This is a novel about so many things -- large-scale tragedy and its connections to the isolation of individual pain; love; listening; communication and its impossibilities; understanding and misunderstanding; loss and coming to terms with emptiness. It is also a novel about safety... or the lack thereof. After all of his searching and questions and attempts to 'find' his father, Oskar comes to a different kind of 'revelation' (as he likes to say a la his dad) -- that the only way to be truly "safe" is to go backwards. It is the same realization that his grandmother implies in her dream in which "all of the collapsed ceilings re-formed... the fire went back into the bombs," in which "people apologized for things that were about to happen, and lit candles by inhaling," in which
Eve put the apple back on the branch. The tree went back into the ground. It became a sapling, which became a seed. God brought together the land and the water, the sky and the water, the water and the water, evening and morning, something and nothing. He said, Let there be light. And there was darkness." (pp. 306-313)The last scene in the novel finds Oskar alone in bed at night looking through his book, Stuff That Happened to Me. (Spoiler alert!!... because the following is the end of the book...) In this book he has photos he has taken and others he has collected from things or events that interest him. He has a picture of a body falling from the Twin Towers that he found on the internet after his father's death in that tragedy.
Was it Dad?And it is this last line of the novel that strikes me. 'We would have been safe..." Implication: we are not safe. And we cannot go back to the 'beginning' when we were.
Whoever it was, it was somebody.
I ripped the pages out of the book.
I reversed the order, so that last one was first, and the first was last.
When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.
And if I'd had more pictures, he would've flown through a window, back in the building, and the smoke would've poured into the hole that the plane was about to come outof.
Dad would've left his messages backward, until the machine was empty, and the plane would've flown backward away from him, all the way to Boston.
He would've taken the elevator to the street and pressed the button for the top floor.
He would've walked backward to the subway, and the subway would've gone backward through the tunnel, back to our stop.
Dad would've gone backward through the turnstile, then swiped his Metrocard backward, then walked home backward as he read the New York Times from right to left.
He would've spit coffee into his mug, unbrushed his teeth, and put hair on his face with a razor.
He would've gotten back into bed, the alarm would've rung backward, he would've dreamt backward.
Then he would've gotten up again at the end of the night before the worst day.
He would've walked backward to my room, whistling "I Am the Walrus" backward.
He would've gotten into bed with me.
We would've looked at the stars on my ceiling, which would've pulled back their light from our eyes.
I'd have said "Nothing" backward.
He'd had said "Yeah, buddy?" backward.
I'd have said "Dad?" backward, which would have sounded the same as "Dad" forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from "I love you" to "Once upon a time..."
We would have been safe." (pp. 325-326)
So what is safety? And do we ever have it? Or do we even need it? Is it the umpire gesturing energetically and yelling "Safe!" as we slide into home base? Or is it the lock box where we keep our rainy day money? Is it the 'safety in numbers,' the safety of being with and amongst others? Or is it the mode on our computer that fixes operating systems malfunctions?
Is it love?
A student of mine -- an incredibly insightful and creative student -- once asked me if I would do him a favor. "Depends what it is," I told him in all honesty. "I am conducting an experiment. I am collecting answers from all kinds of people to the following: Define love in three words." I told him I needed to think about it... because I did. I am a REALLY slow thinker. He persisted. "I promise I'll do it," I told him.
He came in the next day and asked me if I had my answer. I laughed. Somehow I thought he wouldn't have stayed so committed to his independent project. "No, but I'll do it right now." I don't remember what I wrote, but it was something like this: listening, sharing, tenderness.
I passed my sheet of paper over to him. He read it, was quiet for a moment, and then looked up. "Interesting," he mused.
"What is?" I asked.
"Well, I've asked a lot of people and most people say 'safe' as one of their three."
I told him I thought that love was a lot of things, but not safe. 'Safe' love implies to me that one person is seeking security or meaning or a cover against all that is threatening, frightening, risky... and is seeking it within and from another person. It suggests that someone is hiding from the world... and, if that is the case, then there is no room for growth. Love should be about giving to another, not burying your head in his/her sand. Plus, love is a risk. You are giving your secrets and your intimacies and your heart and your soul up to someone else. You are opening yourself up, the very raw and nakedness at the center of you, and offering it to someone. That is very dangerous. Obviously. People get seriously injured because of love all the time. Sometimes people even die from the pain of love lost.
We put up signs to keep ourselves safe. We have safety trainings. We make safe houses and have safety insurance. Surely, it is something we are always trying to establish, to surround ourselves with. Then what is safety? I think this question doesn't interest me as much as whether we need it... as whether it is a beneficial thing for us. Whenever I am afraid of something, I like to make myself do exactly that thing because I simply hate being afraid. Doing whatever that may be involves a risk (obviously.. .hence my fear), but usually I grow and learn from the experience. Being safe all the time would mean never growing or evolving as a person... and that would be a tragedy... although I see many people doing just that. Sure the womb is the safest place. But would you want to stay there forever? We can't choose that 'go back to the beginning' option anyway.
Perhaps instead of seeking safety, we could seek understanding. This is the only kind of safety that I truly love. That feeling that someone has listened so closely and has made the attempt to see what you are seeing, to think what you are thinking, to feel what you are feeling. The safety in connection. The safety that we create together rather than the one we seek that isolates us from anything and everything that would require us to change. This is the kind of safety that can venture to say "I love you"... and to say it often. For, in the novel, the safety that different characters seek is one that tends to isolate them from each other. And is the kind that doesn't want to accept the parts of reality that involve loss and pain.... and this kind of 'safety' only winds up bringing them more pain. And frustration. And deeper loneliness. Oskar's grandmother learns this lesson. At the end of the passage where she describes her backwards dream, she talks about the last night she spent with her sister.
She rolled onto her side.Looking for safety can mean that you look at things too close ('incredibly close') and that immersing yourself in the search... or in the tiny hole that seems safe... all becomes 'extremely loud.' When things are too close and too loud, you can't see the forest for the trees. You can't see at all. And if you are blind and deaf, then, yes, maybe you are safe... but you are also dead to the world.
I said, I want to tell you something.
She said, You can tell me tomorrow.
I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always unncessary.
The books in my father's shed were sighing.
The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna's breathing.
I thought about waking her.
But it was unnecessary.
There would be other nights.
And how can you say I love you to someone you love?
I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her.
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It's always necessary.
I love you.
Grandma (p. 314)