Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Telling the truth

I just finished a collection of essays by Marjorie Williams, a writer for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair who died last year from liver cancer, living behind a husband and two young children. It was an impulse buy at Borders a few weeks back, intriguing me because of the subjects of her political profiles, the caliber of her writing, and the hook that this was a book posthumously collected and and lovingly edited by her husband, journalist Timothy Noah. The book, The Woman at the Washington Zoo, starts with a series of fascinating profiles of Washington's colorful personalities, then slogs through the mechanics of politics, and finally lands squarely in the realism of cancer and motherhood and life. These last pages are now smeared with mascara and dog-eared where there are passages I want to share with friends for one reason and another.

Williams isn't writing about divorce, but in these latter essays she has a great deal to say about parenting in the midst of a situation that stinks for everyone, that has no ultimate happy ending, that brings issues adults don't even like to deal with smack into the lives of children. In an essay titled "Telling the Real, Real Truth," Williams faces up to tough questions from her kids that nearly any parent can relate to--questions about that jolly old elf, Santa--and in so doing, she learns how to parcel out information about her sickness. And so she tells them the truth of Santa, that he is Mommy and Daddy, but assures them that if they want, they can continue to pretend that Santa exists.

"If this had been a normal year, I couldn't have asserted with such authority, that it is feasible to live two possibilities at once. Facing down the Santa issue reminds me that every time I step up to one of those big, choking questions about my future, my anxiety evenually turns to relief. You can almost see the children choose which parts they can take on right now, which to jettison. And then off they run, in search of the rich oblivion of SpongeBob and baseball."

A reader emailed me last week worried about how she and her husband would tell their young child about their separation, which now appeared to be irreparable and headed for divorce. My advice to her was very much in line with how Williams dealt with telling her kids about cancer. Give them the facts they need to know, without burdening them with unnecessary detail. Answer their questions honestly and simply. There will be more questions in the weeks and years to come, and they can be dealt with in their own time; but for now the simplicity of the real, real truth is sufficient.

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