Last week I was up in L.A. to do a podcast with the wonderful Julia Harris Walker for her project on women in tech, The Other 50 Percent. I’m clearly not a woman. But I do work some in tech. And I promise it’s relevant. I had a blast.
While I was up there I had the chance to attend a reading of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s an absolutely beautiful novel that just debuted at #1 on the NYT Best Seller List. And George is an amazingly generous talent who makes me want to quit writing altogether because he’s proof of life on planets far outside my creative reach.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a story of the spiritual world Abraham Lincoln encounters one night while visiting his son Willie’s grave in the days after his passing. It reminded me of one of the first things I wrote on this site, back when I’m pretty sure my wife was the only one reading it. And only because I made here.
I figured I’d share it again. I hope you like it.
From April, 2015:
In February of 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son William Wallace Lincoln died at the age of 11. They called him Willie. And he was just like his father. Somewhere between the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Lincoln lost and buried a child. His fragile wife Mary locked herself away from her husband and other young son Tad, who was also gravely ill with the same Typhoid that took Willie. The President continued on as head of state and Commander in Chief through a personal darkness that continued through the war.
Abraham, standing over his son,“My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
It was hard to have him die.
During my last deployment to Iraq I wandered into a similar darkness. A few weeks after I waved goodbye to him on the tarmac in Coronado, my middle son, then two and a half, stopped talking. He fell into a listless, unresponsive state, barely aware of his surroundings. Two months into the deployment, he was diagnosed with severe autism. My wife emailed me the news. I read it at my desk in the operations center of the task force I was attached to. Shortly after, my Commanding Officer sent me home for three weeks to be with my family to save what was left of us.
Even with that break, the pressure was too much. I went back to war. And when I finally returned home, I was a shell. Hollow. Listless. Numb.
My boy never really came back. And neither did I. Not for a long time.
I can make few comparisons between myself and Abraham Lincoln. I only aim to provide context for our analogous pain. Lincoln had not the luxury of time nor relief from responsibility-those three pure weeks of grief and pain that I had. I don’t know if he was broken like me on the inside. But he kept on.
“There sat the man, with a burden on his brain at which the world marvels — bent now with the load at both heart and brain.” Nathanial Parker wrote.
He soldiered forth for three more years of death, doubt and crisis, eventually delivering our nation from its own destruction, before realizing his own.
History gets the facts right most of the time. It sometimes gets the motivation or strategy of its cast of characters right too. It rarely remembers their humanity though. It tells us that FDR had been paralyzed by illness from the waist down and served his presidency from a wheel chair. But it does a lesser job to tell us what he was feeling when, at 39, he suddenly lost the ability to do most things that he had been able to do his whole life. And what dread and regret he felt in the quiet times when he remembered what he once was. It tells us George Washington cast off the yoke of British imperialism in the name of liberty. But says much less about the sleepless nights he faced as the full weight of his actions sank in when the future had not yet been written into our textbooks.
History tells us that between 1861 and 1865, 600,000 men lost their lives to combat or disease while Abraham Lincoln, through force of will and genius preserved the union and eradicated slavery in America. It tells us less about the broken heart that beat in his chest while he did it.
A few weeks before he was assassinated, shortly after Lee’s surrender, he described a dream that he had to an associate. Abraham had dreamed that he saw a funeral in the White House and had assumed it was his own.
History uses that story to illustrate a sort of premonition or acceptance Abraham had to his own resigned fate. I know the truth too well though. In some far less glorious or meaningful way, I lived it. The dream was the first of many sleepless nights that John Wilkes booth spared him as the stress of crisis and personal loss drained from his conscience. A darkness, for a time, worse than death.
We’ve asked enough times, “what if he lived?” for our sake. But I can’t stop asking it for his.