My youngest daughter has told me that Annabelle, her baby doll, might have the coronavirus. We talk about it as we take a daily walk up the road. She’s not sure yet whether it is diabetes or the virus. Annabelle’s symptoms vary, but she has not left the small cradle by the side of my daughter’s bed in days.
I have been told I can babysit for Annabelle, but only if I promise to hold her gently and not give her candy. My daughter holds my hand as we walk. She wants to talk about her doll’s sickness every day. Not surprisingly, she’s not sure when or if Annabelle will get a test.
I ask whether she’s anxious about Annabelle. She says not really. She thinks she will recover and maybe just need a shot. We walk on in the sloppy spring snow. The days are getting longer and the walks are getting longer, our conversation looping like piles of old garden hose.
We are walking again, a little stiff and grumpy, ready to be home. I am listening to something about another baby doll. This one is named Zoe. She is having a birthday party later and I am invited. Annabelle is too sick to attend. We talk about the decorations and the cake
I have told her that her grandpa has cancer, a surprise to her. It’s not serious, I say, and that sounds insane. I clarify that it’s the best form of cancer one could possibly hope for — a highly inactive form of leukaemia. She is now nodding at me in the same way I nodded at her before.
We are walking along a path made of wood chips. It cuts through the forest along lines created by fallen oaks in a tornado that ripped through Connecticut in May of 2018. That spring I came to this same place and sat among the shattered trees.
Many of the trunks exploded eight or 10 feet up from the ground in the shape of splattered palms. Others lay prone in piles. Several split in the middle, leaving gaping shapes that framed the disaster like keyholes into a broken world. Now the area is clear and open and flooded with sun.
While we walk, I have to remind my daughter to keep moving. The faster she talks, the slower she goes. I am trying to listen to her, but half of my mind is thinking about other things.
Vying for attention
If I am quiet for too long, she tugs at my hand, pulling me back into conversation. It is hard to keep in focus the reality of her mittened fingers and the reality of the world at once, both of them vying for my attention.
Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation.
From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.
James was writing about how hard it is to see someone else’s inner light — the thing that keeps them illuminated in dark times — especially when we are fixated on our own lives. We pass one another, intent on ourselves and our own problems, never imagining the burning fire under the dark coat.
All is quiet in the woods except for the clatter of a woodpecker somewhere nearby. As if answering the rhythm, bits of songs begin replaying in my head, linking together the inner life and the weak lights: the duo September 67: “you once called me a lantern “; Nick Drake: “The sun went down and the crowd went home, I was left by the roadside all alone, I turned to speak as they went by, but this was the time of no reply”; Leonard Cohen: “Hold on, hold on my brother, my sister hold on tight.
I’ve finally got my orders, and I’ll be marching through the morning, marching through the night, moving through the borders of my secret life.” I am inadvertently humming the tune when I hear her say, “Mom, stop it.”
We are walking again, a little stiff and grumpy, ready to be home. I am listening to something about another baby doll. This one is named Zoe. She is having a birthday party later and I am invited. Annabelle is too sick to attend. We talk about the decorations and the cake.
Now we are picking up speed, discussing the guest list and games, coming down the hill in the sharp wind. To simply reply as if this is what matters is the best I can do. It is her world and these are her tiny lights, her babies tucked in their beds, the rocks and crystals in her fists, all of it fiercely real and important as the world seems to fall apart around us.
Someday, if she finds herself in isolation and I am not there, she will have her own songs and some courage based in these walks and this circuitous make-believe (as good as any philosophy), a rhythm of talking and walking etched in her memory to repeat on her own, an inner life rich with voices and creatures and the remembered pressure of our hands. I hope so.
Her grip suddenly drops mine as she begins to run toward home. We are learning together how to be alone.
— Megan Craig is a painter and an Associate Professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University