How do you cope with the death of your child? How do you capture the ungraspable in words? I can hardly imagine either, but reading Sue Brown’s account of the life and death of her son Craig, I felt that every single word she put down on the page was an act of heroism.
The Twinkling of an Eye chronicles the years that Craig’s family shared with the boy, focusing on the last months of his life when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour which eventually caused his death just after his thirteenth birthday in 2011. With this book, Craig’s mother faces the events of this excruciatingly painful time with unflinching honesty. She pays tribute to a life cut short, but lived passionately, and admits: “I have found myself recalling times in my personal life – and career as a physiotherapist – of which I am not proud.”
Each chapter of The Twinkling of an Eye is preceded by an epigraph from different works of literature. The one which struck me is a quote from Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” Indeed, but none of us is ready for the moment the “beast” moves into our vicinity.
When Craig’s health began deteriorating, all the worrying symptoms could be easily explained by non-life-threatening conditions. Most alarming was the boy’s changing personality. When school friends started to complain about his uncharacteristically bullying behaviour, the family was worried that they had a “delinquent teenager in the making” on their hands. Distressed about her son’s – and her own – lack of empathy in the situation at the time, Brown writes: “Later I will ache at my son’s confusion and hurt, and my total lack of understanding as his mother.”
The first brain scans reveal the real reason for all of Craig’s strange symptoms. The wish is to “buttress the horror from spilling into what could be the last day of pretend normality.” The reality of the situation begins to sink in as the doctor “mentions two possible names, both of which my own brain stubbornly refuses to register. It hears, clings to, only the ‘hopefully benign’ bit at the end.” An operation is inevitable. Another follows. Craig and his family battle and endure, but their world becomes completely unrecognisable to them all. Everything changes and there is no way back “to a time when I could worry within safe limits, or resume the life that we knew.” There is hope and despair, agony and fury, desolation and exhaustion, frustration and bravery. And the moment when Craig says out loud, “I think I am dying.”
Understandably, Brown is confronted with a spiritual challenge: “My faith is thin ice that might crack beneath the weight of my fear for my child”, she confesses, but finds a way to carry on. A friend suggests that Craig and the family “did not deserve this”, but Brown wonders whether anyone ever does.
This is not an easy read. It is impossible to witness the soul-crushing experiences Brown describes with dry eyes. Just as it is impossible to remain untouched by the acts of tenderness and kindness she remembers. Many people do not know how to react to the news which becomes more terrifying with nearly every visit to the doctor, but those who find a soothing word or gesture at the right time become invaluable. Brown is “surprised at the comfort that the presence of all these people, with all the love they hold for Craig and for us, brings” and feels “gently held”.
No matter how many books are written, how much wisdom gathered in them, there are no manuals on how to deal with these most intimate and personal losses in life. Each path is individual, even if many of us recognise the occasional signpost along the way. Nothing can prepare you before you embark on this journey. But books written by others who had suffered loss bring relief to Brown in her hour of need and she finds her own writing “profoundly healing”. I can imagine that readers will recognise many of their own truths in her book.
Craig was a boy full of energy, ideas, dreams and ambitions. Those who knew him felt that he was destined for a special life. Nobody could have predicted that he would have to face the most outrageous odds: “A one-in-a-billion, sick kind of fame so unlike the types he had fancied for himself. Still, I have the sense that walking this unchosen path with his courage and humour has perhaps been the greatest achievement imaginable.”
The Twinkling of an Eye ends with a deeply moving tribute to Craig by his older sister Meg. She writes about the “Craig-shaped hole by which our family feels different.” That hole can never be filled, but through the book Craig’s memory will not only be kept alive by those who knew and loved him, but also by the many readers who will allow the boy’s recorded effervescence and bravery to settle in their hearts.
The Twinkling of an Eye: A mother’s journey
by Sue Brown
Human & Rousseau, 2017
First published in the Cape Times on 28 July 2017.