawn to the ministry/finding that one has a homosexual orientation on the other, are independent variables; but I think empirical evidence speaks amply in favor of this premise).

    In this usage, celibacy is a discipline of the will which some have the capacity to execrise successfully and others don't. Most don't, and if they try they'll end up...oh, engaged in secretive trysts with parishioners, say, or having anonymous laiasons in bathroom stalls.

    This use of the word "gift" is part of a tradition of usage that I think finds its origins in Paul's discussion of the gifts of the spirit. Paul's point is that people have a diversity of abilities, and that we achieve a richer and more vibrant community when each contributes according to their own unique "gifts" rather than vaunting certain "gifts" over others and treating them as especially deserving of merit and pursuit.

    If one has the capacity to do X, and if, furthermore, those who have this capacity might have something distinctive to contribute to the community were they to execise it in the right way, then, according to this usage, the capacity in question is a "gift."

    To refer to celibacy as a "gift" in this sense is not to imply that those who are not celibate are somehow inferior to those who are. Rather, it is to imply that (a) it is a capacity that one possesses but might not have possessed, and (b) the exercise of this capacity, at least by some, can be useful to the community in some way.

    Those who are capable of resisting the desire for sexual love might, by exercising this, be able to focus their (sublimated?)energies on writing enormous volumes of scholarly work that no one would have time for who is busy falling in love, making babies, and trying to be an attentive and nurturing parent to them. But the value of this "gift" seems limited. I certainly don't view it "glowingly."

  4. Thanks, Eric-

    After writing my post, I realized that this is what you doubtless had meant, ("gift" in a generic, or even ironic, sense), but still figured that it might be useful to draw out the contrast, since it seems liable to be taken more literally, as are many terms in theology, or theology as a whole, really.