Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:
There are about four or five more posts in this series I’m likely to write, and one thing I’ve come to realize is that I’m not going to be able to do Gilead much justice at all by explaining it. The book is an experience more so than a traditional beginning-middle-end plot, and removing parts of the book and laying them down to study out of context is like performing an autopsy to find out about the wonders of life. Not very effective.
Also, I realize there’s no way to know what my dad was possibly thinking as he read the novel. These thoughts are from my own faulty and biased imagination. I’m very well writing these posts more out of a need to process what’s happened in my life than a willingness to share about interesting passages my dad pointed out. If that’s the case, I’m going to believe it’s still worth doing.
On page 66, he underlined two different sections of one very long paragraph. In it the narrator writes about his departed daughter. Here is the whole paragraph with the parts my dad marked in boldface:
I don’t think it was resentment I felt then. It was some sort of loyalty to my own life, as if I wanted to say, I have a wife, too, I have a child, too. It was as if the price of having them was losing them, and I couldn’t bear the implication that even that price could be too high. They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realized there is nothing more astonishing than a human face… You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.
It occurs to me that my dad could very well have been thinking of his grandchildren when he marked this passage. They were the babies he held most recently. It’s safe to assume he believed their faces were claims on him.
Perhaps he thought of the special bond he had with his grandchildren, even when they were babies. Some of the happiest pictures I saw of my dad while my wife and I were putting together the slideshow for his “celebration of life” was when he held his grandchildren. This would have been a much different experience for him than when he held his own children. He was already retired when the first grandchild was born. The blood had begun to cool from his days of being a police officer, so to speak.
Picture a baby opening her eyes and staring at your face. If this has ever happened to you, you know that there are really no other moments during your life when you are living as fiercely in the moment. When the infant is looking at you, everything else evaporates. As the narrator says, there is nothing more astonishing. You hold the baby and know for a fact that there is nothing you wouldn’t do in that moment for the child. It is mystical. I’d add also that it’s mythical. Love and wonder and the innocence of a child harken back to the great mythology God has imprinted on all our hearts, which is a mystery and that we see now through a glass darkly. Is there any other way to describe it? Children fill us with happiness like no adult can. There is something ineffable there.