Chapter no 5

A Little Life

YOU ASKED ME once when I knew that he was for me, and I told you that I had always known. But that wasn’t true, and I knew it even as I said it

—I said it because it sounded pretty, like something someone might

say in a book or a movie, and because we were both feeling so wretched, and helpless, and because I thought if I said it, we both might feel better about the situation before us, the situation that we perhaps had been capable of preventing—perhaps not—but at any rate hadn’t. This was in the hospital: the first time, I should say. I know you remember: you had flown in from Colombo that morning, hopscotching across cities and countries and hours, so that you landed a full day before you left.

But I want to be accurate now. I want to be accurate both because there is no reason not to be, and because I should be—I have always tried to be, I always try to be.

I’m not sure where to begin.

Maybe with some nice words, although they are also true words: I liked you right away. You were twenty-four when we met, which would have made me forty-seven. (Jesus.) I thought you were unusual: later, he’d speak of your goodness, but he never needed to explain it to me, for I already knew you were. It was the first summer the group of you came up to the house, and it was such a strange weekend for me, and for him as well—for me because in you four I saw who and what Jacob might have been, and for him because he had only known me as his teacher, and he was suddenly seeing me in my shorts and wearing my apron as I scooped clams off the grill, and arguing with you three about everything. Once I stopped seeing Jacob’s face in all of yours, though, I was able to enjoy the weekend, in large part because you three seemed to enjoy it so much. You saw nothing strange in the situation: you were boys who assumed that people would like you, not from arrogance but because people always had, and you had no reason to think that, if you were polite and friendly, then that politeness and friendliness might not be reciprocated.

He, of course, had every reason to not think that, although I

wouldn’t discover that until later. Then, I watched him at mealtimes,

noticing how, during particularly raucous debates, he would sit back in his seat, as if physically leaning out of the ring, and observe all of you, how easily you challenged me without fear of provoking me, how thoughtlessly you reached across the table to serve yourselves more potatoes, more zucchini, more steak, how you asked for what you wanted and received it.

The thing I remember most vividly from that weekend is a small thing. We were walking, you and he and Julia and I, down that little path lined with birches that led to the lookout. (Back then it was a narrow throughway, do you remember that? It was only later that it became dense with trees.) I was with him, and you and Julia were behind us. You were talking about, oh, I don’t know—insects? Wildflowers? You two always found something to discuss, you both loved being outdoors, both loved animals: I loved this about both of you, even though I couldn’t understand it. And then you touched his shoulder and moved in front of him and knelt and retied one of his shoelaces that had come undone, and then fell back in step with Julia. It was so fluid, a little gesture: a step forward, a fold onto bended knee, a retreat back toward her side. It was nothing to you, you didn’t even think about it; you never even paused in your conversation. You were always watching him (but you all were), you took care of him in a dozen small ways, I saw all of this over those few days—but I doubt you would remember this particular incident.

But while you were doing it, he looked at me, and the look on his

face—I still cannot describe it, other than in that moment, I felt something crumble inside me, like a tower of damp sand built too high: for him, and for you, and for me as well. And in his face, I knew my own would be echoed. The impossibility of finding someone to do such a thing for another person, so unthinkingly, so gracefully! When I looked at him, I understood, for the first time since Jacob died, what people meant when they said someone was heartbreaking, that something could break your heart. I had always thought it mawkish, but in that moment I realized that it might have been mawkish, but it was also true.

And that, I suppose, was when I knew.



I had never thought I would become a parent, and not because I’d had bad parents myself. Actually, I had wonderful parents: my mother died when I was very young, of breast cancer, and for the next five

years it was just me and my father. He was a doctor, a general practitioner who liked to hope he might grow old with his patients.

We lived on West End, at Eighty-second Street, and his practice was in our building, on the ground floor, and I used to come by to visit after school. All his patients knew me, and I was proud to be the doctor’s son, to say hello to everyone, to watch the babies he had delivered grow into kids who looked up to me because their parents told them I was Dr. Stein’s son, that I went to a good high school, one of the best in the city, and that if they studied hard enough, they might be able to as well. “Darling,” my father called me, and when he saw me after school on those visits, he would place his palm on the back of my neck, even when I grew taller than he, and kiss me on the side of my head. “My darling,” he’d say, “how was school?”

When I was eight, he married his office manager, Adele. There was never a moment in my childhood in which I was not aware of Adele’s presence: it was she who took me shopping for new clothes when I needed them, she who joined us for Thanksgiving, she who wrapped my birthday presents. It was not so much that Adele was a mother to me; it’s that to me, a mother was Adele.

She was older, older than my father, and one of those women whom men like and feel comfortable around but never think of marrying, which is a kind way of saying she wasn’t pretty. But who needs prettiness in a mother? I asked her once if she wanted children of her own, and she said I was her child, and she couldn’t imagine having a better one, and it says everything you need to know about my father and Adele and how I felt about them and how they treated me that I never even questioned that claim of hers until I was in my thirties and my then-wife and I were fighting about whether we should have another child, a child to replace Jacob.

She was an only child, as I was an only child, and my father was an only child, too: a family of onlys. But Adele’s parents were living—my father’s were not—and we used to travel out to Brooklyn, to what has now been swallowed by Park Slope, to see them on weekends. They had lived in America for almost five decades and still spoke very little English: the father, timidly, the mother, expressively. They were blocky, like she was, and kind, like she was—Adele would speak to them in Russian, and her father, whom I called Grandpa by default, would unclench one of his fat fists and show me what was secreted within: a wooden birdcall, or a wodge of bright-pink gum. Even when I was an adult, in law school, he would always give me something,

although he no longer had his store then, which meant he must have bought them somewhere. But where? I always imagined there might be a secret shop full of toys that went out of fashion generations ago, and yet was patronized, faithfully, by old immigrant men and women, who kept them in business by buying their stocks of whorl-painted wooden tops and little metal soldiers and sets of jacks, their rubber balls sticky with grime even before their plastic wrap had been torn.

I had always had a theory—born of nothing—that men who had been old enough to witness their father’s second marriage (and, therefore, old enough to make a judgment) married their stepmother, not their mother. But I didn’t marry someone like Adele. My wife, my first wife, was cool and self-contained. Unlike the other girls I knew, who were always minimizing themselves—their intelligence, of course, but also their desires and anger and fears and composure— Liesl never did. On our third date, we were walking out of a café on MacDougal Street, and a man stumbled from a shadowed doorway and vomited on her. Her sweater was chunky with it, that pumpkin-bright splatter, and I remember in particular the way a large globule clung to the little diamond ring she wore on her right hand, as if the stone itself had grown a tumor. The people around us gasped, or shrieked, but Liesl only closed her eyes. Another woman would have screeched, or squealed (I would have screeched or squealed), but I remember she only gave a great shudder, as if her body were acknowledging the disgust but also removing itself from it, and when she opened her eyes, she was recovered. She peeled off her cardigan, chucked it into the nearest garbage can. “Let’s go,” she told me. I had been mute, shocked, throughout the entire episode, but in that moment, I wanted her, and I followed her where she led me, which turned out to be her apartment, a hellhole on Sullivan Street. The entire time, she kept her right hand slightly aloft from her body, the blob of vomit still clinging to her ring.

Neither my father nor Adele particularly liked her, although they

never told me so; they were polite, and respectful of my wishes. In exchange, I never asked them, never made them lie. I don’t think it was because she wasn’t Jewish—neither of my parents were religious

—but, I think, because they thought I was too much in awe of her. Or maybe this is what I’ve decided, late in life. Maybe it was because what I admired as competence, they saw as frigidity, or coldness. Goodness knows they wouldn’t have been the first to think that. They were always polite to her, and she reasonably so to them, but I think

they would have preferred a potential daughter-in-law who would flirt with them a little, to whom they could tell embarrassing stories about my childhood, who would have lunch with Adele and play chess with my father. Someone like you, in fact. But that wasn’t Liesl and wouldn’t ever be, and once they realized that, they too remained a bit aloof, not to express their displeasure but as a sort of self-discipline, a reminder to themselves that there were limits, her limits, that they should try to respect. When I was with her, I felt oddly relaxed, as if, in the face of such sturdy competence, even misfortune wouldn’t dare try to challenge us.

We had met in New York, where I was in law school and she was in medical school, and after graduating, I got a clerkship in Boston, and she (one year older than I) started her internship. She was training to be an oncologist. I had been admiring of that, of course, because of what it suggested: there is nothing more soothing than a woman who wants to heal, whom you imagine bent maternally over a patient, her lab coat white as clouds. But Liesl didn’t want to be admired: she was interested in oncology because it was one of the harder disciplines, because it was thought to be more cerebral. She and her fellow oncological interns had scorn for the radiologists (too mercenary), the cardiologists (too puffed-up and pleased with themselves), the pediatricians (too sentimental), and especially the surgeons (unspeakably arrogant) and the dermatologists (beneath comment, although they of course worked with them frequently). They liked the anesthesiologists (weird and geeky and fastidious, and prone to addiction), the pathologists (even more cerebral than they), and— well, that was about it. Sometimes a group of them would come over to our house, and would linger after dinner discussing cases and studies, while their partners—lawyers and historians and writers and lesser scientists—were ignored until we slunk off to the living room to discuss the various trivial, less-interesting things with which we occupied our days.

We were two adults, and it was a happy enough life. There was no

whining that we didn’t spend enough time with each other, from me or from her. We remained in Boston for her residency, and then she moved back to New York to do her fellowship. I stayed. By that time I was working at a firm and was an adjunct at the law school. We saw each other on the weekends, one in Boston, one in New York. And then she completed her program and returned to Boston; we married; we bought a house, a little one, not the one I have now, just at the

edge of Cambridge.

My father and Adele (and Liesl’s parents, for that matter; mysteriously, they were considerably more emotive than she was, and on our infrequent trips to Santa Barbara, while her father made jokes and her mother placed before me plates of sliced cucumbers and peppered tomatoes from her garden, she would watch with a closed-off expression, as if embarrassed, or at least perplexed by, their relative expansiveness) never asked us if we were going to have children; I think they thought that as long as they didn’t ask, there was a chance we might. The truth was that I didn’t really feel the need for it; I had never envisioned having a child, I didn’t feel about them one way or another. And that seemed enough of a reason not to: having a child, I thought, was something you should actively want, crave, even. It was not a venture for the ambivalent or passionless. Liesl felt the same way, or so we thought.

But then, one evening—I was thirty-one, she was thirty-two: young

—I came home and she was already in the kitchen, waiting for me. This was unusual; she worked longer hours than I did, and I usually didn’t see her until eight or nine at night.

“I need to talk to you,” she said, solemnly, and I was suddenly scared. She saw that and smiled—she wasn’t a cruel person, Liesl, and I don’t mean to give the impression that she was without kindness, without gentleness, because she had both in her, was capable of both. “It’s nothing bad, Harold.” Then she laughed a little. “I don’t think.”

I sat. She inhaled. “I’m pregnant. I don’t know how it happened. I must’ve skipped a pill or two and forgotten. It’s almost eight weeks. I had it confirmed at Sally’s today.” (Sally was her roommate from their med-school days, her best friend, and her gynecologist.) She said all this very quickly, in staccato, digestible sentences. Then she was silent. “I’m on a pill where I don’t get my periods, you know, so I didn’t know.” And then, when I said nothing, “Say something.”

I couldn’t, at first. “How do you feel?” I asked. She shrugged. “I feel fine.”

“Good,” I said, stupidly.

“Harold,” she said, and sat across from me, “what do you want to do?”

“What do you want to do?”

She shrugged again. “I know what I want to do. I want to know what you want to do.”

“You don’t want to keep it.”

She didn’t disagree. “I want to hear what you want.” “What if I say I want to keep it?”

She was ready. “Then I’d seriously consider it.”

I hadn’t been expecting this, either. “Leez,” I said, “we should do what you want to do.” This wasn’t completely magnanimous; it was mostly cowardly. In this case, as with many things, I was happy to cede the decision to her.

She sighed. “We don’t have to decide tonight. We have some time.” Four weeks, she didn’t need to say.

In bed, I thought. I thought those thoughts all men think when a woman tells them she’s pregnant: What would the baby look like? Would I like it? Would I love it? And then, more crushingly: fatherhood. With all its responsibilities and fulfillments and tedium and possibilities for failure.

The next morning, we didn’t speak of it, and the day after that, we didn’t speak of it again. On Friday, as we were going to bed, she said, sleepily, “Tomorrow we’ve got to discuss this,” and I said, “Absolutely.” But we didn’t, and we didn’t, and then the ninth week passed, and then the tenth, and then the eleventh and twelfth, and then it was too late to easily or ethically do anything, and I think we were both relieved. The decision had been made for us—or rather, our indecisiveness had made the decision for us—and we were going to have a child. It was the first time in our marriage that we’d been so mutually indecisive.

We had imagined that it would be a girl, and if it was, we’d name it Adele, for my mother, and Sarah, for Sally. But it wasn’t a girl, and we instead let Adele (who was so happy she started crying, one of the very few times I’d seen her cry) pick the first name and Sally the second: Jacob More. (Why More, we asked Sally, who said it was for Thomas More.)

I have never been one of those people—I know you aren’t, either— who feels that the love one has for a child is somehow a superior love, one more meaningful, more significant, and grander than any other. I didn’t feel that before Jacob, and I didn’t feel that after. But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not “I love him” but “How is he?” The world, overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle

course of terrors. I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life. It seemed as improbable as the survival of one of those late-spring butterflies—you know, those little white ones—I sometimes saw wobbling through the air, always just millimeters away from smacking itself against a windshield.

And let me tell you two other things I learned. The first is that it doesn’t matter how old that child is, or when or how he became yours. Once you decide to think of someone as your child, something changes, and everything you have previously enjoyed about them, everything you have previously felt for them, is preceded first by that fear. It’s not biological; it’s something extra-biological, less a determination to ensure the survival of one’s genetic code, and more a desire to prove oneself inviolable to the universe’s feints and challenges, to triumph over the things that want to destroy what’s yours.

The second thing is this: when your child dies, you feel everything you’d expect to feel, feelings so well-documented by so many others that I won’t even bother to list them here, except to say that everything that’s written about mourning is all the same, and it’s all the same for a reason—because there is no real deviation from the text. Sometimes you feel more of one thing and less of another, and sometimes you feel them out of order, and sometimes you feel them for a longer time or a shorter time. But the sensations are always the same.

But here’s what no one says—when it’s your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorable part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come.

Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is.

And after that, you have nothing to fear again.



Years ago, after the publication of my third book, a journalist once asked me if you could tell right away whether a student had a mind for law or not, and the answer is: Sometimes. But often, you’re wrong

—the student who seemed so bright in the first half of the semester becomes steadily less so as the year goes on, and the student about whom you never thought one thing or another is the one who emerges

as a dazzler, someone you love hearing think.

It’s often the most naturally intelligent students who have the most difficult time in their first year—law school, particularly the first year of law school, is really not a place where creativity, abstract thought, and imagination are rewarded. In this way, I often think—based upon what I’ve heard, not what I know firsthand—that it’s a bit like art school.

Julia had a friend, a man named Dennys, who was as a boy a tremendously gifted artist. They had been friends since they were small, and she once showed me some of the drawings he made when he was ten or twelve: little sketches of birds pecking at the ground, of his face, round and blank, of his father, the local veterinarian, his hand smoothing the fur of a grimacing terrier. Dennys’s father didn’t see the point of drawing lessons, however, and so he was never formally schooled. But when they were older, and Julia went to university, Dennys went to art school to learn how to draw. For the first week, he said, they were allowed to draw whatever they wanted, and it was always Dennys’s sketches that the professor selected to pin up on the wall for praise and critique.

But then they were made to learn how to draw: to re-draw, in essence. Week two, they only drew ellipses. Wide ellipses, fat ellipses, skinny ellipses. Week three, they drew circles: three-dimensional circles, two-dimensional circles. Then it was a flower. Then a vase. Then a hand. Then a head. Then a body. And with each week of proper training, Dennys got worse and worse. By the time the term had ended, his pictures were never displayed on the wall. He had grown too self-conscious to draw. When he saw a dog now, its long fur whisking the ground beneath it, he saw not a dog but a circle on a box, and when he tried to draw it, he worried about proportion, not about recording its doggy-ness.

He decided to speak to his professor. We are meant to break you down, Dennys, his professor said. Only the truly talented will be able to come back from it.

“I guess I wasn’t one of the truly talented,” Dennys would say. He became a barrister instead, lived in London with his partner.

“Poor Dennys,” Julia would say.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Dennys would sigh, but none of us were convinced.

And in that same way, law school breaks a mind down. Novelists, poets, and artists don’t often do well in law school (unless they are

bad novelists, poets, and artists), but neither, necessarily, do mathematicians, logicians, and scientists. The first group fails because their logic is their own; the second fails because logic is all they own.

He, however, was a good student—a great student—from the beginning, but this greatness was often camouflaged in an aggressive nongreatness. I knew, from listening to his answers in class, that he had everything he needed to be a superb lawyer: it’s not accidental that law is called a trade, and like all trades, what it demands most is a capacious memory, which he had. What it demands next—again, like many trades—is the ability to see the problem before you … and then, just as immediately, the rat’s tail of problems that might follow. Much the way that, for a contractor, a house is not just a structure— it’s a snarl of pipes engorging with ice in the winter, of shingles swelling with humidity in the summer, of rain gutters belching up fountains of water in the spring, of cement splitting in the first autumn cold—so too is a house something else for a lawyer. A house is a locked safe full of contracts, of liens, of future lawsuits, of possible violations: it represents potential attacks on your property, on your goods, on your person, on your privacy.

Of course, you can’t literally think like this all the time, or you’d

drive yourself crazy. And so for most lawyers, a house is, finally, just a house, something to fill and fix and repaint and empty. But there’s a period in which every law student—every good law student—finds that their vision shifts, somehow, and realizes that the law is inescapable, that no interaction, no aspect of daily life, escapes its long, graspy fingers. A street becomes a shocking disaster, a riot of violations and potential civil lawsuits. A marriage looks like a divorce. The world becomes temporarily unbearable.

He could do this. He could take a case and see its end; it is very difficult to do, because you have to be able to hold in your head all the possibilities, all the probable consequences, and then choose which ones to worry over and which to ignore. But what he also did— what he couldn’t stop himself from doing—was wonder as well about the moral implications of the case. And that is not helpful in law school. There were colleagues of mine who wouldn’t let their students even say the words “right” and “wrong.” “Right has nothing to do with it,” one of my professors used to bellow at us. “What is the law? What does the law say?” (Law professors enjoy being theatrical; all of us do.) Another, whenever the words were mentioned, would say nothing, but walk over to the offender and hand him a little slip of

paper, a stack of which he kept in his jacket’s inside pocket, that read:

Drayman 241. Drayman 241 was the philosophy department’s office.

Here, for example, is a hypothetical: A football team is going to an away game when one of their vans breaks down. So they ask the mother of one of the players if they can borrow her van to transport them. Sure, she says, but I’m not going to drive. And so she asks the assistant coach to drive the team for her. But then, as they’re driving along, something horrible happens: the van skids off the road and flips over; everyone inside dies.

There is no criminal case here. The road was slippery, the driver wasn’t intoxicated. It was an accident. But then the parents of the team, the mothers and fathers of the dead players, sue the owner of the van. It was her van, they argue, but more important, it was she who appointed the driver of her van. He was only her agent, and therefore, it is she who bears the responsibility. So: What happens? Should the plaintiffs win their suit?

Students don’t like this case. I don’t teach it that often—its extremity makes it more flashy than it is instructive, I believe—but whenever I did, I would always hear a voice in the auditorium say, “But it’s not fair!” And as annoying as that word is—fair—it is important that students never forget the concept. “Fair” is never an answer, I would tell them. But it is always a consideration.

He never mentioned whether something was fair, however. Fairness itself seemed to hold little interest for him, which I found fascinating, as people, especially young people, are very interested in what’s fair. Fairness is a concept taught to nice children: it is the governing principle of kindergartens and summer camps and playgrounds and soccer fields. Jacob, back when he was able to go to school and learn things and think and speak, knew what fairness was and that it was important, something to be valued. Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.

Right and wrong, however, are for—well, not unhappy people, maybe, but scarred people; scared people.

Or am I just thinking this now?

“So were the plaintiffs successful?” I asked. That year, his first year, I had in fact taught that case.

“Yes,” he said, and he explained why: he knew instinctively why they would have been. And then, right on cue, I heard the tiny “But it’s not fair!” from the back of the room, and before I could begin my

first lecture of the season—“fair” is never an answer, etc., etc.—he said, quietly, “But it’s right.”

I was never able to ask him what he meant by that. Class ended, and everyone got up at once and almost ran for the door, as if the room was on fire. I remember telling myself to ask him about it in the next class, later that week, but I forgot. And then I forgot again, and again. Over the years, I would remember this conversation every now and again, and each time I would think: I must ask him what he meant by that. But then I never would. I don’t know why.

And so this became his pattern: he knew the law. He had a feeling for it. But then, just when I wanted him to stop talking, he would introduce a moral argument, he would mention ethics. Please, I would think, please don’t do this. The law is simple. It allows for less nuance than you’d imagine. Ethics and morals do, in reality, have a place in law—although not in jurisprudence. It is morals that help us make the laws, but morals do not help us apply them.

I was worried he’d make it harder for himself, that he’d complicate the real gift he had with—as much as I hate to have to say this about my profession—thinking. Stop! I wanted to tell him. But I never did, because eventually, I realized I enjoyed hearing him think.

In the end, of course, I needn’t have worried; he learned how to control it, he learned to stop mentioning right and wrong. And as we know, this tendency of his didn’t stop him from becoming a great lawyer. But later, often, I was sad for him, and for me. I wished I had urged him to leave law school, I wished I had told him to go to the equivalent of Drayman 241. The skills I gave him were not skills he needed after all. I wish I had nudged him in a direction where his mind could have been as supple as it was, where he wouldn’t have had to harness himself to a dull way of thinking. I felt I had taken someone who once knew how to draw a dog and turned him into someone who instead knew only how to draw shapes.

I am guilty of many things when it comes to him. But sometimes, illogically, I feel guiltiest for this. I opened the van door, I invited him inside. And while I didn’t drive off the road, I instead drove him somewhere bleak and cold and colorless, and left him standing there, where, back where I had collected him, the landscape shimmered with color, the sky fizzed with fireworks, and he stood openmouthed in wonder.

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