“What can be learned from a dying baby?” Emily Rapp’s deeply moving memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, asks this question as it recounts the life of her terminally ill son, Ronan. The answers it reveals are beautiful, devastating, and unexpected as Rapp gently leads us to understand that the lesson behind any death is the life that preceded it.
Rapp and her husband, Rick, were like any other first-time parents—mired in questions about organic baby food, weighing the benefits of breastfeeding versus formula, and contemplating how soon they should enroll their son in French lessons. But then they began noticing minor development delays that weren’t improving—at nine months old, Ronan had yet to crawl or begin speaking. Concerned, they took him to the pediatrician. The doctor gave them unthinkable news: Ronan had Tay-Sachs, a fatal, degenerative disease in which the body’s systems slowly shut down one by one. Rare and incurable, there was, quite simply, nothing to be done. They went home from the hospital stripped of an expected future that had been fully present just hours before.
Rapp first reflects on her own congenital birth defect, which resulted in the amputation of her left foot at four years old. Her experience as an amputee familiarized her with the pervasive mentality that anyone who was less than “whole” was to be pitied—and just how selfish, condescending, and maddening that pity is.
Ronan’s disability, in contrast, freed him from the judgment, longing to belong, and sense of otherness that had characterized her own childhood. The immediate, present, and sensory nature of Ronan’s life leads Rapp to understand the fallacy of the traditional notion that that death is something to be battled and overcome. Was it possible that a life could have its own meaning, removed from ambition and experience? That Ronan was, in fact, fully whole, despite the future that had been taken from him?
Rapp’s background in theology leads her to examine what she has read and learned against the immediate circumstances of her life. She reflects on what the spiritual has to say to us in times of crisis, and what we have to say to it. Her conversation with the unknown and unknowable leads to a more subtle understanding of life and its requisite mortality.
Through searing self-examination; visitations to Buddhist retreats and animal hospices and Catholic shrines; the kindness of friends and strangers; the words of writers and thinkers and poets that have lived through their own grief; and, most importantly, the heartbreaking, liberating act of writing Ronan’s story, Rapp allows us to experience the short, wondrous life of her son. The Still Point of the Turning of the World tells the story of Rapp’s effort to neither escape nor defeat her son’s diagnosis, but to live with it—and, in so doing, live it with him.
Emily Rapp has written extensive essays, nonfiction and book reviews for publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Salon, Slate, the Sun, O the Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and the Rumpus, among others. In addition to The Still Point of the Turning World she is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir. She has studied at Harvard University, Saint Olaf College, Trinity College-Dublin, and the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. Rapp was born in Nebraska, grew up in Wyoming and Colorado, and currently lives in Madrid, New Mexico. She is professor of creative writing in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program.
Almost every chapter of The Still Point of the Turning World begins with an epigram, and throughout the book you quote and discuss literature in relation to your situation with Ronan. Did you find your relationship to literature changing throughout your experience with Ronan?
I’ve always found a refuge in books and in stories; stepping into the world of a novel or a memoir is like moving through a door to a new place of understanding oneself and the world. Stories give us ways to assess “tragedy” and “luck” in different ways; the provide access to the lives of people who battle the external forces of the world and prevail or triumph in some way. I definitely felt that I needed books more than ever before during Ronan’s illness. I found escape, wisdom, guidance, and inspiration at a time when I needed all of those things very deeply.
The title of your memoir comes from a T. S. Eliot poem—what made you choose this particular line?
Being with Ronan was about being still, about presence, and more than that, about uncomplicated presence. The line from the poem resonates with the experience of being with Ronan, of holding him, a being with no ambition or desire. It was a pure and peaceful and quiet experience. Meanwhile, the world raged on with its clamor and noise while Ronan stayed the same.
What contemporary writers influence and inspire you?
Rebecca Solnit, for her stunning synthesis of source and thought, for her vision and fierce compassion mixed with a shining intelligence and clear-headed understanding of the injustice and chaos of the world. Gina Frangello for her ability to write about sex and relationships in a more richly nuanced way than anyone I’ve ever read. Rachel Dewoskin for the spirited voice in all of her books, nonfiction and fiction, the complicated, powerful women and the flawed, irresistible men, and for the way her books are like Swiss clocks, so tightly constructed and perfectly paced. Colm McCann for his brilliance with language and point of view shifts, and his ability to traverse time and space and character in amazing ways. Michael Ondaatje for the beauty of his individual sentences, the believable dream worlds his novels create. Sarah Sentilles for her ability to interrogate faith and injustice with a poetic heart.
In The Still Point of the Turning World you discuss the limitations of your Christian background when it came to dealing with Ronan’s diagnosis, particularly the mentality that death is something to be vanquished rather than embraced as a part of life. What are the limitations and challenges of this mentality?
It’s no secret that we live in a death-phobic culture, and to some extent I believe that stories of the resurrection are partly to blame. The notion that Jesus died in order to “overcome” death conjures, for me, troubling visions of heaven and the afterlife that can’t possibly be true (if we are all creating these worlds in our own imaginations), but that wield considerable power in our collective decision to believe that we can outpace death. We cannot. The body ages and dies. This is part of being alive, to face this final stage. Of course a belief in the resurrection is exactly that—a belief—and as such is not exactly subject to the same rules that may apply to an empirically provable fact, for example. That said, thinking of Ronan as an angel in heaven was decidedly unhelpful to me during his illness. It made no intellectual sense, it made no sense at all. People often say “God’s plan,” as a way of framing the chaotic nature of external events that buffet us about in the world. I would rather believe in chaos, and the fact that anything can happen to any of us at any moment, including (and eventually) death.
How did Ronan’s mortality change your view of your own?
Watching someone die makes you realize that you, yourself, and everyone you know and love, will someday die. In some ways it made me less afraid of my own death, which in turn made me more determined to live a full life according to my own rules and expectations.
One would think that, in this memoir of your son’s terminal illness, there wouldn’t be much talk of happiness, but it actually occupies a good part of your book. How did you come to redefine your idea of happiness through Ronan’s life? What implications does it have for how you live your life now?
Ronan was a beautiful, wonderful boy. It was impossible NOT to experience happiness in his presence. He actually inspired that in almost everyone who knew or held him, which was remarkable. Before Ronan was diagnosed I still clung to that belief that happiness was some kind of end point that I would reach and when I did so, everything would be “perfect.” But happiness is fleeting only. It is merely a collection of moments, moments only. When you feel happiness you cannot cling to it, you can only ride it before it ends. That was a way of living that I had never quite believed was possible before Ronan. It’s still not easy now, in fact it requires daily practice and awareness, but I try to notice when I feel happiness, which is a pretty uncomplicated emotion. I think I’m happy and I feel thankful for that, knowing that anything can happen to any of us at any moment. We might be “good” people who do the “right” things, and that has absolutely no impact on what external events might affect or strike us. Character and outcome are unrelated and nobody deserves anything. That’s not an easy lesson to learn.
In your memoir, Santa Fe is painted so clearly and beautifully it becomes its own entity. How is it different than the many places you’ve lived (many of which are described in the book)? Do you think your environment influences your writing?
The light in Santa Fe is very striking. Literally. The sunsets are like a sense event in almost every respect—the colors are so vibrant, the sky feels so close it’s as if you might reach out and touch it. Ronan was very alive in that light, as he went for a lot of walks and spent a good deal of time outside. I do think environment influences my writing, but I often don’t know that when it’s happening; it’s only in retrospect. For example, I’m working on a novel that’s set partially in Ireland and partially in London. Both places I experienced for the first time when I was very young, 19, and the impression they made on me is incalculable. I can remember details about those places that I can’t imagine about others; the striking newness of the landscapes to my then untraveled mind were immense, and they continue to loom large in my imagination. In terms of Santa Fe, I am glad we lived in a place where the sun was shining almost every day. Ronan was dying in bright rooms. That was important to me, and I think it made a huge difference in how I was able to cope with the day-to-day realities of his illness.
Initially, you resisted writing about anything too close to home, but soon realize that it’s impossible not to write about Ronan. Has this changed your writing in general—not just for this book, but also for future projects?
Ronan changed everything about my life, including the way I write and view my writing. The experience set off a kind of explosion in my brain. I felt both fearless and without ego; I just wanted to write and tell stories for the sake of doing it, because it felt like a way of keeping death at bay and also trying to understand it. Initially I didn’t care if anyone read what I wrote; I just knew I needed to write it. That urgency has lessened some in the year since his death, but it’s still present in my working life and habits.
Chapter 10 stands out both in its structure and its simplicity—what made you decide to include this chapter in the book, and why did you choose to deviate from the structure of the other chapters?
I wrote that list on a plane in a fury. I had a lot of furious, one-line bursts during Ronan’s illness; most of the other lines were disconnected from one another, but for some reason this list of sentences hung together as a kind of poetic whole. Sometimes traditional narrative fails us. I liked this list because it visually and tonally represented the fractured feeling that grief so often evokes.
You describe being surprised by the friends that came to your side and those that were nowhere to be found when things got difficult, partially because “grief is embarrassing.” How has this changed your own reaction to the grief of others? Is your response different than it used to be?
It’s very different. I don’t worry about saying the “right thing,” because I recognize that it’s not about me. People want support, they want presence, they need to know they’re not alone. This is what I believe. What kept me going was texts, calls, emails, and people coming to visit. If someone is struggling, you put your own worries and ego aside and you show up. Many people told me it was “too difficult for them” to be around Ronan and me because they had children or it just made them too sad. It made me sad also, but there I was, living it. Not knowing what to say is not an excuse to not say anything at all. When I have a friend who is struggling with something, I get in touch immediately. And I stay in touch. It’s up to them to tell me what they need, or if they want me to back off, and I will respect that, but when you’re grieving, I believe it helps to know you’re not alone.
The Still Point of the Turning World chronicles the nine months following Ronan’s diagnosis. In the book, you acknowledge that the grief that will come after his passing will be different from what you’ve already experienced. Did you feel, in any way, that writing this book prepared you for that grief?
No, it did not. What’s called “anticipatory grief” is actually just a fancy term for dread. And dread is different from grief.
What are you working on now? Are you still focused primarily on nonfiction?
I love the essay form so I write a lot of essays for various publications. I review books regularly for the Boston Globe and other publications. But my primary work is a novel that has been living in me for a while, and which changed shape and direction during the writing of Still Point. I started writing as a fiction writer, so I’ve made a return to that.
Do you feel like you are finished telling Ronan’s story (on paper) or that there is more to tell? And if so, what form might it take?
I don’t think I will ever finish telling his story; for me, it’s a way of keeping him alive. In terms of form, I don’t know. I still write a great deal about him, one year after his death, in essays and other nonfiction pieces. And my experiences with him certainly affected the novel I’m working on, and how I understand my characters and maneuver the plot.
How has it felt, in writing and promoting this book, to tell Ronan’s story to strangers? Have any reactions to it surprised you?
I love talking about Ronan, because I loved him. We all like to talk about what is beloved to us. When you write about someone and another person reads about that beloved, they live on in another’s imagination. I love the idea of Ronan living in people’s minds all over the country and in many parts of the world.
Some people have accused me of using Ronan to promote my career, which is a hideous accusation. Writers do not choose the subjects that come to them; their job is to make story sense of whatever might land in their laps. I did not choose Tay-Sachs for Ronan, and I would trade any book in the world, any marginal or massive success, to have him back as a healthy boy living in the world. Another comment people often make has to do with my “bad luck” and my “bravery.” These concepts are meaningless. We all live in a chaotic world. That I choose to live on (versus the other option, which I guess would be suicide), despite the fact that I’ve been through a difficult experience, implies nothing about my bravery. It merely implies that I want to remain hopeful and loving and alive. And labeling someone unlucky is merely a way of distancing yourself from what you fear most. Bad things happen to good people; your good character is no bulwark against suffering or pain. Those reactions surprised me as I believe I address both quite specifically in the book. But that is part of writing a book; you write it, and it lives on in people’s minds in all kinds of unimaginable, indescribable ways.