Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Boys, Harry Potter & Me

In honor of tomorrow's release of the film that represents the first half of the last book in the Harry Potter series, I thought I'd post this essay, formerly online at Central PA Magazine. It marked the first time I'd written publicly about Ron's suicide. My sister Nancy read it and said, "That sounds like the beginning of a memoir." Thanks, Nance.

It was the summer of 1998, and we'd heard the buzz: Harry Potter was coming. It had been only months since my first husband's suicide, and my boys and I were slogging our way through grief work so thick it choked our vision of the future. Looking out across the next ten years overwhelmed me: Jackson was 10, Marty only 8. But pick up Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone and read it to them? That was something I could do.

In a house now much emptier, reading aloud provided an excuse to sit with my sons pressed against me, one on each side, for the hours it would take to work our way through the book. As a bonus, we'd immerse ourselves in a world of witches and wizards whose conflicts were so different than ours.

We soon found out, of course, that they weren't. After Harry discovers that his awkward differences were really the source of an unrealized power, he studies wizardry so he might vanquish the evil that caused the early loss of his parents. The boys and I desperately needed to know that, with the help of his friends, Harry could overcome this loss and triumph in the end.

With one son looking at the book over each of my elbows—and then eventually, each of my shoulders—my boys grew up alongside Harry and his friends, whose Hogwarts hijinks provided a timeline for our own memories. In the beginning, my mind absorbed by weightier concerns, we strained to finish one chapter at a sitting. By book three, the more intricately plotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we could no longer limit ourselves to our daily ration. One school night we undertook a sixty-page sprint to the finish line. Approaching midnight, huddled together beneath the covers in my queen-sized bed, my boys and I prayed for the snow day the weatherman had anticipated. The next morning we awoke bleary-eyed, relieved that our prayer had been answered.

There was the year the boys couldn't switch sides periodically, as was their custom to avoid cricks in their necks, because Marty had broken his arm and had to prop it up on pillows with an ice pack [picture]. There was the year we read while vacationing in northern New York, where thanks to the heat and humidity I kept falling asleep while reading. We ended up taking three chairs down to the beach and setting them in the spring-fed lake. The cool water on my feet helped keep me awake—and when I would start to yawn, I'd simply dip down into the water to splash my face.

By the time we read Order of the Phoenix, I had married again. Dave, an early riser, would end our late night reads by kicking us off the bed so he could sleep. There was the year reading Half-Blood Prince when, due to my own study of fiction writing craft, I couldn't get through the sing-song rhythm of Rowling's adverb-studded dialogue attribution and kept giggling. Marty would elbow me in the ribs and tell me to cut it out, I was ruining the story. We loved the introduction of Dobby, the house elf, who I loved all the more for Jackson's falsetto rendition of his dialogue.

Is it like that with everyone who has read the Harry Potter series as a family? Sometimes I can believe Rowling wrote the series just for us. As with each of the books, the last in the series began its tale just before Harry's July 31 birthday, which Marty (and J.K. Rowling) shares. In the last book, released this summer, Harry had quit school to undertake his ultimate quest; Marty had just finished high school and would soon head off to college. Everything felt right: this summer we would see Harry through to his final chapter, together.

Due to conflicting work schedules, however, the boys and I had limited access to one another. We read a chapter whenever we could steal an hour, reassured we would have a stretch of time together at the lake to finish up before Jackson returned to college. As August reeled past I felt a growing sense of urgency: just as I have always sensed the possibility that stepping on cracks might break my mother's back, I felt a karmic relationship between my boys' fates and that of Harry Potter. Like Mrs. Weasley, I had adopted Harry as one of my own. I needed to see him through his trying adolescence, and I needed my sons to see it, too. And we needed to do so before September first: that symbol of summer's end, the date the Hogwarts Express whisks away its new charge of students, just as mine would be whisked from me. September first was also, by the way, Jackson's twentieth birthday.

We had a lot of reading ahead of us. By the time we left for the lake the book was still much thicker in my right hand than in my left. Then, the blow: Marty, still in the throes of post-graduation hoopla, decided not to come to the lake for the whole week. He would drive separately and join us in a couple of days.

Our time potential withered.

It was silly, my need to do this. Impossible, really; we would have only two days with more than 380 pages to go. But I am no stranger to undertaking projects that become much larger than I first anticipate—say, the decision to read aloud what would end up being, over the series of seven books, 4,100 pages. Or writing sixteen drafts of two novels. Or raising two sons after their father killed himself. Just tell me I can't do it.

With only two days, we mounted our broomsticks and flew across the magical countryside of Rowling's imagination, reaching for closure, that elusive snitch that brings peace. We laughed, we cried, and we headed into final battle with He Who Must Not be Named. We took breaks only when the bodies now pressed beside mine—when had they become men?—caused hot flashes that required my stepping away for a spell.

But that second day, we finished the book in time to cook dinner, take the boat out of the water, and winterize its motor by daylight.

Harry had J.K. Rowling to guide him through a plot line rife with conflict; the boys have had me. After their father's death, I watched Jackson and Marty run the gauntlet of adolescence, a ten-year race that is at once marathon and sprint, and no easier to understand than the game of Quidditch. They are now young adults, and ready to author their own lives.

Of course the name J.K. Rowling will go down in publishing history, but her story of a young boy persevering against all odds has contributed in a quieter way to the salvation of my family. It brought us through a tough time by dangling a promise that is as true for me as it is for my sons: Growing up is hard, but you aren't alone in your fear of it. Make of your life a good story, and share it with those you love. It will be a story full of pain and conflict, yes, but the sharing of it will hold all the magic you could wish for.


Tiffani Burnett-Velez said...


I loved this essay the first time you read it at the Writer's Cafe' and I love it even more now. A really beautiful piece. Thank you so much for sharing it with your readers.

Tiffani said...

I have no idea why my name came us as Riley....hmmmm...Last time I checked, I was still named Tiffani. I think I am going to need to talk to the people at Google.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks for the comment, Riley (haha-a commenting pseudonym, maybe I need one too!). If you love it even more, now, there may be a reason. I simplified some of my beloved Latinate word choices so their multiple syllables wouldn't stand between the reader and my message. (And if you understand that last sentence, you get my drift!)

nancy oarneire graham said...

You're welcome Kathy, any time. Beautiful work; I can't wait until it's done but I also like digesting it slowly in morsels.