Where the Heart Is

In Sanctuary, Emily Rapp Black excavates love and loss.

sanctuary, emily rapp balck
CAT DAVIS

I once heard an author get asked about writing out of trauma to recovery. She shook her head. “No recovery,” she said. “Only integration.”

I bet Emily Rapp Black would agree. “I am not made new; I am not ‘over’ the loss of my son,” she writes near the start of Sanctuary. “Instead, I am two people, one person divided, alive within the same body, trying to reconcile one life with the other…, trying to keep a foot squarely at the threshold between past and present.”

Black shows how this is so. Sanctuary is composed of 18 chapters (as well as prologue and epilogue) that chronicle the death of her son, Ronan, not yet three years old, from Tay-Sachs, and the subsequent birth of a healthy baby girl. But where one life really ends and the other begins is harder to say. In “Ghost World,” she describes the actual sanctuary—the old church—where she lives with her new husband and daughter. There, first thing every morning, the infant “smiles and coos as if she’s recognizing something, or someone.” It turns out the church was, perhaps, already haunted, but how can Black not wonder whether this friendly ghost is Ronan, her lost son?

“We are always living on the top of old lives,” she writes, “always walking where others have already walked, lived, been born and died.”

It goes without saying that Black is a gorgeous writer. Her first two books—Poster Child, about growing up disabled, and The Still Point of the Turning World, which documents Ronan’s too-short life—met with deserved acclaim. Still, it should be said: first, because this is a review, and gorgeous counts; second, because with a book like this we might forget to remark on the prose and offer condolences instead.

Yet as Black says straight-out in The Still Point of the Turning World—which is Ronan’s book, the one about him dying of Tay-Sachs—“If there were a single phrase I could choose never to hear again in my life, it would be ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Sanctuary, though, isn’t just about grief; it’s also a celebration of love, and life—a valentine to Charlie, Black’s feisty, adorable daughter—as well as an investigation of what it means to be human. Consider the skill required to write such a layered-up book.

Again, this shouldn’t surprise us. Three memoirs in, Black’s voice is singularly lyrical, singularly bracing. She is obsessed with the potency of language, offering favorite phrases and lines, sometimes contextualizing but more often quoting with the confidence of a reader who has made the sentences her own. They themselves are sanctuary—part of how Black situates herself. Such a generous gesture, this is—it might even send us searching the sources, among them Jane Hirshfield, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Virginia Woolf, Maggie Smith, Katie Ford, Rachel DeWoskin, Tomas Tranströmer, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jack Gilbert, and many more.

Black might also have us looking up definitions. For sanctuary, of course—“a place of refuge and protection,” notes Merriam-Webster, which Black locates not only in literature and history but also in marriage and friendship, family and nature, moving house and sport. And especially for resilience, which, it turns out, is a scaffolding for the project as a whole.

In “Against Bravery,” she writes, “After Ronan died and I had another baby, I heard the words ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ again, but I also just as often heard ‘resilient.’ ” She balks at the label, though: as if she’s had any choice but to carry on. “Children die every day;” she writes, “people lose their partners every day; mothers and fathers are buried every day.”

Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the word that doesn’t betray what she knows about how vulnerable we humans necessarily are. “Should I just forget that the other woman,” she asks, “with a different husband, a different child, living a totally different life, ever existed?”

Black decides “to dig to the bottom of the word…, pull it up by its historical and etymological roots and have a look.” And so she does, in research that takes her from a butterfly exhibit to the building of Viking ships. Wedged between the planks, she learns, keeping the boats watertight, was resin, sharing a root with resilin, the protein found in insects’ wings.

Back at the exhibit with three-year-old Charlie, Black asks a docent how the creatures survive “under normal (read: brutal) life conditions.” He explains that a butterfly can fly with an injured wing. “I mean, they just go. Get on with it,” the docent says.

“This resonates with me,” Black reflects. “The idea that a rupture—in the body, heart, or mind—that isn’t fully mended doesn’t prohibit life or the full living of it, through both joy and pain.”

There is also anger, it turns out. But if Black is occasionally furious, she is never sentimental or self-pitying. She knows the cardinal rule of first-person narrative nonfiction: You can’t play the hero, and you can’t play the victim.

So what then? What to do, how to be, on the page, in the world?

In one of my favorite essays, as Black scans nearly a century of family history, her mother brings out a photo of her own mother.

“Now that’s a resilient woman,” she says. “Since you’re writing about resilience.… She may have been dealt a crap hand, but she played it beautifully. She hated it when people said she was brave.”

“What did she think she was?” the author asks.

“Just living,” her mother says.

Of course. How affirming. How bolstered I felt when I read those words, and when I finished this book. Sadder, happier, human-er. Grateful for the sanctuary.

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