Sometime during the summer of 2005, while working on a new story, I wrote lines of dialogue that surprised me. “The world died a long time before you were born,” a father tells his daughter and son-in-law, who are shocked and saddened by a recent bombing in Iraq, and even more important, deeply shaken by the slow rupture of their marriage. “There’s no point crying about it,” the father adds.
The lines are meant to be comic and act mostly to reveal the father’s cynicism, narcissism, and desperate need for attention. But when I wrote them, they also opened up something for me that I hadn’t expected, pointing me to explore an aspect of life that most amazes and baffles me: how we carry the burden of horrific events, of great disappointments, of suffering and grief, and yet continue to pursue our desires, strive toward normality and even happiness, and accommodate ourselves to the possibility of failure.
Despite the father’s subsequent words about Hiroshima and Auschwitz, the world hasn’t died; it continues to spin its cycles of tragedy and joy, of struggle and contentment, and the best the daughter and son-in-law can do is lean into the headwind and step forward into the unknown.
The story, which wasn’t yet named, eventually became the title piece of my new collection, Aftermath. And though it wasn’t planned this way, it now strikes me as a strangely appropriate accident that the book was published within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. For a decade we’d been living in the aftermath of inconceivable horror and sadness and shock, and certainly those events and the horror and sadness and struggle they have since sparked were present in my mind as I wrote the stories in this book, even though I rarely addressed them directly.
The world should have died, but it didn’t; we should have given up our striving but we haven’t. Our resilience in the face of suffering, our stubbornness in the face of failure, our stupidity and blindness in the face of repeated mistakes—all of these things continue to amaze and baffle me, but in writing these stories I came to see them not as an exception or aberration but as the essence of our being, our very lifeblood.
In one important way, the father in my story was right: We’ve been living in the aftermath for far longer than the few hours following a bomb attack, the few months following a break-up, or the few years following a global tragedy. We’ve been living there all along, and its challenges and obstacles, its gloom and hints of light, have given us our strength, our stubbornness, and occasionally our wisdom. “None of this really matters,” the father says later in the story, referring both to world events and to his daughter’s marriage. But whether he’s right or not, his daughter and son-in-law go on living as if every thing they do, every word they say, matters more than the last.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured this resilience as well as anyone, in a poem from 1873, an excerpt of which became one of the two epigraphs to my collection:
When the summer fields are mown,
When the birds are fledged and flown,
And the dry leaves strew the path;
With the falling of the snow,
With the cawing of the crow,
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.
The other epigraph comes from Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Dunn, in 2003:
It's over. It's time for loss to build its tower in the yard
where you are merely a spectator now.
Admit you'd like to find something
discarded or damaged, even gone,
and lift it back into the world.
This book was my attempt to lift something damaged back into the world.