Roger Rosenblatt has written two books about grief since the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter, Amy Solomon, due to an undetected heart condition. The first was his bestselling memoir “Making Toast,” in which Rosenblatt wrote about moving into Amy’s house in Bethesda, Md., with his wife, Ginny, to help their son-in-law take care of his and Amy’s three young children. The task for the grandparents, bereaved as they were, was to keep their dead daughter’s household running as smoothly as possible. To succeed in this effort they could not let themselves be emotionally overwhelmed by their own loss. It was a time for getting on with life, moving through the pain, and holding the family together.
“Kayak Morning” is a very different book. It was written more than two years after the catastrophic emergency of Amy’s death, which required the Rosenblatts’ constant shared attention to her young family. This account describes the author in solitude, in his kayak in the mornings. He is heavily burdened by the continuing pain of his daughter’s death, and the restless wandering of his thoughts as he paddles makes him seem at times distracted, at times anguished, at times enraged. The words are set down with a spare clarity that has no sentimentality to it but is nonetheless heartbreaking.
Rosenblatt has always used words economically. His writing is candid, honest, brilliant, widely praised. Alone in his kayak, however, he finds none of this useful. Words themselves are not useful. “They do not help,” he writes. “Old words, or new, now, they do not help. I had believed otherwise.” The words do not help, and yet there they are, inevitable and revealing. Reading this book, one moves with the writer’s words across the water in the morning with the tides and the seabirds and the sky, and has the sense that words hold this man’s thoughts the way the kayak holds the man himself, but just barely. His daughter is dead; everything in his life is precarious.
Rosenblatt claims, “All I have to keep me afloat, all I have ever had is writing.” Yet writing, like the kayak, is a more reliable craft than it may seem. In order to right the kayak when it rolls, Rosenblatt writes, “you have to lean into the paddle, which will put you off balance.” In order to remain fully alive after a devastating death, his book suggests, you have to accommodate the enormity of the death that lives within you. That too can put you off balance for a time, can make you antisocial and isolated.
“No man is an island, but I do my best.”The author sympathizes with anyone so unlucky as to be stuck with him in a social situation. He knows he is too preoccupied with his sorrow to feel connected even to his friends, though it is clear that he remains close to his family even now: his wife, his sons, his son-in-law, his grandchildren, all of whom feel the loss of Amy too. He laments his self-absorption and his bad temper, though he finds out that some of his moods are symptomatic of what his doctors have diagnosed as Graves disease, an auto-immune disorder that may be caused by stress.
In his reflections Rosenblatt touches on his experiences, some of them deeply shocking, as a reporter in Cambodia after the murders and deprivation under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, or in a mental hospital in Beirut, or in Rwanda following the slaughter there. He confesses that his grief “colors everything I do.” He fears that his mind is “not right.” He addresses his thoughts to his dead daughter, sometimes talking and remembering (“You were a disruptive influence,”“You hated the cold”), sometimes crying out to her (“Look. I’ve been calling your name.”). He recounts conversations with a therapist friend about his daughter. When he told the doctor simply, “I want her back,” the doctor replied, “You’ll have to find a way to get her back.”
There is a way, although the kayak does not exactly bring Amy back. Rosenblatt writes, “I have been going nowhere for the past two and a half years.” That is not entirely true. To keep a family going at a time of great loss is hard work, demanding both courage and stamina. To choose to spend time alone with the deep personal sadness caused by a child’s death may be even more difficult. Yet Rosenblatt’s meditations in “Kayak Morning” show us that it is possible in this way — and perhaps only in this way — to bring oneself through an all-consuming grief, and to discover beyond it the imperishable constant that is love.
Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats
By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco. 146 pp. Paperback, $13.99