Despite longing to be published and therefore to be able to call myself an author and a writer, I wouldn’t say that I am biased towards books. Easily it could be said that I love them, but I also love television and movies and computer media. For every Harry Potter I’ve read, I’ve watched twice as many Star Wars and Doctor Who’s and played as many Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect‘s or Fallout’s. Each tell their stories -and they are excellent tales- well. So, book or movie or game, I harbor no great preference for one medium over another.
Why then not a screenwriter? Why not a video game writer? Why a novelist? Why chose the one medium that is seemingly the least relevant in today’s high-tech, media-dominated world? Why chose the medium that many pundits cite as becoming rapidly obsolete and that is ultimately doomed? Why, indeed.
I’ve read books all my life. My parents read to me as a child and I still remember some of my favorite books: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the Dr. Suess books, Richard Scary, the Bernstein Bears. As a teen I read Judy Bloom and then adult fiction as I grew older. I loved science- fiction and fantasy novels. I could not read enough of them. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, I never managed to read what most consider to be the most influential -and the perennially favorite- fantasy novel of all time: The Lord of the Rings. I knew of it and roughly understood the storyline, but I’d never found the time to read it. Maybe it was the sheer size or scope of it which daunted me, but I’d read equally dense series. If I could read Robert Jordon’s Wheel of Time series or the Dune sextology, surely I could read Tolkien’s work. But I didn’t. Not until the winter of 2000, that is. That was the year I went to ‘Mordor’ in this world.
Terminal illness has a way of placing all of your life into a shadowy limbo. For the afflicted, normal life is put on hold, as one struggles to survive or comes to accept ones impending mortality, like a swimmer slowly drowning and either struggling for that breath of salvation and life or facing that the surface will never be breached and settling into the welcoming embrace of oblivion. For those loved ones nearest to the afflicted, life becomes a stereoscopic collection of sepia-toned snapshots of day to day life. We live in reality, but it has no true depth, no life, no color. It is simply the illusion of a normal life, but is flat when viewed up close. One must face not only the death of the loved one, but also the death of all things. For those living the longest vigil -and terminal illness of any sort is an eternity of emptiness- we have nothing we can do but face death. We are not dying in body -though part of us is indeed dying- so we can only watch as something we love passes away from us irrevocably, something that seemed permanent and eternal becomes fragile and ephemeral.
In the fall of 2000, my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. For those that knew my mother, she was a forceful, vibrant woman. My friends from high school and college cherished her. She was a mother to all, “Mama B”. There was never anyone I introduced her to that did not instantly love and appreciate her. Outside of my friends, she was a librarian and the pioneer for a children’s program at the local Air Force base. It was her ‘Storytimes’ that brought her the greatest joy in life and I am sure inspired a generation of children from military families. She was full of light and life and as the chemotherapy ate away at her, she lost a tiny bit of her heart and soul with each drip-drop-drip of the IV.
In late-December, shortly after our last Christmas together, she was hospitalized after going into acute distress and lapsed into a coma. The attending doctor informed us she was unlikely to survive through the week, let alone into the New Year. All treatment options had since been abandoned, so the cancer was left to slowly devour her, to consume her. All that seemed to be keeping her alive was machines. Her frail, shrunken form could now only be filled with sickness and suffering and our family made the decision to aid her on her way by removing the life support we felt was sustaining her but prolonging her misery.
But she was not quite ready. Even without life support, she carried on. For nearly three more months, she fought to stay alive or was simply too stubborn to let go. Many have called me stubborn and I proudly claim that I inherited it from my beloved mother. We will never know what kept her alive or why, but it was three months we could never truly regret. On February 17th, 2001, we brought my mother home from the hospital so she could be at home at last. On the morning of the 19th, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., she passed away.
For those longest three months of my life -and I’m sure the life of my father and grandmother as well- we held a bedside vigil. Each of us grieved and suffered in our own way: the loss of a child before her time, the death of a wife and a love cherished above all others, the passing of a mother and friend. Those three months -twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week- there was always someone with her.
Quite often, all three of us -plus countless friends, family and colleagues- would be in attendance, watching her silent form. However, we still had to work and eat and bathe. Only one of us was allowed to sleep in the hospital in my mother’s room -and by default this was my father- so I slept at home, as well as maintaining my job, so I was not always in attendance. But my father had his own duties outside of the hospital to which he was forced to attend to and I mandated that he sleep at home some nights. I also made the same demands of my grandmother.
The death of a parent is a traumatic -but ultimately natural- thing. I may not have intellectually understood that then, but I recognize it now. At the time, some part of me recognized this and also recognized how unnatural the ordeal my father and grandmother must be going through, so I made sure that they had some respite from it. Many nights, I would sit alone with my mother, savoring the intimate nature of being sole guardian, yet also acutely feeling the loss and loneliness it incurred.
It was during these long evenings and longer nights that I first read The Lord of the Rings. I had read The Hobbit earlier in the year, purely by coincidence, and owned a paperback collection of the novels for some time, so I knew the tale of Bilbo Baggins and of his invisibility ring and it seemed an opportune time to read the trilogy novels. So for many an hour I would sit reading by my mother’s side, absorbed in the story of the One True Ring, of its many Bearers, and of the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth.
It would be easy to say that The Lord of the Rings provided me with an escape from a horrible and soul-crushing time in my life. However, this would not be true. Indeed, the living death of my mother was horrible beyond rational thought and no soul can pass through such an experience unblemished, but those last days -as terrible and testing as they were- were gifts my family had been given. They were assuredly dark gifts, but still days stolen from fate and given to us to allow us precious hours with a person we loved and honored.
No, Tolkien’s work was instead a symbolic framework for the experience I was having. The road we all walked, even though we walked it with each other, was always and universally a lonely one. Each of us carried our own burdens, our own fears, our own sadness. And obviously, the journey was very dark and we always knew it would end in sorrow. But we drew comfort and strength from each other to find faith and hope in a time filled with darkness and hopelessness.
This was not so unlike the tale of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring. As I read about their adventure -how they dealt with their losses and their own sorrows and fears- I was able to better come to terms with what I was going through. It gave me the intellectual and emotional freedom and detachment to find answers to my mother’s suffering and dying, to see past the horror and the pain and view her passing as a transition and her strength and will-to-live as ultimately heroic and moving. Like Samwise Gamgee, I watched my mother bear her terrible burden, her ‘Ring’, pursued by an implacable and invincible-seeming foe until finally she was able to be relieved of it and pass -like Frodo- unto the her own Grey Shores.
This is why I love books. This is consequently why -if ever asked- I would say that my favorite books, the books I love most, would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not because I am a geek at heart nor because I love fantasy literature, but because they transformed me, brought me courage and faith in a time where little of either could easily be found. These books gave me strength so that I could then share that strength with my father and my grandmother.
Books are transformative like no other medium. They not only can educate and entertain, but also inspire, enlighten and elevate us. They involve and engage us in a way that movies rarely achieve and television can only aspire to. Literature is the beating heart of our civilization, the ballad of our dreams and the funerary march of our sorrows. The greatest dreamers, philosophers, educators and leaders of our day will never cite their inspiration as a movie. Governments and ways of life do not spring into being nor fall into ruin because of a television show. Literature is a beacon for our minds and our souls. Literature allowed me to walk deep into the dark heart of my Mordor and re-emerge into the light. Of all of the things I could have ultimately chosen to do in life -or at least to aspire to- the act of sharing words and ideas and dreams with others seems like one of the noblest of callings.
~dedicated to the loving memory of Mary Louise ‘Mama B.’ Burnside