Kadian Journal: A Father's Memoir
By Thomas Harding
256 pages, $16 paper
One summer moment, Thomas Harding is bicycling with his son Kadian; the next, their life is smashed to smithereens as Harding's brain tries to make sense of their collapsed world, of the scene around Kadian's dead body: "I had the map, I had got us lost, I had allowed my fourteen-year-old son to cycle down a path towards a road where cars and fans sped by at sixty miles an hour."
He recreates the scene in minute detail, and that alone is a wonder to anyone shocked at the death of a loved one. Experiencing grief and bereavement affects our brains physically, turning everything into a blur, scrambling time and the sequence of events, churning emotions into a state where it becomes perfectly normal to burst into tears trying to think of an answer to, say, "Paper or plastic." Time stops. Then it begins again. The phone rings every few minutes.
Even worse, "There is no greater pain than the death of one's child," the priest at a recent local funeral reminded his listeners. Losing a parent or sibling or spouse or friend is bad enough, and this is worse? Harding shows us how Kadian's death blew apart his life and the lives of the rest of the family. Despite the huge psychological burden even of deciding which shoe to tie first, Harding assembles what he and they endured into a narrative that we can comprehend.
How difficult this feat is impressed me, as I recalled weeping profusely when a butcher asked me if I was going to buy a chicken, not too soon after my own husband's death. Harding begins to sense a chasm between his senses and his reality.
The super-grief of a child's sudden death and the even greater burden it imposes on anyone trying to make sense of the experience and its aftermath can, however be dealt with. Even, sometimes, explained. Harding somehow pulls it off.
He and his wife, Deb, years before had dissolved their video production business, sold their house and moved from England to a mobile home in West Virginia, then eventually back to England.
Kadian is simply the name they gave their son at the suggestion of a woman Deb met casually on a train.: "'Kadian,' she said. 'It's Jamaican. It means cheerful and charming.' And from the very start, he was."
Harding also had written two nonfiction books, one about the builder of Auschwitz being captured by Harding's uncle and one about a house in Germany whose story encapsulates the 20th Century, all of it. So he already had the skills and talent to start a journal.
Somewhere he found enough composure to complete it, this little companion to the bereaved, not quite 6 by 9 inches but holding a ton of compassion, pain, comfort and wisdom. He mentions a handful of other books that were more or less helpful in making sense of his experiences, and that list, too, could ease the pain for readers trying to deal with their own catastrophes.
What sets "Kadian Journal" apart from some other writing about grief is Harding's courage, keeping what he writes true to the experience he describes. He does not numb his pain or minimize embarrassment about the blind alleys he follows in trying to reassemble his life.
The reader is right there, on the scene, however bitter or tender or gentle it may be, as if Harding is extending a guiding hand, one he could never again offer his lost child.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.