Doron Weber, a vice president at the Sloan Foundation, is the author of “Immortal bird: A Family Memoir.”
One lovely summer eve, lifelong bicycle enthusiast and married father of two Thomas Harding was leading a bike-riding party across the chalky Wiltshire Downs in southwest England when he lost his way. Harding’s 14-year-old-son, Kadian, a fellow bike aficionado, found the right path and broke for it, pulling from the pack, then inexplicably accelerating down a steep track. As Harding watched his son streak toward an intersection, a white van flashed past, striking and killing Kadian instantly.
“Kadian Journal” is the moving, anguished and ultimately healing account of Harding’s efforts to come to terms with the unspeakably tragic loss of his beloved son and to pay him tribute. It describes Harding’s quest to unravel the mystery of his son’s fatal accident, complete with a police investigation, forensic experts and an inquest, and to grapple with his own guilt and responsibility, or lack thereof.
As a father who also chronicled his teenage son’s death — it’s a tiny club that grows exponentially with this strong addition — I can attest that guilt and a sense of failure, along with the question of revenge, go with the territory. Yet in “Kadian Journal,” these questions take on a special urgency, supplying a narrative engine. Harding, the author of two previous critically acclaimed books, is a deft, skillful writer, and he deploys the mystery element judiciously, scattering clues like breadcrumbs until the end.
He is also unsparing of himself. “Is it cowardice not to seek vengeance? What would a real man do?” Harding understands that no resolution is possible, yet the stakes, for him and for us, are enormous.
Harding exposes the complete paralysis and breakdown that accompany such a traumatic loss. He cries and wails and rages. His memory fails, his eyesight diminishes, his judgment falters. Nothing is stable or predictable. He can’t leave the house, can’t work, can’t socialize.
“I am now functioning at a very low, amoeba-like level. I can just about feed myself, relieve myself and sleep, but little more. I could no more organise a trip to the supermarket to purchase provisions than fly a 747 jet plane.” Despite this, he has an extraordinary network of family and close neighbors — his people go back generations in Wiltshire — and social media also offers a lifeline. And his wife, though equally bereft, is a pillar of strength.
One of Harding’s goals is to celebrate his son’s life, not just dwell on his death. He provides a vivid and affectionate portrait of a bright, gifted and sensitive teen with a mischievous sense of play, an entrepreneurial bent and a big heart. Kadian falls in love with Apple products beginning with an iPod Nano at age 10. He reveres Steve Jobs, watches Jobs’s video presentations on YouTube and even publishes a letter to the editor in Macworld. At school he paints “respect” on his face in solidarity with a student bullied for being gay. And Kadian works industriously in his mother’s store — she is the family breadwinner and chief executive of a bicycle company — and builds his own bike. He is sociable, even charismatic, and his death engenders an outpouring of emotion at schools he attended in the United States and Britain.
Harding is admirably unrestrained in describing a father’s passionate love for his son, including their close physical bond, from their ritual good-night kiss on different parts of the face — “best son in the world” — to “love wrestling” with “tickles and giggles on the sofa.” When Harding publishes his first book, Kadian cheekily says he’s glad, because he can now tell his friends his father is an author. “Up till now I didn’t know what to tell them, a lay-about perhaps, a house husband.” But his 14-year-old son lets Harding know how “really proud” he is of his dad. “Best father in the world.”
Toward the end, fearing that his portrait may be too airbrushed, Harding shows us a certain coldness and tensions that arise as he and his moody teen son square off. Similarly, he lifts the veil on a near-perfect marriage to a strong, smart and exceptionally supportive professional woman. Harding punches the wall and throws a chair — “I can’t take it!” — and his wife cries, “I will not put up with this abuse!” These are minor rents in the fabric of a mutually loving marriage, a reminder of the terrible cost of losing a child.
Harding’s younger daughter, Sam, suffers with her parents but emerges as a sympathetic, self-possessed young woman after her loss. When her grieving parents wake her up with their desperate wailing early one morning, Sam marches in and informs them that she understands their need to scream, but could they please wait until 9 a.m. so she can get some sleep?
In the last third, the narrative loses a little steam and becomes more discursive. In part, Harding, an exhaustive researcher, wishes to leave no stone unturned. He includes long lists of consoling phrases to avoid, favorite books on death, words for a parent who has lost a child, entire transcripts of speeches and memorials, lists of places visited and activities performed. But partly, as Harding admits, he is playing for time, because ending his book means having to say goodbye to his son: “I don’t want to leave him.” I can empathize, and besides, Harding is such a fluent and intelligent raconteur, one willingly accommodates his meandering.
Near the end, jolted by a newspaper headline, Harding realizes that he has not yet fully accepted his son’s death, though he’s been talking about nothing else. He grasps that acceptance is not one of the “stages” of grief, but rather there may be multiple, progressive “points” of acceptance: “Each one was like being told for the first time. Each one, an instance of revelation, shock and then acceptance.” Harding arbitrarily posits 200 points, with maybe 180 to go. “I won’t fully accept his death until I have endured each one. Perhaps this will never happen.”
Seven years further into my loss than Harding, I can only nod.
There may be no final acceptance, but this is a fine, brave book, a tough-minded, tender-hearted evocation of a beautiful boy, his all-too-short life and the impact of his death on a loving family.
Harding has done his boy proud and turned nightmare into art.
By Thomas Harding
Picador. 246 pp. $16 paperback