Carrying the Fire

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Joel Mayward

The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke. 

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in its entirety during one plane ride from D.C. to Frankfurt. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to do it. Void of chapters, titles, or apostrophes, the story invites you into its bleak world and demands you to pace with it, pausing for breath every few pages, but moving steadily forward into the gray.

The story is strikingly simple and sparse: A father and son walk along a road in a post-apocalyptic landscape. McCarthy’s knowledge and use of the English language imbue this uncluttered story with a wealth of nuance and complexity, asking profound spiritual questions without ever feeling didactic or heavy-handed. In short, it’s a masterpiece. This is why I read in it one sitting, weeping quietly to myself in the book’s final moments as the man and the boy must part ways in this life, hoping to be reunited in the next.

***

One year after that plane ride, almost to the day, my oldest son was born. What was a relatively uneventful pregnancy turned into the thing of nightmares for new parents; a panicky 40-minute drive to the hospital while my wife bled in the back seat, the ruptured placenta resulting in an emergency C-section in the dark hours before dawn. They pulled a baby from her womb as I watched in both rapt awe of the miracle of life and outright horror at the blood and fluids pouring from the wound. What should have resulted in death was the birth of a new life, and I held my son in exhausted wonder.

Being a parent is a paradoxical combination of terror and hope. On the one hand, you have been given the responsibility of creating and caring for a human life, and you have no idea what to make of this charge. What if I screw them up? Of course I’ll screw them up! *I’m* screwed up. On the other hand, the incredible love you have for this snot-and-shit-covered person who demands all your attention and affection, well…it is marvelous. A gift. My children are the most remarkable people I have ever met. Having a child is a concrete and lifelong investment into the future, whatever that future may entail.

***

In The Road, the future is a living hell. John Hillcoat’s filmic adaptation of McCarthy’s novel pictures this world in sepia tones and grimy grays, with filming locations ranging from the volcanic aftermath of Mount St. Helens, to the mining country in Pennsylvania, to the pallid waterfalls and coastline of Oregon. In an early scene, the father and son (Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee) are awakened from their tattered tent by an orange glow. Their silhouettes are framed against the horizon as the forest around them erupts into an explosive inferno. The world before them is on fire. It’s about the only brightness they experience in this apocalyptic nightmare. No explanation is given for this reality; no reason or back story or solution to the problem. They live in a constant dystopia, walking along the road that borders hell itself.

In stark contrast to the bleak landscape is the portrait of familial love expressed between father and son. Mortenson and Smit-McPhee share a rare on-screen bond of genuine affection, perhaps best seen in brief moments near water. The father washes blood out of the boy’s hair in a grimy creek, having just saved the boy’s life from a cannibalistic attacker. The boy begins to cry—the water is cold; the experience, traumatizing. The father holds the son, water streaming from hands and hair, a baptism of sorts. Later, the two jump into a waterfall together, their pale and scrawny bodies standing out against the blue-gray of the plume. It’s a memory-making moment of shared laughter, a spark of life. The baptismal waters bring a renewal of life in the valleys of death.

It’s unclear to me why The Road hasn’t received more critical acclaim and recognition in the filmic community. While Leo finally won an Oscar for an immersive father-and-son survival story in The Revenant, Viggo did it better back in 2009. When Furiosa falls to her knees and screams in existential despair at her apocalyptic plight in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron had already blown her vocal chords giving birth to her son in another dystopian road story. McCarthy’s book is certainly richer and more affecting than its film adaptation, but just because the novel is a masterpiece of American literature doesn’t mean the film isn’t good, or even great. Hillcoat’s The Road deserves our attention and examination, particularly in an increasingly unsettled world which often feels on the brink of dystopia itself.

Both McCarthy’s novel and Hillcoat’s film turn immeasurable dystopia into an intimate experience. The cinematography and world-building elements in the film are key strengths in bringing McCarthy’s story to life. Rich images from The Road are seared in my personal memory, framed in a sobering slate aesthetic. The telephone poles lining the burned-out road like fallen crucifixes. The mountain lake overflowing with dead logs. The outline of a shipwreck on the horizon of the sea.

We each have personal dystopias. Death and suffering visit us all, and we are left speechless and staggering. Often no reasons are obvious or understood; reasons would not likely satisfy us anyway. We simply continue to walk the road before us.

***

Fifteen months after my son was born, we noticed that something was not quite right. Having just learned to walk, we were not especially concerned with his sudden stumbling until it became clear that he was in pain and unable to move his legs properly. The pediatrician recommended a pediatric neurologist, who called for an immediate MRI. This led to a 72-hour emotional roller coaster, with repeated neurologist visits, our son going under anesthesia, multiple MRIs, and a lumbar puncture, all with the lingering question underneath: "Does my 15-month-old son have a brain tumor?" The doctors said it could have been next-to-nothing, a post-viral infection that was affecting the part of the brain that controls balance. Or it could have been cancer. I still recall the image of the beige hospital walls at 2 a.m. while we waited for the latest MRI results.

The problem was determined to be a spinal epidural hematoma, an extraordinarily rare phenomenon which may or may not have been caused by the lumbar puncture, but nonetheless was treatable. Still, those days in the ICU haunt my memory—our son emerged alive and well, but not every child does.

***

Nearly frozen from the elements and dying of starvation, the father and son discover a bunker in the ground, a concrete cave filled with food and warmth and hope. “We did good, Papa?” notes the boy, and the father agrees with the simple assessment. They eat and drink, resting in a sanctuary from the devastation outside and the pain within. The father cuts the boy’s hair and bathes him with warm water. They wash up and emerge as new people, yet another baptismal moment. As they eat the canned food in the bunker, the father lights a hand-rolled cigarette and drinks whiskey while the boy watches with strange curiosity.

“You think I’m from another world,” the father muses. The boy pauses, then half-nods.

Most children believe this about their parents. To my son, I may seem like a god, transcendent and timeless, emerging from a past far beyond his comprehension, a world he will never encounter beyond pictures and stories pulled from my memory. I share with him the gifts of memory and experience; he shares with me the gifts of purity and wonder.

***

Time passed, and with it came more children. After being told by a doctor that the placenta problems with the first pregnancy were “utterly impossible” for future births, another placental issue emerged in the final weeks of pregnancy, causing stunted growth in our second child. Still, she was born with breath and vitality, and we were grateful. It took us a long time to determine whether we’d have a third child—we’d dodged two bullets, two “impossibilities,” and wondered if it’d be possible to avoid tragedy with a third. But despite personal anxieties (an international move and my personal bout with depression didn’t help) the third pregnancy came and went without serious complications. Our youngest son was welcomed into this world. Bullet: dodged.

Then it came. The phone call while we were visiting the children’s museum with friends, the doctors telling my wife that something was wrong inside my son: he had congenital heart disease, and his heart was failing. Parts of his heart looked like Swiss cheese; other parts were clogged with extra tissue. He’d been alive for mere weeks, and already we were preparing for the worst. We had dodged two bullets, but now came a third, with no way to avoid this one unscathed. I drove home from the children’s museum cursing, wondering what all this was for, why him, why this, why now.

At six months old, he went in for open-heart surgery. They would cut open his chest, drain his body of blood, and patch up millimeter-sized holes in an organ smaller than an adult’s thumb. Once again, we handed off a son to complete strangers in pale blue scrubs with anticipation that they’d repair what was broken. Once again, we waited in hope for the best and horror for the worst.

***

One key distinction between novel and film is the portrayal of the son’s illness. In the film, the boy has a fever and throws up once in a passing scene, a very brief episode overshadowed by an encounter with a thief (Michael K. Williams). In the novel, the son becomes very ill to the point where the father wonders if he may die. It’s a point in their journey where all the father’s hard efforts to keep them both alive are in danger of being foiled by an infection that could have been easily treated in better conditions. The father checks his son’s pulse by placing a wearied hand on his ribs, feeling for his heartbeat. He rages into the sky, sobbing on his knees at the thought of his son’s death. Could the father continue to live in this world without the boy? What would be the point?

Every parent imagines they will die before their children. The loss of a child feels akin to the loss of one’s own heart.

***

The nurse whose job it was to inform parents of surgery updates was out sick that day, so we paced and wondered and groaned and cried in the waiting area, alone and without any news. I stared out windows, stared at floors, feeling so helpless. If he died, if I only had six months with this tiny person, would that be enough?

Hours into waiting, a young mom who happened to be there with her son, also recovering from open-heart surgery, entered the room to get something from the fridge—there was a full kitchen, as families often had to stay for days or weeks. She started up a conversation, and shared with my wife about the skills of the cardiac surgeon—the same one operating on our son—with the calm reassurance and empathy of the experienced. She had been here, where we were, only days earlier. Everything had turned out okay. It would be hard, but we would make it. A complete stranger who had entered our journey for only a few moments brought comfort in the bleakest moment of our parental lives.

Sometimes the hospital waiting room—a place of weighty emotional darkness—is suddenly brightened by the spark of good news.

***

The father and son encounter a number of characters on the road. Most are dangerous or dying, but one in particular stands out—Ely, an old man portrayed with prophetic fervor by Robert Duvall. Duvall’s performance is brief, but it leaves an impression. He reminisces about a son he had once, a line improvised by Duvall and not present in McCarthy’s prose. It reveals that he, too, was a father to a boy.

While the father is mostly annoyed or suspicious of the old man, the son grasps his hand and offers food in an act of radical hospitality. They sit by a fire in the dying world, faces and hearts alight by the flames, mostly silent. In the novel, Ely notes, “I’ve not seen a fire in a long time.” The fire he mentions may mean the embers in the dark, but more likely he refers to the presence of the boy. “I never thought to see a child again,” he mutters.

This “fire” in The Road has a myriad of interpretations. Human decency or dignity. Moral goodness. Innocence. Love. Perhaps it means all these things, but I am certain that any valid analysis includes the presence of hope. Being a parent to a child requires an immense amount of hope, the internal flame of assurance that we human beings are capable of good regardless of our external circumstances. To be a parent is to stoke the fire in one’s offspring.

You have to carry the fire. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

***

Not long ago, our little family traveled to the Oregon coast for a day of respite in the warmth of the spring. We strolled along the beach at Fort Stevens State Park, my oldest children playing a game of tag with the frigid Pacific waves rushing back and forth in a soothing rhythm. I watched them run ahead in uninhibited joy, holding my youngest son’s hand as he toddled alongside me. He has a permanent scar down the whole of his torso, a constant reminder of this personal dystopia he will never remember, but I will never forget.

As we walked, I slowed my pace in the sand and recognized the filmic image before me: The wreck of the Peter Iredale, the setting of the late scene in The Road where the father and the son finally arrive at their destination on the coast. The rusted metal of the wreck looked like an opened rib cage, heart exposed to the world around. In the film, the pair can only sit and stare at the ashen waves, wondering if their endeavors were all for naught, but hopeful for something better down the road. They were carrying the fire. My son’s grip was firm and trusting in my hand as I looked at the wreckage in the sunlight.

My son. He has my whole heart. He always has.


Joel Mayward is a writer, pastor, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. The author of three books, he writes on film and spirituality at www.cinemayward.com.