I could never have asked him what exactly Abrahim had done for him, or what their relationship had been like, but I had never asked him anything to begin with, not about his past, his current intentions, or his plans for the future. By the time I was old enough to be genuinely curious about what type of man my father had been before I knew him, I had made up my mind already. He had been a bastard from birth and would remain one until he died. Anything beyond that was irrelevant. Often, however, I did think that it would have been better if Abrahim had let him die, or I remember wishing that at the very least Abrahim had managed to inflict some righteous form of punishment, one strong enough to be felt for decades, right up to and including the moment that had my father standing over me with his fist raised. Some children seek heroes to right the imbalances in their world and to settle the scores that they can’t; I would have taken a greater villain any day of the week.
"I bought a cheap radio with the first pay I got from my job in the factory and I was allowed to rent a small TV for my room when I started earning enough each week. Although I couldn’t understand much French I enjoyed watching the odd film and – like the vast majority of us in there – I couldn’t wait for those Tuesday and Wednesday nights when a European football match would be on. Almost every cell would have the game on the TV or radio and when goals went in the whole prison would erupt and shake with the noise of shouting and chanting, cell doors being banged and some inmates would throw burning balls of paper through the bars of their windows which, if enough people did it, lit up the sky like some kind of strange slow motion firework display.
"But on a regular evening reading was the thing. Ultimately, nobody wanted to be there and for me a good book was simply the best escapism. But I’ve always felt that good literature makes real life more interesting and beautiful too, and it was a time when I needed that more than ever.
"I still have that battered copy of The Count of Monte Cristo with my friend’s name and prison number written on the inside the cover. I got released suddenly and unexpectedly and didn’t get a chance to give it back, or pass it onto whoever was the next in line."
"books of all kinds that might bring some light into that darkness"
"I grow accustomed to comments that feel aggressive in their formulaic insistence: that must be really hard [to have a dying baby], that must be really hard [to be afraid you’ll have another seizure in the middle of the grocery store], that must be really hard [to carry in your uterus the bacterial evidence of cheating on your husband]. Why not say, I couldn’t even imagine?
"Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion. They won’t even press the stethoscope to my skin without asking if it’s okay. They need permission. They don’t want to presume. Their stuttering unwittingly honors my privacy: Can I…could I…would you mind if I—listened to your heart? No, I tell them. I don’t mind. Not minding is my job. Their humility is a kind of compassion in its own right. Humility means they ask questions, and questions mean they get answers and answers mean they get points on the checklist: a point for finding out my mother takes Wellbutrin, a point for getting me to admit I’ve spent the last two years cutting myself, a point for finding out my father died in a grain elevator when I was two—for realizing that a root system of loss stretches radial and rhizomatic under the entire territory of my life.
"In this sense, empathy isn’t just measured by checklist item 31—voiced empathy for my situation/problem–but by every item that gauges how thoroughly my experience has been imagined. Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening; it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”
"If, in the first months after losing my mother, I searched for books that made my grief echo and reverberate—that rendered it as shocking as I felt it to be—after a while I found my reading diet largely unsustainable. Part of moving on, I realized, was learning to let my grief buddies go, or at least putting them back on the shelf. That is, until I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” No, read isn’t quite right. More like ravaged. For some time after the book came out, I purposely avoided it. Something in its subhead—“From Lost to Found”—put me off, as did a few of the reviews praising the book for being “uplifting” and “spiritual.” I knew it was about the author’s hike through the Pacific Crest Trail, on which she had embarked a few years after the death of her mother, but I expected it to be an Oprahfied memoir—hopelessly positive, sentimental, diluted. I didn’t expect to gulp it down in one reading. Nor did I expect that Strayed’s experience—of watching her healthy, dominant mother beset by advanced lung cancer—would so closely mirror my own.
"Strayed serves her material raw. Of receiving her mother’s diagnosis, she writes: “We went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two.” Strayed’s writing is so piercing and precise that I found myself nodding along as I was reading, as though it were a hymn. (Maybe “spiritual” wasn’t far-fetched, after all.) Her mother’s death, she writes, “had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.” Nothing I’ve read has managed to describe that exact point in time, that “place where we’d left off,” as accurately as those few lines have. I always thought that literature’s draw lay in making me identify with people and situations that were as different from my lived experience as possible. But my mother’s death changed that. It made me seek out my own kind—the left-behind and the heartbroken. The unmothered."
Those who came seeking help often did so with a faint trace of shame hovering over them–the sense that they were once again pleading to someone to grant them a right that everyone else they passed on the street, on the subway, and in traffic took for granted trailed them in almost all of their dealings and most likely made them more deferential than they had ever been.
My dear little girl, as I’ve told you, what you’re lacking is friendship. But now is the time for more practical advice. Couldn’t you find a woman friend? How can Toulouse fail to contain one intelligent young woman worthy of you*? But you wouldn’t have to love her. Alas, you’re always ready to give your love, it’s the easiest thing to get from you. I’m not talking about your love for me, which is well beyond that, but you are lavish with little secondary loves, like that night in Thiviers when you loved that peasant walking downhill in the dark, whistling away, who turned out to be me. Get to know the feeling, free of tenderness, that comes from being two. It’s hard, because all friendship, even between two red-blooded men, has its moments of love. I have only to console my grieving friend to love him; it’s a feeling easily weakened and distorted. But you’re capable of it, and you must experience it. And so, despite your fleeting misanthropy, have you imagined what a lovely adventure it would be to search Toulouse for a woman who would be worthy of you and whom you wouldn’t be in love with? Don’t bother with the physical side or the social situation. And search honestly. And if you find nothing, turn Henri Pons, whom you scarcely love anymore, into a friend.