In each of my three sections of English Fundamentals this week, we read Mark Halliday's Young Man on Sixth Avenue, and in each class I asked students to come up with two or three conflicts they saw present in the story. All three classes came up with the good, but conventional ones: the Young Man vs. his inner self; the Young Man vs. society; the Young Man vs. life. In my third and final class today, a young woman raised her hand and said she saw in the story a conflict between gains and losses. I thought about this for half a second and saw that she was incredibly right. For every gain the Young Man achieves--the job he scores after the interview, the wife, the two kids, and the house in the suburbs--he also absorbs losses: his youth, his dreams of literary success, his spirit for adventure.
Judith Viorst (who also wrote, interestingly, this bad day favorite at our house) writes in her book Necessary Losses about the "vital bond" in our lives between losses and gains. "We lose not only through death," she writes, "but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safety--and the loss of our own younger self, the self that always thought it would be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal." All of this, of course, is what the Young Man endures in the space of that short and well-known poem/story, and exactly, of course, what my student saw as the central conflict in Halliday's work.
This resonates with me in particular every now and then. After a difficult afternoon with the kids the other day, I lay in bed next to T., waiting for her to fall asleep, and I thought about the struggle L. wrestles with every day as he negotiates his own "necessary loss": the one he endured when his sister was born, and the one all kids live through when they become siblings. He is always contentious when he gets home from school; snatching things away from T., and overreacting to the slightest misstep on her part. Over the past few days, I've been thinking about how the end of summer and the start of school again have probably set all those feeling of vulnerability and jealousy over her presence in the house back into motion again, just as they are set into motion every fall. He's been like a little animal who, away from his den all day, returns and finds in it a small subordinate; so he must race around, asserting himself again, re-familiarizing himself with his surroundings and his belongings.
I remembered the other night, too, that a few weeks after T. was born, L. had had a particularly volatile day (not unlike today) and tempers were running short. At the end of the day I asked him if he wanted to talk about anything that was bothering him and he said, without hesitation and as if he were relieved to get it off his chest, "I wish T. weren't here." Inside I wanted to shout, "No! No! Don't say that!" but I bit my tongue because I knew that, in his heart, he really did wish she weren't around; he really wasn't sure if he loved her yet. He knew he was expected to, but he just didn't feel it at that point, nor should he have been expected to. Sibling love is very different from the love parents feel for their kids, and very different, of course, from the love between partners, and from any other kind of love. I couldn't really fault L. for feeling that way, but I still remember feeling sad about it at the time.
I know that in a few weeks we'll settle fully back into our routines. T. will settle into her preschool and things will even out, competition-wise, for L. at home. The bond between them will continue to grow and deepen. Scott and I often marvel at the connection they have. Some days they may not like each other much; other days they may be best friends. I know that L. will probably never quite get over the loss he endured when his new sister arrived some four and a half years ago. But I know that over time the love he will develop for T. will overshadow any other feelings, and I hope that the gains will slowly win out over the losses.