Madeleine L’Engle wrote about her mother’s death in The Summer of Great-Grandmother, and about her late husband in Two-Part Invention. Her son, Bion died at Christmastime in 1999.
At the time of this interview, it was a year after her son’s death, and Madeleine spoke of burying her son’s ashes.
From The Life of Meaning, by Bob Abernethy and William Bole
She wanted a long song, and I started with “Barbara Allen.” And she said, “Gran, you know that’s a bad one.”
And I said, “Why, Charlotte? Because everyone dies?”
And she said, “No, Gran. Nobody loved anybody.”
And then it was the next night, putting them to bed, that Lena just looked at me cosmically and said, “Gran, is it all right?” She didn’t mean anything in particular. She meant the whole thing. “Is it all right?”
And I swallowed my heart and my everything and said, “Yes, Lena, it’s all right.”
And I’m sure it’s all right with my heart. I’m not sure it’s all right with my mind. What do you suppose the kids in the concentration camp felt when everybody they knew was killed? How could they say, “It’s all right?” It’s not all right. So how do you get the all-rightness out of it? I don’t know. I just know it happens. And I know that where there is no suffering, nothing happens.
One time, my godmother went to visit my mother, who was her best friend, and something awful had happened. I don’t know what. And she burst into tears instead of offering comfort and said, “I envy you. I envy you. You’ve had a terrible life, but you’ve lived.”
Things may not be all right, but they’re at least full of hope. I was writing in my journal yesterday and ended a paragraph with, “I think it smells like hope.” And we have to hang onto that. We have to hang onto it most firmly when things are worse. It’s easy to believe and have hope when things are going well.
It’s when everything is awful that we really need faith.
Several weeks or months after Hugh [her husband] died, in the medicine cabinet was the new shaving brush I’d given him — just sitting there unused. Never been used. And I was very sad. It’s the little things that do that.
We’re going up to the country to dump my son’s ashes. Maybe it’ll be real to me then. I don’t know. It’s not real to me yet. Reality is often very slow in coming. We’ll see.
I’m very grateful that I have a journal and that I can write, because that helps me to objectify things that might just mess me around emotionally, otherwise. It gives them a pattern. A young poet went to Colette [the French writer] and complained that he was unhappy. And she said, “Who asked you to be happy? Write!” And I think that’s very good advice. Journaling defuses things. It objectifies, and I can no longer look at this and weep and feel sorry for myself.
Ultimately, [the death of my son] will be in a nonfiction book. And probably, ultimately, it’ll be in a fiction book disguised, because that’s the best way to do it. What we write as the truth is often very far from the fact. And one of the worst things that we do in this society is confuse fact and truth, so if it is not factual, we don’t believe it. Well, mostly what I believe in is not factual – friendship, beauty.
I find death a lot less frightening – I don’t know why – than annihilation. I think that’s our major fear. I’m afraid, but I don’t spend time on it now. There’s too much else. I don’t have to know what’s next, or if anything’s next, or if nothing is next. I just try to get on with what I’m doing, which is writing a book about aging.
We should be busy enough with the business of living not to brood over dying. Now, that doesn’t mean not being realistic about it. I know. I’m nearly eighty-two. I’m toward the end. And I hope I’ve learned from those first eighty-two years. I hope I’ve learned tolerance and understanding even of the people I despise. And I hope I will always enjoy going out to dinner, talking. One of the things I really enjoy now is when I go downstairs to Henry’s [restaurant] for dinner. I’m in a wheelchair at that point, because it’s easier. Well, somebody has to jump up and open the door for me. You know, I love that! Maybe it’s a small pleasure, but it’s a pleasure. And I think enjoying small pleasures is important. The big ones are so big, we don’t have time to enjoy them.
I’ve never stopped laughing for more than forty-eight hours. And when I do, you might as well bury me. I hope it’s not going to happen. Somehow, some of the most poignantly beautiful times have been holding somebody’s hand as something bad is happening. And that – just simply the gesture of holding hands – is an affirmation of love. And as long as we have that, we can make anything.
Now, I don’t know if I could say that if I were a survivor of a concentration camp and everybody I knew had been killed. I don’t know. I had tea with Elie Wiesel, and as you know, he’s still struggling with the concentration camp and everybody he knew being killed. And I can only see that secondhand, not first – I don’t know how I would be firsthand. I can’t make those brave statements.
And I remember standing by my desk in my apartment on Tenth Street right after the war and wondering if I would’ve been brave enough to speak to the Jewish professor and his wife down the hall, knowing that I might then be shoved off into a concentration camp myself. And I hadn’t had to be tested on that. But I didn’t know whether I’d pass the test or not. I still don’t. I think we are, in times of angst, given strength we didn’t know we had. So I think we should not undercut ourselves, because often the strength will come. You see it with athletes. They push and push over the line to win the race. We all have more strength than we know we have. And if we had it all of the time, it would shatter us. And so it comes only when we really need it.
In times when we’re not particularly suffering we don’t have enough time for God. We’re too busy with other things. Then the intense suffering comes, and we can’t be busy with other things. And then God comes into the equation – “Help!” We should never be afraid of crying out, “I need all the help I can get!”