There's a pattern that applies when we talk about the wars fought by a previous generation, to convey our respect, and our sympathy, for those who experienced unimaginable horrors. We talk about courage, about bravery, about sacrifice, about tragedy and about surviving. These words are, we know, weak, meaningless, useless. But they're all we have. They're the only way we can reach out, even a little, to try to touch a thing we can barely conceive. To try to let each other know that we recognize that there is a thing even as we acknowledge that it's not a thing we'll ever truly understand.
There's a reason people use the same language to talk about terminal illness: the battle with cancer, the courage of the terminally ill, the bravery of the family, the sacrifices made. The tragedy. The surviving. A terminal illness is a thing as vast, as unfathomable from the outside, as devastating from within, as a war. And we, standing just beyond the perimeter of its direct influence, must speak of it as sympathetically, as respectfully as we can.
When you're in the midst of it, though, it's not about fighting; it's about anger. Fury, really. And it's not about courage; it's about fear. Sheer, unadulterated terror. There are no battles, and there is no bravery. There's only weakness, and shame, and the exhausting futility of it all.
Adults have some understanding, smeo knowledge somewhere, of why it is people say these things. Why they feel pressed to ask how you are, really. How you're holding up. To tell you how brave you are, what courage you've shown. These meaningless little rituals are precious because they give us a way to talk around something that can't be talked about.
But they're beyond meaningless to children. Not because kids lack depth or the ability to imagine the abstract or whatever. Because they haven't yet learned that these rituals are a coping mechanism, a way for people to approach the unapproachable.
I was eleven when my father died.
It was cancer; we knew it was terminal, and it lasted fourteen months.
And I was angry. And afraid. And ashamed.
There was no escape, no release, no safe place. For fourteen months I dragged the knowledge of his illness and impending death after me. I could barely express what I was thinking and feeling, and I didn't want to talk about it anyway. And I couldn't wish for it to just be over, because it would only be over once he was gone. And I couldn't wish him dead.
So it just sat, and I sat with it. We were trapped together, it and I.
It left me, the evening my dad died. It became a fixed point in history while I moved further and further away. But it kept part of me with it.
It's been more than two decades since my father's death, and in that time I've only found a few things that get it right. All the children's literature about the deaths of beloved pets, sweet grandparents, even parents - they're just circling around it. They're all trying to make meaningful points about love and loss and growing up and moving on and the circle of life and the quality of mercy and on and on.
Few things have ever struck me as being about the truth of it.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls isn't one of those other books. I cried most of the way through it. I could not distance myself from it. I couldn't even pretend to read it as anything other than that eleven-year-old.
So I don't know whether it's a good book.
But I can say that it's a true book.
Anne (@thefingersofgod) is sending the monster straight to voicemail next time.