From the beginning, I’d found Witness, a book of exquisitely written essays, deeply moving. The book begins with Smith and his wife grappling with the news that their unborn child has a hole in his heart.
It’s a worst nightmare beginning. But things turn out okay. The child is born. The child thrives. The child teaches the parents so much about themselves. And it is with great tenderness that Smith ferries us through his journey with his son, showing us not just the microcosm of their lives but the macrocosm of our world at large–how all those that will and have done evil were once babies, how all those who are heroic and all those who make bad choices were once babies.
How our own babyhood lives within us still, experienced once again through the lives of our children.
So as I picked up the book late this afternoon, I expected it would end in a lovely way but what I did not expect was the sense of catharsis it would provide me. The title essay, “Witness,” is about the death of Smith’s father and about the importance of father to son, of parent to child:
I understand in my son’s eyes, I am not alloted the luxury of background. A child can’t be asked to comprehend his father’s history; a child’s father is history, an influence so deeply entangled in a child’s own existence that he will take years to separate the two.
I pull my chair closer to my father’s bedside. I am glad I have grown old enough to understand him better–a child of the depression, poor and fatherless, a father himself at nineteen. He gurgles. He twitches in the throes of his final sleep, his history now written and sealed.
I’m confident I can speak for most parents when I say that the second worst thing to losing your child would be to die yourself while your child still needs you. To be an adult and be able to tell your parent they can let go is a gift. And it turns out that it’s a gift both Smith and I share, though I didn’t realize how valuable it had been until this dreary afternoon, reading this essay. So thank you, Curtis Smith.
But lest you think the book ends with sadness, let me tell you no, it does not. Instead, there is a beautiful treat: his son’s first drawing of a man. In that lies all the hope for the future. In that lies the knowledge that someday this boy will be a man standing beside his father, helping him let go.