by Michael Chabon
I've been thinking about the president's speech all night and this morning, how something about it left me feeling left out. Obama's presence—physical, moral, emotional—was palpable. It carried the charge of authority, of mastering a moment. You felt that he was acknowledging, reflecting, and accepting the hardness of life, drawing freely and even generously on his own experience of sorrow and on his capacity to imagine the sorrow of others. When he reached his peroration, as he moved from an invocation of the innocence and immanence of the dead little girl to a call, part admission, part admonishment, part fatherly exhortation, for Americans "to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations," the speech found it true importance, its profundity. To attempt to live up to your children's expectations—to hew to the ideals you espouse and the morals that you lay down for them—is to guarantee a life of constant failure, a failure equivalent with parenthood itself. Surely this is something that the father of Malia and Sasha Obama knows all too well. Choking up at one point, imagining the Taylor-Greens' loss, it seemed to me, in terms of his own unimaginable bereavement, Obama was figuring himself (extraordinarily, I think) not as the Great Father but, more messily and searchingly, as an imperfectly lowercase father, "shaken from [his] routines ... forced to look inward," struggling in the wake of calamity to reclaim and to strive to measure up to a set of principles the burden of whose observance falls so unevenly on the narrow shoulders of the young. He was, at that moment, talking directly to me.
And yet ... Was it all the weird, inappropriate clapping and cheering? Or the realization that I am so out of touch with the national vibe that I didn't know that whistling and whooping and standing ovations are, when someone evokes the memory of murdered innocent people, totally cool? I never would have thought that I'd spend so much of that solemn Wednesday thinking—first on publication of Sarah Palin's latest piece of narrishkeit about the blood libels, then all through the memorial service—please, I beg you, can you not, finally, just shut up? It was distancing. Distracting. As he joined in, at times, with the applause, the president's hard, measured handclaps, too close to the microphone, drowned out everything else in my kitchen right then, and seemed to be tolling the passing of something else besides human lives. I don't know what. Maybe just my own sense of connectedness to the cheering people in that giant faraway room. I didn't feel like applauding right then, not even in celebration of the persistence and continuity of human life and American values. And then I was ashamed of my curmudgeonliness. Those people, after all, many of them college students, were in a sports arena; architecture gives shape to behavior and thought. Maybe if the service had been held in a church, things would have played differently.
Having struggled all the way through to make my own sense of sorrow and confusion congruent with what I saw happening in Tucson, having found that point of tangency at the rueful and admonitory heart, the father's heart, of the speech, I fell all the way out again, right at the end. "If there are rain puddles in heaven," the president said, evoking the words of an unnamed contributor to an album of photos of babies born on 9/11, "Christina is jumping in them today."
I tried to imagine how I would feel if, having, God forbid, lost my precious daughter, born three months and ten days before Christina Taylor-Green, somebody offered this charming, tidy, corny vignette to me by way of consolation. I mean, come on! There is no heaven, man. The brunt, the ache and the truth of a child's death is that he or she will never jump in rain puddles again. That joy was taken from her, and along with it ours in the pleasure of all that splashing. Heaven is pure wishfulness, an imaginary solution to the insoluble problem of the contingency and injustice of life.
But I've been chewing these words over since last night, and I've decided that, in fact, they were appropriate to a memorial for a child, far more appropriate, certainly, than all that rude hallooing. A literal belief in heaven is not required to grasp the power of that corny wish, to feel the way the idea of heaven inverts in order to express all the more plainly everything—wishes, hopes and happiness—that the grieving parents must now put away, along with one slicker and a pair of rain boots.