Recently I read my eight-year-old son Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, when I was eight. My mother read it to me. Actually, she read most of it to me, then she read ahead and learned what was in store and returned it to the library. I remember being upset by this, though I don’t recall how she explained her decision. She must have said something like, It’s really sad. But by that point in my childhood my father had been dead two years, so why shield me from a fictional tragedy? How sad could a made-up story be?
The story is about two ten-year-olds, a boy named Jess and a girl named Leslie, who become best friends and create an imaginary world called Terabithia in a patch of forest that they enter by swinging on a rope across a creek. It’s their secret haven, and they go there often. They build a castle, and Leslie, who’s well read and more worldly than Jess, tells stories that make the place feel alive and magical. Truth be told, reading it as an adult, the magic felt a little lackluster; I saw two kids huddled in a makeshift lean-to, one of them recounting the plots of books she’d read. But I suspected Alex was envisioning an enchanted world, just as I had when hearing the story at his age.
I read most of the book to him during a snowy afternoon over spring break. I read curled on the couch in our family room while Alex worked at his Lego table, because he listens better if his hands are occupied. We were in the middle of a spring storm, and the two of us—trapped inside for the day, and deep in a good book—were in our own haven. I knew it, even if Alex didn’t. It won’t be long before he outgrows being read to, but for now, when I’ve found a story that hooks him, he’ll ask for another chapter and another, which is what happened with Bridge to Terabithia.
We read until the rain came. Not in our world—we were still encased in a heavy, wet snowfall—but in the book. It rained for days, which meant, of course, that the creek was rising. The kids performed a ceremony asking the spirits of the forest to lift the evil spell causing the deluge, then they ran home soaked and happy. But Jess went to bed feeling afraid. He wanted to wait until the creek settled before going back to Terabithia, but he was ashamed of his fear of the water and didn’t know how to tell Leslie, who was fearless and would want to cross, Jess knew, “no matter how high the creek came.”
I stopped reading. It was time for a break anyway, and I was glad for it because I could see what was coming and suddenly wondered why I’d thought it a good idea to read Alex this story when I’d known from the start that it wasn’t going to end well. Alex suspected too. He said, “This is actually a pretty good book. But is she going to fall in the water?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, though I was pretty sure.
I told him we’d finish the book that night, before bed. Then I toyed with the idea of returning it to the library. An unfinished story probably wouldn’t upset Alex as much as it had upset me at his age. He was easily distractible. Maybe reading him the ending would be more upsetting than not reading it. No, of course I had to read it. I’d started it, and if I abandoned it now I might be turning the half-reading of this book into a family tradition, which seemed absurd. I didn’t want to do as my mother had done. I had to finish. But I felt unsettled.
Why had I started it? That was the question nagging me now. Why had I snatched the book up so eagerly when I saw it on display at the library? Was I hoping to school my son in grief? In survival? I’d been reading to him for years, often novels that were meant for kids a little older than Alex was when I read them to him. And often, come to think of it, the books I read had to do with surviving on one’s own. I’d read him The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White, about a mute trumpet swan that leaves his family and makes his way in the world with, ridiculously, an actual trumpet. I’d read My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, about a boy who runs away from home and lives on his own for a year in a hollowed-out tree. Alex enjoyed these books, and I did. I read them for our entertainment, but I think I also read them to say: Learn books. Learn to go to them when you need them. They will teach you how to navigate your way through life. You can experience loneliness before it hits you; you can feel hunger; you can know grief. You can prepare yourself.
I had not been prepared for my father’s death, though maybe I should have been. He had cancer; he’d moved from our house into the hospital. I don’t recall anyone in my family voicing the likely outcome, but a neighbor kid did. He was the older brother of a friend of mine. He straddled a bicycle in our driveway and said something like: “Our mom said your dad’s not coming home. He’s going to die.”
And I said, “No he’s not.”
I was six, so I don’t really know what was going on within me when I said this. I think I believed the kid was a jerk, and was wrong. I think I burned with embarrassment—I didn’t like this new type of attention—and also anger. I hated him for what he’d said, and for making me aware of another layer of universe: there was my world, and then there was the more worrisome one above it, where the adults lived and talked and knew things.
Soon after that incident, my mother, siblings and I went to stay with my parents’ best friends. They lived in a large pink Victorian with lots of rooms. We went because, with four young kids, my mother needed help. I was six, my sisters four and two, my brother still a newborn. My parents’ friends had four daughters. The youngest was a year or two older than me, and the oldest must have been in her teens. Surely, they understood what was happening, but they said nothing. We played as usual. We waited, not knowing we were waiting, until my mother took me into one of the girls’ bedrooms one morning, pulled me onto her lap and told me my father was gone.
I think I cried. Whenever I recall it now, I cry. But I also recall the ordinariness of the day, how afterward I went to another bedroom where, for some reason, all the kids had gathered. One of the older girls was playing with a pin and pricked herself, and a drop of blood bloomed on her fingertip. It was perfectly round, and looked like the top of one of those pins with little colored balls for heads. The world was in focus in a way it hadn’t been before. My body understood that everything had changed, that the world was different now. On the outside I looked the same, and everything around me was the same, only sharper. I could see more clearly, every little detail, but I felt far removed. As if I’d left my world and was looking in on it now from some other place—not the adult world, I was too young, but a kind of purgatory between childhood and adulthood, full of stunning, ripping truths. This was grief, I guess.
How could I have prepared for it? How could someone have prepared me? I’m not sure anyone could have. Over the years, I’ve explored those moments in my writing—the boy in the driveway and his cruel prediction, the days we spent with our friends. I’ve worked my memories into scenes, sometimes spun them into fiction. Because it’s ready material, but also, there’s something else happening when I return to my worst, most confusing memories, when I call them forth with a pen. It’s not preparing, because of course you can’t prepare for something that’s already happened, but maybe it’s sort of like preparing in reverse. Giving shape to the past. Turning it into something that exists outside myself, a story, bringing it into focus again and again with hopes of making sense of it.
Though I’d intended to, I didn’t read Alex the end of Terabithia that night. I opened it, but while he was brushing his teeth, I peeked at the last line of the next chapter and saw for sure that Leslie was going to die, and found I just couldn’t.
For years, I’d thought it wrong that my mother had returned this book without reading me the ending; it was one of childhood’s indignities that I carried for too long. She was trying to spare me sadness; this had been her way of protecting me. But also, I understood now, she may have been sparing herself from having to read the sad parts aloud.
I told Alex that on second thought, my throat hurt from all the reading I’d done that afternoon. I handed him one of his comics to read on his own and told him we’d finish Terabithia in the morning.
In bed, I read the last few chapters by myself, and cried. My mother was right—it is a sad story. She’d told me this when I was eight, and, ironically, she’d said it again just a few days ago, when we were talking on the phone. Alex had spent the afternoon with her; she’d been filling me in on their time together, and she’d said, “He told me you’re reading him Bridge to Terabithia.”
“Yes,” I’d said, feeling something inside me prickle. I knew what was coming.
“You know that’s a really sad book, right?”
“I know,” I’d said, annoyed.
I was annoyed because she was suggesting, with her question, that I shouldn’t be reading it to him; that her avoidance of sad stories should be my own. But also, she was bringing us close to a conversation about the past, and I’d given her the opening for it by checking out the book instead of walking by it in the library. Maybe, knowing there was a chance Alex would mention we were reading it, I’d done it on purpose. As a kind of dare. But now that I was on the edge of it, I couldn’t take us there. I passed. We moved on to talking about something else. I didn’t ask if she remembered not reading me the ending; I didn’t ask what she’d felt reading the ending on her own. Partly I didn’t bother because I had a feeling she wouldn’t remember. Yes, she’d remembered the book, but I didn’t think she would recall its early return to the library, or that I’d been upset by it. I could hear her saying, Really? I don’t remember that at all. It’s a line my siblings and I quote a lot, and we laugh.
But also, I didn’t bring it up because talking about the past, revisiting it comfortably together, isn’t a thing we do. I once read a memoir, Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup. For the first six months after her husband died, Braestrup and her four children cried all the time. They cried while doing the things that made up their days, while vacuuming, bicycling, coloring with crayons. They let grief come and go as it pleased. I don’t recall us doing this in my family. It’s possible we did, and I just don’t remember. But I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think we cried openly or collectively.
After my dad died, we left our friends’ house and went back home. There was a funeral, which I remember only vaguely. Soon after, my mother sold our house and we moved to a new town. The move happened to put us closer to our friends and their pink house, and for years we celebrated holidays with them—the first night of Hanukkah at their place, Christmas Eve at ours. These gatherings were fun; all us kids got along well, and I doubt we thought much about my father’s absence. It occurs to me now, though, that that absence must have been huge for the adults. Especially my mother. They’d gone from being two couples sharing meals together to a couple plus a widow.
My siblings and I got used to our new house and new school. In this new life, we’d never had a dad, and we barely remembered the one we’d known in our old life. Or maybe I remembered. I was the oldest, after all, and most likely had memories to bring along. But I don’t recall bringing them, and the memories I have now are only wisps—a glimpse of my father standing by the sliding glass door in the kitchen of our old house, him walking me down a dimly lit hallway to visit his office at the university where he taught, him handing me some pipe cleaners to bend into shapes.
Maybe we could have done more to bring him with us. Maybe if we’d cried together, talked about him, pooled our memories, plastered our new house with pictures that included him, toasted his memory at those holiday dinners, screamed furiously over how unfair it was that he was so suddenly gone—
If those things, then what? Maybe now, it would be easier to talk about the past. Maybe it would seem less like a place we couldn’t reach. Instead, we left my father behind. He’d left us first, of course, but then—we left him. We left him no bridge to cross. That’s how it seemed.
I did manage to read Alex the end of Bridge to Terabithia the next day, though not without my face scrunching up and my voice hitting a squeaky pitch, which probably undercut the sadness for him. He didn’t cry, which might also have had to do with the fact that he was otherwise occupied while I read, writing something at his Lego table. Outside, the sun was out again, and the snow on our roof melted fast and ran through the gutter. It provided a gurgling backdrop for the final chapters. I didn’t ask Alex what he was writing—I had high hopes that he was writing about the story, listening and processing, maybe drafting an alternative ending. Later, though, when I peeked at the sheet of paper he’d left on his table, I saw he’d been writing a multiple-choice quiz for his dad to fill out when he got home:
Alex will crush you in a Star Wars battle? (yes or no)
You will crush Alex in the battle? (yes or no)
What are we having for dinner? (burgers, pasta, other)
What side will we have? (fries, meatballs, other) etc.
He’d been listening, but also thinking about his dad, and dinner. I knew he’d been listening because he’d looked up once to say, “Wait, she really died?”
He seemed perplexed more than sad, and it was perplexing. Alex and I had encountered death together in books before; I’d read him the first several Harry Potters over the summer, but this wasn’t the same as a wizard dying at the hands of Voldemort. It wasn’t death by sorcery, or even death by adventure. Not really. Instead, the death in Bridge to Terabithia is simple and baffling and real. A girl is playing and falls and hits her head and drowns. And her friend Jess has to make sense of it.
Truthfully, I felt a little disappointed that Alex hadn’t cried. I’d wanted him to feel Leslie’s death, I’d wanted us to grieve together, and I’d wanted to comfort him. Maybe these are twisted desires—wishing grief on my child; wanting to push him into it, then pull him out. When I read those final chapters, I was crying for Leslie and Jess, but I was also crying for myself, for the girl who was lost when I lost my dad. Maybe she was who I wanted to comfort; maybe I’d been reading to her all along. Maybe she needed the stories more than Alex did. Probably, this is true. When I cried during the end of Terabithia, my tears came from my own well of loss. Alex doesn’t have a well to pull from yet, and why make him drink from mine?
Maybe my desire for him to know loss is akin to the way I wish sometimes he could know poverty and hunger without him having to truly experience these things. I want him to learn empathy, and gratitude. I want him to know what it feels like to lose someone, and I want him to never, ever lose anyone. But I can’t prepare him for loss, or grief. I can’t inoculate him. Sure, I can read him sad story after sad story, but when he finds himself in his own it will be, I suspect, like none he’s ever heard before.
When Jess is in Terabithia saying goodbye—at this point he’s accepted that Leslie’s gone, and he and his parents have paid respects to Leslie’s family, and there’s even been mention of cremation—there’s a moment when he hears a voice call out to him for help. It’s his little sister, May Belle; she’s gotten herself stuck on a log, halfway across the creek. Jess runs to her rescue. But before he gets there, when May Belle is still calling to him, Alex’s face lit up. “It’s Leslie!” he said. He thought the twist was going to be that she wasn’t dead after all but hiding in Terabithia. Or she’d been reborn there, or something along those lines. Books have taught him this kind of magic.
But it wasn’t her; she truly was gone.
“I really thought that was Leslie,” Alex said to me the next day, and then a time or two in the days that followed, which made me understand that even though he hadn’t shed any tears, he’d been there with those kids in Terabithia, he’d entered their world, and he’d hoped for a happier ending.