Pushcart 2014: Howard Norman, “The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher” (non-fiction), from Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 2012

Photo by Emma Norman: Howard Norman with Robert Frank photo

Photo by Emma Norman: Howard Norman with Robert Frank photo

Morning Edition (NPR)
Bob Edwards, host:
Imagine leaving home for the summer and while you’re away, a terrible event occurs in the place you’ve left behind. That was the experience of some Washington neighbors of NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg. Her Tuesday series, No Place Like Home, continues.
Novelist Howard Norman, his wife, poet Jane Shore, and their teen-age daughter spend their summers in Vermont. This year they loaned their DC home to an acquaintance and her two-year-old son. This past July, in the dining room of that house, the woman committed suicide and took her little boy with her.

I started reading this in a waiting room. When the murder-suicide involving a young child showed up on the first page, I was a little nervous about continuing to read it publicly (I’m given to expressions of emotion when I read), but I continued anyway, figuring I’d already read the worst. Little did I know that in this story, the suicide is just the beginning.

The above transcript of the NPR radio interview with Norman and his wife, poet Jane Strong, opens the piece, and gives the outline of the facts. Maybe that’s why I felt in control, despite my occasional brushes with suicide from several angles (excepting, obviously, from that of successful completion). It’s a longish piece – about 30 pages – and frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to that much contemplation of the whys and wherefores of suicide, but it wasn’t going to read itself, so I continued.

It’s not a contemplation of suicide at all, but a nicely balanced narrative of Norman’s journey towards his own healing after the emotional disruption his family experienced, and consists of descent and ascent. I’m more of a descent sort of person, but the initial stages of ascent held great interest for me as well; I had no idea a photographer could specialize in dead animals, and was surprised that this could serve as such a source of recovery for Norman. I’ve never read him before; it seems his special fields of interest are Native American (particularly Inuit) culture, and birds, and he incorporates these into his novels. He’s quite a thoughtful, lush, poetic writer, at least in this prose. And he’s got emotional arc pegged so well, even I can recognize it.

After the event, the family as a whole predictably found it difficult to rein life back in to something like normality. “A number of crazies came out of the woodwork,” like the British Sylvia Plath Society and several groups wanting to visit the space where Vazirani died; various others engaged in linking the murder/suicide to the stresses of immigrant identity or this or that. Mounds of letters from strangers were discarded unread. His wife watched Law & Order obsessively right afterwards; he himself watched “the classic cinematic treatise on child-murder,” (that such a thing exists in this world!), M, many times. Their daughter, a budding photographer (the header art above is one of her photos), seems to have had a reaction well beyond her 15 years: she’d taken some photographs of little Jehan, and decided not to develop them herself, but to send them to the boy’s grandparents so they could have them developed.

Then Norman found the notebooks.

As I eventually discovered, this was one of thirty-three 3″ x 5″ black notebooks that Reetika Vazirani had hidden throughout the house. Ultimately they required a macabre sort of treasure hunt whose negative reward was a gut-wrenching and permanently regretful reading experience. In that first notebook alone, the iconography of Medusa-heads, gargoyles and clearly identifiable Hindu Gods and demigods, some devouring children – let alone succinct rehearsals of the murder of her son by name in writing – were so grotesque that all I could manage was to stumble down to the second-floor bathroom and vomit for a good half-hour.

He found similar notebooks in the bathroom, on top of the vacuum cleaner, in the piano bench, in the freezer (it had been there all along, he’d just overlooked it until he looked for them). And, most horrifically, he found one under the mattress of his daughter’s bed.

I understand completely why he did what he did with the books, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t again horrified. I’m not in any way equating his actions with those of Vazirani, but I disagree with the zero-sum vision of blame and compassion, that someone must be blamed for every wrong, that we must triage our compassion in any given circumstance and only those who meet a certain threshold will qualify. That’s what’s so engaging about this piece: I felt enormous compassion for everyone involved, and believed they were all doing the best they could. I’ll admit I might feel quite differently, however, if it had been my house, or my daughter’s bed – or my grandchild who’d been murdered.

Initially, Norman’s healing, in spite of the assistance of a shaman and the rabbi (I just love that combination) wasn’t progressing so well. After a year, he was still looking to recapture the capacity for joy: “in the main, when joy arrived, it was more a simulacrum.” Thus his trip to California and his observation of the western oystercatcher. There he meets photographer Halley, who, indeed, specializes in dead things. She’s really been put there by the universe, I think, for him, along with her husband, the actual Tibetan monk from Tibet, to help him find his path back to joy. But he also has a dream about opening fortune cookies, and notebooks falling out. Healing is a slow process to someone who takes things in deeply.

My best estimation is, that separate from my time with Halley, I watched my oystercatcher roughly fifty hours on that visit. The oystercatcher’s existence offered me a hypnotic passing of time, vicariousness (its connection to the sea), focus, distraction, sorrow, laughter, tears, all helping to move me through and escape the grasp of servitude to the fixed notion that only pain and sorrow are real truths, and that joy especially exists only to be subject to doubt. That is, at least in some provisional way, after all those hours in the realm of the oystercatcher, I was feeling joy as opposed to a simulacrum of joy, and that might just warrant use of the word healing.

These events transpired nearly ten years ago; the article was prompted in 2010 by the posthumous release of Vazirani’s Radha Says, a volume “pieced together from the raw, unedited manuscripts found sealed in an envelope and addressed to her publisher after this brilliant poet’s untimely death.” And, let’s not forget, that of Jehan, age two; he did not yet know how to write.


2 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Howard Norman, “The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher” (non-fiction), from Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 2012

  1. Karen, this is fascinating and gut-wrenching at the same time. It leads me to want to learn more, while at the same time, I find so much of it abhorrent. (I think it’s like being compelled to search for the notebooks.)

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