In late December, my daughter Annie asked me how to repair a poorly-mounted drawing I’d made for her some dozen years ago.
The drawing was my attempt to illustrate a favorite poem of ours, “Days,” by the English poet Philip Larkin.
Its first line snagged me the moment I read it: “What are days for?”
A question child-like in its simplicity. Larkin’s answer is something I’ll leave you to discover, as I tell you the rest of the story.
Annie moved back home to live with her mother and me, her aged parents, in the bucolic college town of New Paltz, NY last September. She was a few months away from becoming a single mom. She’s spent much of her time since moving back nesting in the two rooms that will harbor her and the baby boy, who was due in late January.
My Larkin drawing was a bent twig in her nest. To repair it, I got Annie some glue and she did the rest. In looking it over, I fell back in love with it.
Larkin’s initial answer to his own question sounds hope-filled, a good fit for a newborn’s room: “Days are where we live / They come, they wake us / Time and time over /They are to be happy in / Where can we live but days?”
Then comes the next and final verse:
“Ah, solving that question / Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields.”
Not so hopeful sounding, that. Barbed, you might say. But I love the poem just the same, for its surprising, contrasting moods.
Braced by the memory of the poem, pleased that Annie had saved it all those years, I wandered into the kitchen for a bit of breakfast, taking with me the latest issue of The New Yorker.
There I found an essay called “The Word Shed,” by the Irish writer Colum McCann. It told the story of how McCann’s father, a Dublin newspaperman and author, sat him down one day when the lad was 17 and recited to him, from memory, Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.”
Ah, I said to myself, another father, like myself a newspaperman, using Larkin’s words to make an emotional connection to his child. How cool was that? What strange synchronicity.
Then I read the lines McCann’s father recited to his son that day:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”
Whoa. The warm, buzzy connection I’d begun to sense between me and Annie and McCann and his old man and most especially Larkin crackled and short-circuited before my eyes.
Later, I asked Annie to read the essay. She liked it. We talked about Larkin, how he was no softie, how he took no prisoners in his work and how appealing that was to us both. That final verse from “Days,” she said, about the doctor and the priest running over the field? She said she’d always figured it was about death. That’s where days lead us, she said, and isn’t that what doctors and priests do? Preside over death?
I agreed. As for the line McCann’s dad quoted, we both kind of shrugged and rolled our eyes.
Pretty blunt, I said.
But was it true? Did Annie believe it? Did she believe it of me?
Yeah, she said, with characteristic bluntness. Of course.
I couldn’t argue with her, and I didn’t. How could I argue against something I knew to be so painfully true?
It was about six weeks later — two weeks past her due date — that Annie gave birth to a son, Conor Andrew Kane-Horrigan. It was a difficult birth that put the baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. The ensuing seven days brought plenty of doctors. No priests. But it was in the harrowing, ensuing days spent watching Conor recover that I recognized the limits of Larkin’s truth.
There, amid the beeping and bonking of the NICU’s cold machinery, I saw a mom and a son in their purest, most truthful forms.
He, with eyes that told us everything and nothing about what was going on inside his lovely, shivering body, sightless but staring in what might be either wonder or terror at the air-world he’d been banished to.
She, with eyes full of wonder and worry, trying to tell him by touch and sound that she who had nurtured him within her body was standing next to him now, gazing on him and saying by her presence she wanted only to nurture him all over again.
Will she fuck him up? Of course. And she’ll have plenty of help from Larkin’s doctors and priests and countless others, including her own well-intentioned, anxious parents.
But that’s only part of the truth every parent can easily foresee for his child. There’s more to the story. I hope Conor comes to realize that whatever accidental harm his mom may do him down the years, she will also have done everything in her power to insure her son lives and grows and prospers and becomes a man who one day might realize his life was sprung from a loving heart that will do anything to make a home for him in this fucked-up world we share.
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