I am so excited to spend much of this week in a workshop at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop with author Emily Rapp. Her book, The Still Point of the Turning World, was published in March 2013, and reading it (twice) literally changed my life. I was as inspired by her parenting as I was by her writing, and I threw myself into both my own writing and my family with renewed vigor. Here’s a review I wrote of the book when it first came out that was never published.
Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World is a tearjerker from the first paragraph, when she writes, “This is a love story, which, like all great love stories, is ultimately a story of loss. On January 10, 2011, my husband, Rick, and I received the worst possible news: that our son, Ronan, then nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare, progressive and always fatal condition with no treatment and no cure.”
For some, the story might be over as soon as it started. But Rapp transcends the heartbreaking sadness to render on the page an elegy so honest and probing, that you have no choice but to immerse yourself in her words. This is a powerful memoir, whose potency derives both from the excruciating subject matter and also from Rapp’s articulate and poetic writing, and her impressive intelligence and curiosity.
With Ronan’s diagnosis comes a framework that is every parent’s worst nightmare. Tay-Sachs babies go blind, deaf, and become paralyzed. Most die before age three. Parenting a terminally ill child changes Rapp’s paradigm. Her dreadful situation gives rise to profound insights—she writes that “Ronan taught me that children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.”
Ronan’s diagnosis and deteriorating condition force Rapp to shed her ego as she grapples with the horror of losing her child. Her writing, she declares, is her lifeline. She writes tenaciously and without pathos: “It wasn’t consolation I needed or desired, but the tools to walk through this fire without being consumed by it.”
It’s understandable that Rapp, a former Fulbright scholar, graduate of Harvard Divinity School and professor of creative writing, unearths some of those “tools” in the books of others. She turns to philosophers and writers who explore the concepts of grief, fleeting time, life, and death. She quotes extensively from Mary Shelley, Pablo Neruda, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and many others. And then she expertly intertwines the heartbreaking story of Ronan’s decline with her own observations and theirs.
In doing so, Rapp transcends clichés and emerges with a self-imposed mandate to live a big life, in part because her son never had the choice of what kind of life he would live.
That includes writing about the tragedy; going out into the world instead of closing herself up. With Ronan on her lap, she plumbs her intellect and crafts Ronan’s myth, which she is determined to share with the world. She writes: “I propped him against my chest and circled my arms around him to get to the keyboard on my laptop. I stared at him and tickled him and kissed him and wished that my words, anything, could save him. But no, writing would not save Ronan. But, I thought, it might save me.”
Rapp avoids turning her situation into a caricature of grief. She refuses to conform to social expectations of how a grieving mother should act, and spinning elegant insight from her experience. Being forced into the present provides an opportunity for Rapp to explore the concepts of luck, value, and achievement. The lesson for her is “not just about how to be a mother but how to be human.”
And she offers an antidote to overachieving “Tiger Mothers” who see their children as projects to mold into prescribed definitions of success. Rapp dubs herself and other parents of terminally ill children as “Dragon Mothers” whose love for their progeny is not predicated on tangible benchmarks or milestones.
She writes: “Who counts in this world and how much? Who does the deciding? Who has “potential” (that is, value) and who does not?” These are big questions for all people—parents or not. In parenting Ronan through his decline, Rapp learns that “What did matter was love, given freely and without agenda or expectation. I loved Ronan, this unique person, this human being, without thought to what it might lead to for me, what it might say about me, or what it made others think about me. It didn’t matter if people thought the situation was tragic or the saddest thing in the world, or they thought I’d gone wild with grief or become a mean and manic bitch. So what? This was my son, my baby, my ‘handful of earth,’ sitting on my lap.”
Rapp loves her son fiercely, but discovers “that love would not chain him. There was nothing expected of him or for him. In that love he was free.”
Ultimately, The Still Point of the Turning World is a manifesto to be present and true. It’s a declaration of loyalty and love, and it addresses universal themes we humans grapple with daily: how to survive tragedy, the frailty of life, the power of love, and the randomness of the world. It is also the best—and only—parenting book out there.
Rapp’s experience and her eloquent story telling provides comforting evidence that it is possible to not only survive your worst nightmare but to emerge with a full heart, ready to love again. Although it is ostensibly a book about death, The Still Point of the Turning World will endure as a treatise on how to live and love. Put another way: how to be a parent.