I lean toward escapism in my leisure reading, usually some trite design book I can flip through. This time, however, I picked up the story of a mother grieving her 7-year-old son’s sudden death.
You know from the get-go that Carol Smith’s memoir, “Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life,” is going to be sad. You’ll want to keep the Kleenex handy.
I picked up the book because I know Carol is a phenomenal writer. (She’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize seven times.) We’d worked together years ago, at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but until her book came out, I never even knew she had a son.
Carol tells us about her little boy, Christopher, in passages woven between stories about people that she covered as a reporter at the P-I. There’s Seth, a 10-year-old boy with an extremely rare disease that makes him age rapidly; Rose, a pregnant mom whose legs were amputated on an Alaska fishing boat; and John and Billy, both survivors of horrific burns.
“Crossing the River” is devastating in its grief, and it is overflowing with love. Once I picked up the book, I couldn’t stop reading. I stayed up past midnight to finish reading, then went to check on my sleeping children who had, as usual, kicked off their covers.
How do I say this in a non-cheesy way? Carol’s book makes you take a step back from the tedium of raising needy small humans. She reminds us that children are a gift.
“Crossing the River” was published this May, more than 25 years after Christopher’s death. Carol and I recently discussed her heartbreaking loss, as well as sharing memories of her son.
What would you like people to know about Christopher?
Christopher was a joyful, funny, energetic child. He loved trains and T-ball and riding his little bike. And he adored going to school! He was very proud of being in first grade.
He was born with damaged kidneys, so he’d spent a lot of his life in hospitals prior to getting a transplant. Being able to do regular kid stuff, like take a yellow bus to school and play tetherball on a playground with other kids was a huge thrill for him.
One of my favorite memories is of how I used to come back to his room at the hospital after going to the cafeteria, and finding all kinds of paraphernalia in his crib — stethoscopes, watches, pens — things doctors and staff had let him play with. That was the racket he ran from his bed. He could be quite charming!
One of the other things about him is that he was deaf. To communicate, we had to learn sign language together. He taught me as much as I taught him. He was a very creative signer. If he didn’t know a word, he made up a sign, usually a compound of two words. Like one day, he got all excited about going on a ferry and signed “car boat.” Or another time, he wanted to play in the fountain at Seattle Center, so he asked if he could go to the “water dancing.”
He changed how I looked at the world. I think about him all the time, usually when I notice something and think how it would have made him laugh or smile, and that makes me laugh and smile, too.
Reading your book made me think: If something happened to my kids, what memories would I have? I’m not proud of this, but I feel like 99 percent of the time I’m screaming at them over schoolwork or resenting the mess they make, and, yikes, these are not the memories we should be making! What do you want parents reading your book to take away?
If it’s anything, I think it’s this: None of us are perfect parents. I certainly wasn’t, and after he died, I fixated for a while on all the ways I thought I’d failed him. In the book, I call it my “metronome of regret” — all the things we hadn’t been able to do, all the things I wish I could have given him, or spared him.
But over time, that receded. I began to focus instead on how well-loved he was and that he knew it. That got communicated in a million small ways. It didn’t matter that we never got to Disneyland. It mattered that we curled up on his bed at night and read books together. It mattered that we walked around the block and played “I Spy” to practice our sign language. He was 7 when we lost him, but in his short life he loved a lot of people and they loved him back. That was a huge comfort to me after he died.
You write about people doing the awkward backward shuffle — not knowing what to say, when they hear you lost a child. What should people say?
Losing a child is a profoundly isolating experience. It’s hard to talk to people about it because it strikes such a deep nerve in people, especially other parents. People tend to shy away because it’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
But talking about it can be such a gift to the person who lost the child. People worry they won’t say the right thing, but the main thing is just to express how sorry you are. You don’t have to think of comforting things to say because there really aren’t any. The important thing is to listen.
The other thing that helped was when people would ask me about Christopher, or when they’d bring up a memory of their own so I’d know he hadn’t been forgotten. It was wonderful, too, when people sent me photographs, or mentioned that something made them think of him.
You write in “Crossing the River” about putting your work hat on, and people (like me) assuming you were a single, childless professional. You’re sharing Christopher’s story now in a very public way. How has that been?
I was nervous about talking about Christopher in a more public way, but it’s turned out to be a good thing. When I began talking more about my own loss, I also heard from others about theirs and that’s not only widened my community, but also my understanding of what other people have gone through.
We live in a very stoic culture, where people tend not to share these things, but I think sharing our stories is how we build compassion and empathy. And it’s just been nice to feel like more people have had a chance to know Christopher a little bit.
I read the prologue of the book at a reading in New York City last year and afterwards, a woman who had been in the audience came up to me and said, “Christopher is in all our hearts now.” That was such a beautiful thing for me to hear. I like to think it’s true.
“Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life,” by Carol Smith, Abrams Press, May 2021; $26, hardcover.
This story was first published on June 16, 2021.