even if they are not the great story of our world



When little, there was a scene in The Land Before Time I always tried to avoid. I’d get up and go to the bathroom, or seek food, or just look out the window and think really hard of a song or jingle. Sometimes, though, depending on the company, people would notice and comment and pull me back to the movie, and I’d have to watch.

The scene is this one:

Little Foot, depressed over his mother’s death, lies morose and unmoving. Food is scarce; dinosaurs are dying, and this baby pterodactyl receives from his mother a bright, perfect berry to eat in this dark, dank, hungry world. And he is about to do so, but he sees the miserably sad Little Foot and offers the berry to him instead.

And it wrecks me.

It always has. Ever since I first saw the movie I cry during this scene. I tried to describe it to people, as a tween or teenager requested for a class or something to list the saddest things (and why, always the and why), as “unacknowledged gifts” or “kindness ignored” or something. But I realized two days ago that that’s not it.

It’s sympathy.

I was doing well, serving as the calm, steady, stream-of-pleasant-conversation accompaniment to my father’s completely understandable despair at moving my mom into a home. I gave him the space he needed to feel awful elsewhere as I led Mom around, pointed things out, tried to engage her. I was doing okay.

And then, during lunch, as my quiet and often completely oblivious mother recovered herself enough to raise an eyebrow at the angry demented ravings of her fellow patients, my Slack app pinged and I opened it. Because she was still eating. Because my boss says the mundane requirements of work helped her do this same thing years ago. Because I figured it was someone needing something I could give — editing, someone’s contact information, a deadline, whatever.

But no. People wanted to tell me — bothered to PM me to tell me — that they were sorry for me and wished me the best.

And just like that my careful control shattered, and I launched into a long vague ramble about allergies and errant eyelashes to my mom to explain why my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking.

She believed me because she has Alzheimer’s. Or maybe stopped registering the fact of my face fast enough for it not to even matter, I don’t know. But I was a mess. Because my workplace doesn’t use Slack. Too much fear of technology there. I use it to chat with people I game with, most of whom I’ve never actually met. Many of whom I’ve sniped pettily at over the years. When I get the pings I act, to third parties, like something important might have happened — and it’s true, sometimes someone really is in need of a connection or advice or something — but in truth it’s likely nothing, just a gif or a meme. I’m no one to these people. And they still reached out to say they were sorry.

Then, after lunch, my mother — who can no longer read — read my shirt. Out loud. My Thane shirt, which I had packed because it folded up small. I didn’t think she could or would read it. “I’ll meet you across the sea,” she said slowly, sounding out the words. Not even capable of being curious as to their meaning anymore. Just shaping them on her lips.

Crying in silent bathrooms is almost as bad as crying in public. It’s too quiet; everyone can hear you on the other side of the door. So you can let your makeup go to hell, snot everywhere, but you can’t breathe, lest the air rake across your vocal chords and wring the sobs from you loud and clear. You have to hold your breath, while water pours from your body and air shrieks to get out. It’s like trying to keep yourself from throwing up, mid-convulsion. It hurts.

Pterodactyls, man. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.


Maybe it’s the ratio of orderly narrative to asides like this that make me willing to listen to them. Too much and I balk at preachiness; too little and it’s just another tale. But I told you, I chose this author to read during this trip for a reason.

“It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk in a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.”


I first read Name of the Wind when my part of the country, and myself with it, was in pretty bad economic shape. Shops boarded up everywhere. Everyone employed still basking in that nervous grateful paycheck glow. People were inching toward okay elsewhere, but we were slow to recover. Even after a reread in more stable times, NotW is still anchored in that reality for me. Not just the talk of Kvothe’s poverty, though — it’s everything. The dark woods. The dank autumn. The despair of the villagers; the vexing hopelessness of his attachment to Denna. The crushed lute.

It’s all projection, I know. Associations unique to my particular experience of the book. But I was also, then as now, trying to drown in the text, to escape life events — at that time, my mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and they warned us what would happen when you put someone with dementia under general anesthesia. 

Now, to drown out the fallout from that (even if only until she wakes up), I am reading Children of Earth and Sky, and wondering if it, too, will color my perception of this time. Even only a few chapters in, we are already firmly esconced in a world where everyone utters heavy sighs and regrets lost miracles of design, decency and direction in life. There are just so many evils that can befall you, we are told. Everything so damnably fragile. So many misfortunes lurking. I know, because this is why I chose this book and this author to read on this trip, that we will get to the “but not always” part. Or the “but even so” part. But I am used, in pacing, for that reassurance to come much sooner. I keep waiting for the grace.

I wish it would hurry up.