Tears for Billy
By Michelle Jacobs
Web Exclusive - March 6, 2009
My son's tears are soaking through in spots upon my breasts. His bony arms encircle my waist like a cinch. His head, no longer soft and burrowing, no longer nudging, rams with frustrated sadness into my body. He has just finished reading Where the Red Fern Grows and the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann have wrung his heart. He sobs, "It's just so sad." I soothe, "I know. I know." And what I know is that this is the first of a thousand stories, real and imagined, that will break his heart.
He knew for a while that something bad was going to happen. He could see the tragedy seeping through the pages like blood. His intuition grew as he read. He learned to sense what can't always be seen, to predict consequences. A great reader and a great man seemed to be in the making.
Nearing the end of the book when the dogs were attacked by a mountain lion, he staggered down the hallway and announced the horror to all of us. Then he belly-flopped himself onto my bed and kept reading. I checked on him a couple of times, saw him turning red and sweaty, watched his shoulders shake and shudder a bit as he hung his head and the tears dripped onto my bed. These tears are so unlike his cranky baby tears from long ago which were so full of words he couldn't speak. Feed me, change me, hold me, rock me—tears for the self. The tears of my nine-year-old son are full of feelings for someone else's loss—tears for Billy and his dogs.
I needed to know that empathy was growing in him like a strengthening muscle. Too often, I see him recklessly killing anything that moves with his Xbox weapons. Or I catch him teasing his sister with malice growing out of a rogue corner of his heart. But on this day, as he read, I glimpsed all the goodness of his heart.
I brought him tissues as Old Dan died, and I listened to him sob when Little Ann dragged her torn body to Old Dan's grave and died beside him. I rubbed his back for a moment, then left him alone for a while to read the legend of the Red Fern, to feel the relief of myth, the comfort of an ancient belief in goodness and angels and peace and nature. The coda stopped the tears for a moment as Billy began to heal in the process of grieving. The family was moved by the red fern growing on the graves of the dogs, and my son reminded me that only an angel can plant a red fern. They are rare finds in the wild. I wondered if that meant that goodness is just as rare.
Despite the healing power of the legend, my son's tears began again when he came to me, burrowing with his head into my belly, clambering back to the womb and serenity of the sea inside me. All I could do was hold him, cushioning him as he banged up against the hard edges of life.
Then he looked to his father as if looking for a mirror: Do I look OK doing this? His father holds out his arms and my son unfurls into his lap and lies like a blanket on his father. He tells him he remembers reading the book when he was in the seventh grade and crying in his room. He tells him everyone cries when they read Where the Red Fern Grows. And then, before he scatters back to his bedroom, back to his toys or to the computer, his father says with clarity, "It's OK for a man to cry."
Suddenly before my eyes, I see a flash of my boy as a man, and the vision is fleeting, but he radiates kindness.
What I can't see is the story of his life and the moment that will come when he will suffer the pain of his own personal loss. I can't know now what he will mourn or what he will endure. If I could skip to the middle pages of his life, I would read voraciously, prophetically. To spare him? Maybe. Or maybe to prepare him.
I asked my son, "Should Billy never have gotten the dogs?" He said he should have. I said, "But they died." He countered, "Well, yeah, but they got to hunt together. Besides, everyone dies." He added, "When you die, it's going to be hard for me." In these moments, he might as well be the Buddha to me, or Jesus or Confucius. My son's simple wisdom seems so pure and primitive.