Magazine | January 24, 2011, Issue

Childhood, Interrupted

In memoriam

On August 21 I finished moving in to my first apartment in New York, and stared at my ceiling, and felt what I tried to feel the night after graduation when, disobedient to tradition, I wouldn’t smash my church pipe, and was too hurried to feel in the road trips and fellowships that followed — Yale and childhood were over. That night, down Manhattan and across the Hudson, my oldest brother, Christopher, fell over in his apartment in Hoboken and died.

Christmas Eve marked 29 years since my parents carried him from the hospital to their first house, decorated by friends with “To Mary and David a child is born.” Our childhood was Edenic (or maybe it’s the other way around and the myth universally fascinates because it retells every story of childhood lost). I was the fourth, and unintended, child — but my parents rejoiced in being so overburdened. My father called us his “nice little pile of kids,” and we were often literally in a pile when our parents came home at dusk and we ran to their knees. Our childhood happiness was that every single thing — our pillow forts and igloos and bike jumps — was done for its own sake. In adulthood, parties become networking for Mammon, play becomes exercise for the body — everything becomes an instrument for a nameless end which is eternally postponed and never enjoyed. But for us, there was no future, only imminent joy, because we thought childhood would never be interrupted.

Why store for winter in endless summer?

Every day now is a new rupture. Christopher saw me born and held me through my first steps, so his living presence wasn’t so much a fact of the world as a quality of my universe. Every day now his death must be relearned, his name moved in my mental account from the column of the living to that of the dead. Every day the raw fact startles me, again.

I wanted them to have something to remember Christopher by, so I said something unusual in my eulogy, the opposite of what people usually say: Christopher’s death made perfect sense. Because it would make sense that before He put our souls in our infant bodies, God gave us a choice between an ordinary regular life, or a life of delirious happiness in childhood and being the hero of the swim team and best looking in high school and getting recruited by every college and being the coolest in the best fraternity at Cornell and being a professional athlete and dating girls who could be on magazine covers and then becoming a top young trader on Wall Street and finding an expensive fast car and the perfect girl — but the trade-off is that if you choose this life, you fall down and die at 28. And that would make sense, because that’s a trade that maybe Christopher would make. At the wake, half a mile of old friends waited two hours to comfort my family for a few seconds, and I realized that Christopher had won the sibling rivalry, that his premature death was the stamp that he was the coolest and could never be beaten.

My recurring dream is set twelve years ago, I think, because the old pine tree on the hill in the front lawn still stands, and Chris looks like he did when he captained the high-school swim team. We four children are sitting in the front yard, at the base of the hill, and it’s early October, the trees are just beginning to blush and a brisk wind has taken some golden needles from the old pine above and laid them round us. We’re dressed up, though I don’t know why, and even though the dream has just begun I know we’ve been laughing for a while. We’re awaiting some important arrival, but of what I can’t remember. But then Pat’s face contorts, and Kathleen buries her head in her arms, and I see what they see — a black and wolfishly narrow van with opaque windows silently slouches up the driveway and stops the wind. I turn back to my siblings, and Pat and Kathleen cry, but Chris just stares at the van, motionless and pacific, as the sunset gilds his cheeks with slight regret, and he almost smiles. And then I remember what happened and what the van means, and I hug the grass and the dream ends.

#page#Sleep is actually a relief from the modern affectations requiring that grief be widely advertised for a few days and thereafter confined to a therapist, whose hourly rate, resplendent jargon, and credentialed walls comfort modern man in the belief that his sorrow is managed with the clinical expertise of a Professional — a high priest of our secular age.

Perhaps it signifies lost innocence that I see new shades in the New York skyline. When I lived with Christopher last summer, I would go for runs around the reservoir in Central Park after work, as he would bike around the outer loops, and I thrilled to watch the sun set, as the buildings that hugged the park’s contours would go on humming with life and bright orange light into the night — what glamour, so different from my childhood. Now, I run that same, remindful loop and the pale reds of the skyscrapers are menacing and hateful, as they detain professionals from their families so late — what vanity, so different from my childhood. And the greatest city in the world is polluted as the city that killed my brother.

One of the old Buckley stories passed around the National Review office is about the letter an admiring boy sent Bill, requesting advice for growing up. The preeminent sesquipedalian replied, “Don’t.” I forward his advice to Yale seniors contemplating graduation from college, which, for good and bad, is extended childhood. Children think they want to grow up, but once we do we all want childhood back. Young couples, as soon as they are comfortable, begin babying each other again. And then they get to the business of laying aside their own lives to make new childhoods, to be enjoyed vicariously.

(My adventure into adult life, I should say, has made me an observer of politics. Politics is the depressing combination of the particular vices of childhood and adulthood each, the retention of neither’s virtues. Avoid it.)

After deaths, people become less political and more religious. Some attribute our invention of heaven to weak selfishness. There’s some truth there. (Who wouldn’t be weakened by death in the family?) But belief in heaven can’t be entirely selfish. We invented hell, too, because we would take the heat if we could be with family again. Religious hope — displaced in the modern world by the faith in youth reclaimed in plastic surgery and 30 years of well-pensioned retirement — is the hope that the world of commutes and “professionalism” and taxes and networking is only an interruption to childhood, and that we will be like children again and tumble and hide in the garden under the old pine tree on the hill, and parents will come home from work at dusk to find their nice little pile of kids still whole.

There is enough mystery still — for me, Christopher’s promising smile in that uncanny dream — for us to hope for second childhood.

– Mr. Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute. A version of this piece appeared in the Yale Daily News, after graduated former columnists were asked to write about their lives “newly beyond the gates of Yale.”

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Advantage: Obama

The overhyped political story of the moment is President Obama’s supposed comeback. That story notes that just weeks after his midterm “shellacking” he won congressional approval for a deal on ...
Politics & Policy

Budget War

The 2010 midterm election was a decisive victory for Republicans. From where they now sit — with a strong majority in the House and a much-improved position in the Senate ...
Politics & Policy

What the Whigs Knew

Eva Moskowitz is a traditional, down-the-line Democrat in almost every respect. She’s a Jewish New Yorker from a family of FDR liberals. “My grandmother would turn over in her grave ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Socialism Is Back

‘Socialism” is a word that has vexed thoughtful conservatives since 2008, along with the related terms “Marxist,” “radical,” and the whole nomenclature of leftish extremism. In his painstakingly documented book ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Top Down

The ideology of the American ruling class has done great harm to those classes which do not have the privilege of ruling, and few people are better equipped to analyze ...
The Straggler

Shovel Ready

One of our township’s very few claims to fame, perhaps the only one, arises from its cesspools. The Wikipedia article headed “cesspool” devotes an entire paragraph to Huntington. In numbers ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Defeats that Weren’t I would like to thank Mackubin Thomas Owens and James S. Robbins — the former for reviewing This Time We Win (“The Tet Myth,” December 20) and the ...
The Long View

Federal Health Care Act

Form 17Ai: End of Life/Authorized Life Termination/Difficult Next of Kin Reimbursement Procedures Federal Guidelines for the Health Care Reform Act–authorized “End of Life Counseling” [ELC] procedures: ELC sessions are now fully reimbursable ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

A C.S. LEWIS BODICE-RIPPER, FROM AFRICA In making books there is no end, And little merit. You have read Of world on world that has no friend, In volumes equally as dead; And if I ...
Athwart

Mojo Myth

The president attended church in Hawaii, but he went the day after Christmas, so as not to distract from the other guy’s limelight. Decent of him; the babe only gets ...
Politics & Policy

Operation Rewind

While we like a good party now and again, the fact that House Republicans held no official gala to celebrate their accession to the majority in the new Congress reflects ...

Most Popular

U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More