Progeria: An Exercise.
I had thought I had written about a singular experience. It certainly was for me.
I sent this essay to a friend, Craig Smith, to look at. A fan (I am delighted to say) and a trusted editor and critic, I wanted him to take a look. I expected advice, suggestions, some way to fix a grammatic gaff. I must have expected, or suspected, something or I would not have sent it.
It’s good. I think the revelation of the progeria was a little overdramatic; so many people have seen kids with progeria on talk shows (Maury Povich had one on nearly every week, it seemed) that your shock–or your character’s?–while understandable, doesn’t need quite the big build-up.
What? On TV? So popular culture and the media has desensitized America to what, in my life, was an experience that sat upon my memory in a way unlike nearly any other.
What did I reply?
Hmm… Interesting as I have never seen a child such as this since. This is the only one. So it feels real to me but will not translate into the culture because of talk shows have widened the exposure of most people to things that I have little exposure to.
In other words, what I find a novel and shocking, many people have become inured to. So what seems overdramatic, to me, is actually my process of realization. But it is not reading that way to those who have more experience than I.
What else has pop culture ruined? Now wonder we no longer shudder at gross injustices and horrific torture. No wonder we have so few heartstrings left to pull.
But, still, I felt I could pull the essay off. I’d like for you to be the judge.
Please read. There’s a quiz at the end.
I don’t remember what year it was. The mid nineties, perhaps. I was working as a skip tracer, finding people who had run out on sizable debts, dropped financial responsibilities, were hiding mobile homes, trailers, boats and whatnot-of-size from repossession. I found them, someone else hauled ‘em, arrested ‘em, collected ‘em.
It was a great job. Lots of day trips, I nearly never got a Doberman set on me or a shotgun pointed at me. Rarely was I shot at.
I was chasing a trailer. I think it was in Florahome, or nearby, where we would go to pick blueberries and scuppernogs. Where the sandpears grew. East-central north Florida. I was on the hunt. I scammed the records, recorded the address, and found the narrow washboard road in a short space between the live oaks.
It was a long slow drive. I stopped from time to time to let the newly-hatched wild turkeys follow their mothers across the road. Slowed to watch the dear in the thick. At length, in the distance, I saw the trailer. Continuing slowly, I pulled into the small space in front and checked the description. It fit. I got out, went to the door and knocked.
It was a single-wide and shorter than the norm so, after the initial knock, it took no more than a few moments for me to notice the creak of approaching footsteps. The door opened and I was greeted by the smallest old lady I had ever met, saying hello, puffing though stringy white hair and wrinkled mouth, in the voice of a young girl. Resting on the knob, an ancient hand.
I asked to whom the home belonged and she answered in words a child would use. From behind her, a young woman approached and, as she neared, spoke to the elder as though she were not aged, not senior, but barely of experience. As though she were her child.
And the old lady answered as if she were, indeed, a child. Her child. Then, I knew, this was not right. So far from what I could have possible expected, I did not grasp the facts through the seemingly paradoxic cues. Something was wrong in an order of magnitude I could not comprehend in the scant time I had. But my body reacted even as my mind slowed and halted. Perhaps I could not keep my face. I remember my stomach tightening, my diaphragm rising toward my chest. My body knew.
The taller woman was her mother. The first person to the door was her child. This was an old child. She looked ninety. She sounded ninety. Her words and behaviour were nine.
Her mother asked her to go back inside while she remained to talk with me. I could require no explanation but needed one. What I had just seen did not fit. It was something I could have thought would come from a horror movie, from a science fiction film. Here it was. I could not ask but needed to know. She could see that.
She was nine. She told me this. She started aging at two. She would die of old age by eleven. It was called progeria. They moved out of town because they could not stand the idea she would spend her short life growing old to the cruelty of children, the whispers of adults and the stares of all eyes.
And so here they were – out in the country, one fewer job, a family, a ninety year old child.
I could not say don’t worry. I could not say everything would be ok. There was little I could say but good bye.
I know she expected, in the next day or so, to lose her home in the forest and the anonymity of the woods. But, that I know of, that never happened. The records were lost. Markers disappeared. Officially, I never found the house.
I was reminded of this today. I cannot say quite what the connection was but it came to me of a rush, strong and vibrant. I, of limited visual memory, have the meeting of that child as one of the few clear visions I retain. I feel it as though it were fresh, new, shocking. It remains one of the staggering moments of my life. It was important in a way I cannot still fully appreciate. It lasts.
It came to me last week. When my mother was telling me she might have herself trepanned and electrified to fight her Parkinson’s. That she might have breast cancer.
And it came to me again today. I held a rabbit in my hands. In the overbearing heat, in my yard, a rabbit, running, running, then not, small tongue, darting in and out and then still. Then stiff. In my arms, how much it seemed sleeping.
Good night little girl.
So here are the questions:
Do you think pop culture has made experiential essays, such as this, less effective?
Does your knowledge of the disease lessen the effect?
What worked and what did not?
Is there anything you would change?
September 8, 2007 at 5:45 PM
I am, perhaps, not the best person to answer these questions, as I don’t even watch T.V. anymore, and so am blessedly insulated from much of “Pop Culture”. With that in mind, popular culture hasn’t lessened the effectiveness of the experiential essay – for me.That said, I am familiar with progeria, and, from the title of your exercise, already knew what was coming. I can’t say what my response would have been had I had no knowledge of the word at the outset, but even though I knew of the disease and its manifestation, I still found much of the writing to be effective as a description of the experience of unexpectedly encountering such a child.The sense that I get from the essay as a whole is the feeling of the shock of telescoped mortality, of that sudden simultaneous clarity and feeling of unreality that comes with the recognition that time is shorter for all of us than we think. This is, for me, anyway, the common thread that connects the experiences detailed here. As to how to make it more effective, I’m not sure. I know that it is not as powerful as it has the potential to be, but I haven’t had time to sit with it long enough to parse out exactly what works and what doesn’t, let alone why it works or doesn’t. But rather than say nothing because I couldn’t say what I wanted perfectly, I thought it best to say something, even if it was incomplete.If more specific feedback conmes to me, I’ll write more later.
September 9, 2007 at 4:04 PM
I certainly agree with Jennie’s statement that “rather than say nothing because I couldn’t say what I wanted perfectly, I thought it best to say something, even if it was incomplete.” Or rather, I’m learning that that’s the best approach, even if my instinct is to worry over something and edit it to death because I’m not satisfied with it. There’s a wonderful Latin phrase, “Olet lucernam,” which means, “It smells of the oil lamp.” In other words, I have learned that one can do so much work on something that it finally betrays the long hours I spent working on it.In the case of your essay, I’m thinking it’s much, much better to have the essay out there rather than putting it away because pop culture may have lessened the power of “the big reveal” just a bit.
Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt
September 10, 2007 at 8:24 PM
(From Jennie) “I know that it is not as powerful as it has the potential to be…”To be sure, this is true, I feel, about everything I have written. Regardless of quality, each time I look at any work I have completed, I can still find a word that needs to be excised, one more thing that needs posed as a discovery as opposed to a description, one more missign thought or one added chance for the reader to feel closer to how I wish for him or her to feel. Of course, we are dealing with me. That means we are dealing with a perfectionist who is sure he can’t really do anything very well, but demands perfection of himself regadless. Thus, making each thing done, at best, an exercise in frustration. I hope it does, indeed, smell of oil. By the time I am done with it, it should drip of oil. Right now, I suspect it smells rather strongly. It is my hope that scent is lamp oil.
September 16, 2007 at 11:09 PM
Like Jennie, I too am somewhat insulated from the screaming barrage of pop culture, having chosen televisionlessness these six years now. It may be an unfortunate reality that this essay would fall flat to eyes accustomed to daily horrific images and the mindless, voyeuristic chatter which accompanies them. However, I like to retain my faith in the power of the written word, optimistic fool though I may be. And I happen to find quite a lot of understated power later in the essay, beyond the initial shock of the sight of the child, in the quiet conclusion to that experience: “The records were lost. Markers disappeared. Officially, I never found the house.”Score one for compassion, hope and decent humanity. Pop culture dropped that ball a long time ago.