Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Boy in the Moon

It took me a while to finally read The Boy in the Moon. Three years ago, when Ian Brown wrote his Globe and Mail series about his son Walker - articles that provided the genesis for the book - I remember thinking that it was a pretty heavy subject. And I wasn't wrong about that, but the way Brown treats it is beautifully soft.

The full title is The Boy in the Moon: a father's search for his disabled son and that really captures what Brown is doing. His original articles, Brown wrote about his relationship with Walker. He described their routines, how they interact, their language of "click" and what it means to be the father of a disabled child. Brown also explores the decision he and and his wife made to get help raising Walker. After years with a stellar nanny, Brown and his wife Johanna decided to find another home for their son.

When I first heard that Brown was writing a book about Walker, I wasn't really sure how he was going to move beyond the articles he'd written, which were lengthy and intricate. But in the newspaper series, Brown had to section up his story so that each piece in the series was complete in itself (for the casual reader). In the book, though, Brown was able to interweave the elements more. He could reveal more slowly the symptoms and realities of Walker's disability - the unbelievably rare CFC - and describe the many different ways they affected their life. And when it came to discussing the deeply fraught decision to find a home for Walker - and all the politics that involved - Brown gave himself the space to really discuss what it means to give your child to other people to raise, and to look at who those people were and how their influence benefitted Walker.

I said once, after reading the first story in the Globe series, that the articles seemed like Brown's plea for some understanding of the decision he and Johanna had to make. It was as if he desperately needed to explain to people that they weren't bad parents, and that Walker wasn't a bad son, but that they both needed help. In The Boy in the Moon Brown is still doing that, in a way, but he also seems to have come to terms with the decision and appreciate that Walker is finding his own community and place in the world. It's a realization that must come to every parent when their child leaves home: you've done all you can, and although you'll still be present in their life (Walker comes home regularly), it's time to let someone else take the reins.

Brown can speak to Walker, but Walker can't speak back (except in "click"); Brown can extrapolate, from a look on his son's face, that Walker is happy or sad or angry, but he has no way of knowing for sure. To be a father of a severely disabled child is to live in a grey area, with brief punches of colour, and Brown's treatment of the their father-son relationship is incredibly tender. He has aspirations for Walker - some realistic, some less so - and his efforts to discover Walker's "inner life" have not gone to waste. Medically, Walker may not have developed very far mentally, but Brown knows (as does the reader) that Walker's life has value not just because he makes you see things about yourself, but because their is purpose in the way he walks around, or hits himself, or laughs at a wake of destruction he's caused.

Brown spends his memoir ostensibly searching for who and what his son is, but in the end (as with all such searches) the search is more for himself than for Walker - it's a search for the meaning of fatherhood. And, if Brown rereads his book, he'll discover the meaning is there, in all the details of his life with Walker.

The Boy in the Moon: a father's search for his disabled son
by Ian Brown
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Random House Canada edition)

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