by Lisa Cadigan
I am honored to be an early reader of Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s memoir, Rare Bird, and to have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you about it today, one week prior to its availability in bookstores (you can pre-order on Amazon here).
A few years ago, I started reading Anna’s blog, An Inch of Gray, and I kept coming back at least partially because I was struck by how much we had in common. We hail from the same alma mater; we both enjoy writing; we both became mothers first to a son, and later to a daughter. Her son even looked like mine – the handsome face, dark hair, and eyes like pools of dark chocolate; the kind of kid you picture growing up to be tall, dark and handsome, breaking hearts without even being aware that anyone is interested. Reading her book, I was further struck by the similarity of our daily lives, the description of bedtimes and vacations, her desire to find some solitude, but also to make sure she was present in the little moments with her family.
We are both mothers and forever will be. This alone is enough to bond women. We find the “sames” with our fellow moms, and revel in them so we don’t feel so crazy, or so we can realize we might actually be doing a pretty good job after all.
Shortly after I started following the blog, I came across Anna’s video from the Listen To Your Mother show, another milestone we would eventually have in common. In the video, Anna talks about how her son’s death sets her apart from other moms; how she is now part of a “club” she never wanted to join. I knew all of this about Anna when I picked up Rare Bird, but despite her feelings of “otherness,” I felt a deep connection with her.
Anna’s writing is raw and beautiful. She honors her readers by allowing them to occupy that painful, intimate space leading up to, through and after the accident. I didn’t know how to sit with someone in grief before reading her words. The first few chapters brought me to ugly sobs: for her pain, for the unfairness of it all, and for the fear I felt entertaining the thought that her family’s tragedy is just as likely or unlikely for anyone as it was for her (we all know how I feel about statistics). I have to admit, I felt guilty putting the book down to cook dinner. I became keenly aware that I could distract myself from that uncomfortable space by simply putting the book down. This just added to the unfairness of it all. I made pancakes for my son the night I read those early chapters, deciding life is too short not to allow pancakes for dinner on the occasional random Friday.
Those first few chapters were hard to bear. Maybe it’s because my son is almost the same age Anna’s Jack was when he died. Maybe it’s because I have had the pleasure to meet Anna and get to know the real person behind this story. Mostly, though, I think it’s due to storytelling that draws you in so you feel as if you were actually there. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the point of this book is not to instill fear or sadness; the point is to reveal the spring of hope that eventually appears after a person endures an unthinkable tragedy. Jack’s death is not the end of this story – it’s the beginning.
Rare Bird illustrates the evolution of human resilience in the face of pain and loss, and this is something we all have in common, whether we have been made aware of it or not. It is often the hardest moments that bring life’s preciousness into acute focus. For Anna, this becomes evident as she grapples with a new relationship with God, as she chooses to keep living one day at a time, and as she notices signs and symbols that repeatedly insinuate a deep connection between all that is seen and unseen in this life. Anna may feel part of a “club” she never wished to join, but her story reveals a thread of resilience that connects us to her and to each other. We root for her hope, because we hope the source of her strength dwells in us, too.
Anna will always be Jack’s mother. I have always felt that my son is one of my greatest teachers, and I can’t help but wonder if Anna feels that way about Jack, too. This book allows Jack to continue to teach and touch the hearts not only of the family and friends who knew him, but also the people who have met him and his family through Anna’s writing. Rare Bird is a testimony to the victory of love over fear and loss.
This review was originally published on Cadigan Creative.
Anna Whiston Donaldson is the author of Rare Bird and a blogger at An Inch of Gray. She taught high-school English for six years before becoming a full-time mom and writer. She lives with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Margaret, in suburban Washington, DC.