Leonard Cohen sang it well in Anthem:Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Mr. Solomon begins Far From the Tree as an account of growing up gay with his parents. He ends it with the story of how he became a father – though by the time he finally had his family, its creation could have been the plot of a contemporary sitcom.
His boyfriend, John, was already the biological father of two children, Oliver and Lucy, parented by Laura and Tammy, lesbians in Minnesota. Then Blaine, a newly divorced college friend from Texas, asked Mr. Solomon if he would be the biological father of a child she would bear. After little Blaine’s birth, he married John and, in 2009, biologically fathered George, with a donor egg and one of the Minnesota couple as a surrogate.
It was the bottomless commitment of mothers and fathers who spent years raising disabled children that convinced him the venture would be worth it. He was impressed by “the valiance love takes.”
“Parenting had challenged these families, but almost none regretted it,” he writes. “They demonstrated that, with enough emotional discipline and affective will, one could love anyone.” They chose not to be embarrassed by their kids. “Fewer and fewer people,” Mr. Solomon concludes, “are mortified by who they are.” This is a good thing.
My own frequently mortifying disabled son has a strange habit. He likes to hang around with me and wait until I am not looking, then knock all the glasses off the nearest table, a lifelong act of dining-room terrorism he still finds very funny at 16. I used to think he was a junior psychopath. It was only when I stopped worrying about why he was not like everyone else that I began to see who he might be: My boy knows he is less capable than everyone else, but this is a chance for him to show me that he can outwit me once in a while – that just once in a while, we can be equals.
Why does the chance to be his equal – and that is the way the equation moves – feel so rare and valuable to me? For it is in those moments that I am grateful for the hell of his life, and might choose, insanely, to do it all over again.
Has he momentarily freed me from the relentless grind of survival, the list of expectations (good school? nice car? sexy partner? big bank account?) that make up the obligations of “successful” life? Has he just given me the chance to escape my own clutches and love him as he is, and hence myself as I am, rather than as the demanding world would have us be? Is it that simple? Somehow, he makes me feel him, and vice versa. That’s rare, in any relationship.
Of course, I might just be making it up – rationalizing the existence of a consciousness for my son. But Mr. Solomon thinks otherwise. Writing about the way the parents of the most remote and disabled children see motive and intention in their kids where outsiders see nothing, he cites Roger Penrose, a controversial Oxford-based mathematical physicist.
Prof. Penrose hypothesizes that the physical world and the realm of ideas are mysteriously but mathematically connected; “that the universe has a structural need for consciousness,” and so “the existence of anything proves its inevitability.” We are because we had to be; if I can manage to think it, it stands a good chance of existing.
And so my hapless, often happy son has a mind and intentions, because, watching him closely, I can deduce their existence, and present them to him. And I suspect he senses this, and is amused and grateful for my imputation of his motive, or in any event is thrilled to be included, and loves me for it, and I am (so) grateful and love him back.
From that perspective, Mr. Solomon concludes, the difficult love he witnessed again and again – and experiences, as a parent of “normal” children – made perfect sense.
“I want more than anything for my children to be happy, and I love them because they are sad, and the erratic project of kneading that sadness into joy is the engine of my life as a father, as a son, as a friend – and as a writer.”
Our children make us reach across the godlike space between us, and find what is on the Other side.