Its a tiny book called Alex: The Life of a Child, by Frank Deford, first published more than twenty years ago now. I reread it every few years, and it never fails to bring tears. Its Defords account of how his little girl died of cystic fibrosis.
Such a story is bound to be sad, but it didnt have to be beautiful. But Deford is a gifted writer, best known for his way of capturing the human workings of sports. He has his ups and downs: On a bad day he is merely very good. On his best days he is unforgettable.
One of his most inspired sports stories was a true account of a boxing match that ended in a fighters death. He began by telling the reader that one of the two young men would die, but not telling which one. Then he wrote profiles of both young men, showing each as lovable, admirable, full of hope, and unaware of impending tragedy. This simple approach created terrible suspense and pathos. All you knew was that the end was going to be heartbreaking. And it was.
That fight convinced Deford that boxing should be abolished. No mere argument could have made his point as powerfully as this plain narrative of two sweet boys, punching each others heads. They might have been the best of friends. Deford turned each into a vivid character. Fictionalized, this might have been a great short story about war; as it is, its one of the most moving sports stories ever written. Once youve read it, its hard to watch boxing with a clear conscience.
In similarly plain style, Deford tells the story of a little girl, who happened to be his daughter, born with a wasting disease that would kill her at age eight. Her whole life was a painful effort to stave off death. Once again the reader learns the tragic ending at the beginning, and this only intensifies the suspense.
For Alex lives. Her parents know shes going to die young, and she comes to realize it soon enough, and every day of her life is one of torment a painful, incurable lung disease, held at bay with painful therapy and her father describes it all, including his own feelings, in an unsparing, matter-of-fact way, not without humor.
He admits hes sentimental: I cry at weddings. I cry when people lose on TV quiz shows. I cry when people win on TV quiz shows. His and his wifes feelings are very much part of the story, but he lets the details of Alexs fate speak for themselves.
Still, this poor little victim turns out to be anything but passive. She insists on living her life as if it might be as it should have been.
Alex plays with dolls, makes friends, asks why girls cant do the things boys are allowed to do, fights with her older brother (though she adores him), and plans on growing up. I wont have to do therapy when Im a lady, will I? she asks her father hopefully.
But the sense of doom is always there. Alex laughs a lot, even though it hurts her lungs; and after one bout of laughing, coughing, and choking, she sits on her fathers lap and says, Oh, Daddy, wouldnt this have been great? She shuns self-pity, not wanting to upset her parents, but she cant help feeling a bit wistful when she imaginates her own coinage a normal life, just what it would be like not to have a disease.
Pitying those who pity her, Alex tries to cheer others up; she feels its her responsibility. She learns early to bring out the best in people, even other children. But, pretty as she is, she is ashamed of the way her disease has wasted her body and slightly deformed her fingers. She confides her special secret to an adult friend: She balls her hands into fists so I wont have to see my own fingers.
Rarely since J.D. Salinger has a child been brought to such vivid life on a printed page. Frank Deford has given his child the gift of literary immortality. How touching to reflect hed rather not have had to. Alex would have been 33 this month.
|Copyright © 2004 by the
Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate
Archive Table of Contents
SOBRANS home page.
|FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.|