In the summer of 2001, seven months pregnant and working in a research lab in Iowa City, I signed up for an eight-week fiction-writing class taught by James Alan McPherson. I turned in my very first short story, “Immortality,” which Jim enthused about in class, though I was too inexperienced to understand his excitement. I told him shyly that I was a scientist but wanted to be a writer. “What do you mean you want to be a writer?” he said. “You are a writer.”
That summer Jim introduced me to Isaac Babel’s stories, and also lent me a tattered paperback of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man and Other Stories,” with notes from a conversation he’d had with Ralph Ellison scribbled on the endpapers. He mentioned a book he’d read a few years earlier, which he still thought about from time to time: Amy Bloom’s story collection “Come to Me.” At the end of the eight weeks, he gave me a wrapped present for the baby, whose due date was approaching.
How much of one’s life course is determined by a chance encounter? If I had not taken McPherson’s class that summer; or, if it had been with a different writer — the one who told me that English was not my language and that he saw no point in my writing in English — I might have remained a scientist, with a different career path and set of accomplishments and disappointments. Would I have endured the same loss? The child I was bearing then would die 16 years later by suicide. But my thoughts about my unlived life are often fleeting: A writer’s job is to contemplate her characters’ alternatives, not her own.
I borrowed “Come to Me” from the library and read it before going into early labor. I became a mother, a writer and then a creative writing professor, in that order. I have never stopped reading and teaching Tolstoy and Babel, and for a while — every semester for 12 years — I also taught Bloom’s “Silver Water,” a story from “Come to Me,” until I had to stop:
My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see “La Traviata,” when she was 14 and I was 12, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out.” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
Thus opens “Silver Water,” a story about — but how can one ever say what a story is about, just as how can one ever say what life is about? Most years I had my students take turns reading the story aloud in class. There were discussions afterward, about craft and themes and this or that line, but I did not have much to contribute. All I wanted was for my students to hear the story as I had often heard it in my mind, the music of life and death and all that comes in between. Rose, the beautiful sister with the silver-water voice, has her first breakdown at 15, and will spend most of the next 10 years in hospitals, until she dies from an overdose. “Closing time,” she whispers to her younger sister, Violet, the story’s narrator, when Violet finds Rose with a Seconal bottle by her hand. Violet, not raising an alarm, sits with Rose until she dies.
If I had been pressed during those years, I would not have been able to articulate my reason for teaching the story. I was not interested in it as a tool to demonstrate how to write fiction. I wanted only to reread it with a new crop of young people every semester. I could even mark my life against the story, each reading under a different, ever-changing circumstance: my two sons, growing from infants into toddlers, and then into schoolchildren; the publication of my first books, followed by other books; the addition of a family dog; relocating from the Midwest to California and then to the East Coast; pains expressible and inexpressible, endurable and unendurable. Sometimes means of distraction and anesthesia become life itself.
In September 2017, I taught “Silver Water” for the 12th year. Later that week my son died. That night I did not sleep, my mind circling with a million thoughts, and returning again and again to a line in “Silver Water,” as though it were the refrain of the night. Rose’s mother, learning of Rose’s death, embraces her remaining daughter: “‘Warrior queens,’ she said, wrapping her thin strong arms around me. ‘I raised warrior queens.’”
I once encountered a woman on a book tour, after publishing a work of nonfiction about my own suicidal depression. “I only have one question for you: Do you love your children?” she said. I said yes. She then said, “If you love your children, how could you even think of doing that to your children?”
I did not remind her that she had promised to ask only one question. Life must be a simpler business for her, if love, like a belief, like a miracle, can solve all things, large and small. A variation of the question was once put to me by my own mother, after I attempted suicide: “How could you do that to me?”
Perhaps all those years that I was teaching “Silver Water,” I did it out of prescience, a reminder to myself that love solves very little of the most menacing and devastating problems. I wrote to Amy Bloom then, telling her about teaching “Silver Water” for the last time.
A few years after that, she wrote to me and told me about the loss of her husband. I decided to reread “Come to Me.” It’d been more than 20 years since I’d read the entire collection, many of the stories featuring heartbreaks and losses. I was surprised that “Silver Water” was the last in a set of three stories. (How did I forget that?) The other two are about Rose’s father and mother, their younger years, before marriage, before parenthood, when they are the protagonists of their own stories. It was a strange thing, after having known “Silver Water” nearly by heart, to revisit the lives that preceded it. It was akin to going back to my childhood, when concepts like marriage, parenthood and career had not been conceivable.
The child that was me was a reluctant protagonist of her own story — I still feel that way. My own mother will never put her arms around me and call me a warrior queen. It is the deepest wound of my life to have lost a child, but there is a different wound, equally irremediable: For over a year I could not tell my mother about the loss of my son, knowing that no comfort would come from her, only more words to wound.
“If you understand suffering, why would you even have children?” The first time Vincent asked me that, he was 10. I had thought a similar question at that age, though I did not ask my mother, for I knew the answer: She had given me a life so that I could love her, unconditionally and exclusively. When my children were infants, she often complained that I loved them more than I loved her.
Love, so paramount a matter in life, is not always enough to save a life. The night after Vincent died, my mind, returning to the refrain from “Silver Water,” kept saying: “I raised him as a warrior queen.”
I raised myself as a warrior queen, too, though this I realized only recently. I might, I thought, start teaching “Silver Water” again. Why not resume marking one’s life against this story, in which love falls short, as love triumphs?