I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium,” which was published in The New Yorker in June 2011, and which I found through NPR’s list “Moments of Truth: Six Memoirs with Heart,” for almost a week now. Since I’ve read it, I’ve been able to think of little else; it has occupied my thoughts almost entirely for several days.
“The Aquarium” is one of several essays that appear in “The Book of My Lives,” and this one describes Hemon’s experience with his infant daughter’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death.
I’ve been reading Heather Spohr’s blog The Spohrs are Multiplying for several years now, and while all of her posts on any topic are funny, warm, well-written, and worth reading, it is the posts on grieving for her daughter that always catch me the most. Her reflections on her daughter Madeline’s illness and death are gripping, honest, and vulnerable. Hemon’s writing falls into a similar category, and knowing of both of these writers draws them together easily, despite their arguably different mediums.
Most personal blog and memoir reading is done, I think, out of voyeurism, the desire to see and know another’s life without invitation. What Spohr and Hemon do that takes their readers beyond being mere creeps who peek in from a distance and never say hello is that you can’t simply peek in through the window. Their vivid, vulnerable language brings the reader into the moments, the situations, the raw feelings and confusion that constitute the grief of losing someone so young and loved. The reader can’t just graze gently across and past their words; being pulled into the living room and onto the couch with them as they struggle with decisions about care and then with how to move forward and keep living is unavoidable. If you’re going to read this, you are going to be a part of it.
While publishing their thoughts and experiences is a form of invitation, weaker writing on similar topics doesn’t engage the reader and lets strangers stare and criticize, then move on without being moved. Essays this clear and vulnerable are not immune to critics: There certainly will always be the judgment from the know-it-alls who are naive enough to believe that what is published in an essay is the entirety of information with nothing left out for brevity, clarity, or privacy. Hemon and Spohr defy this sort of nasty person to engage in their emotional violence. It feels wrong to judge them because it is.
Hemon in particular offers an articulate and brilliant analysis of what he went through as Isabel begins, goes through, and ends her disease. He analyzes his feelings, what his three-year-old is going through at the time, and the awkward way others offer meaningless platitudes. He confronts the reality of disease, grief, and the forced change and new normal that come with loss. He stares them down and tells them what’s what without blinking or taking any prisoners.
What both Spohr and Hemon do best in taking their grief public is to serve others who have gone through any version of what they have. They take the intimate and personal and make it public in a guarded way that doesn’t hide the truth, but also does not overexpose their own raw nerves. Both make the reader a little uncomfortable, but just to the level necessary to make the reader pursue the story and want to understand, rather than cruelly judge, them. And for those who have had to create and adapt to a new normal that’s one young person short of the reality they’d grown to love, both make that unique reader feel less alone, freakish, and selfish. It is somehow a little normalizing to see some of the most intimate parts of the worst things so clearly articulated, to see my own thoughts and feelings spelled out in a way that I could never begin to do myself, and, in some cases, to finally begin to understand myself.
That may be the best thing they both have to offer their readers: Their willingness to be public, honest, and vulnerable with the personal, intimate, and frightening helps the reader get a better grasp of their own self. I know myself better for having known this of them.
In short, I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole book and anything else he’s written.