This is an abridged version of an essay I wrote. The other stories that were in the original essay (which is actually a better essay in pieces, I think!) are Dreamy Weird Thing, A Weird Thing, and A Novel Weird Thing.
My seven-year-old son, already past believing in the tooth fairy and becoming distrustful of the stories adults tell children, asked me if I believe in Santa Claus. I was stuck for an answer. Being Jewish, we don’t celebrate Christmas so it wouldn’t destroy any illusions for him if I told him I did not. But I didn’t want him ruining it for the other children as, fact-bearing child that he is, I knew he would.
So I gave him an ambiguous answer, one that allowed for Santa’s existence. He questioned how I could perpetuate this folly and I told him that sometimes things happen that don’t make perfect sense and can’t be easily explained. Like miracles? he asked. No, I said. A miracle is when the impossible happens. I was talking about magic. Magic, I explained, is when something happens that seems like it couldn’t or shouldn’t. Magic is something implausible but not impossible, something that defies an obvious explanation.
This satisfied Alex and, except for the ongoing discussion as to whether he should get money from a tooth fairy who doesn’t exist, we seem to be done with the subject. But the conversation got me thinking. As a skeptic and a cynic, I don’t believe in a sentient God, the kind you pray to as if it had a human mind and sensibility. I don’t believe in Heaven and Hell, creations of man’s mind with no witness to their existence. Nor do I believe in miracles, in seas parting or water transmogrifying to wine. But I was not lying to Alex about magic. While I don’t extend this belief in the unexplainable to fat men delivering gifts down chimneys, I’ve seen enough strange things in my life that I have to give the phenomenon a name. Magic is the closest I can come.
Magic is different from fortuitous coincidence. Coincidence is much more common and is distinguished by the fact that, for every good and surprising thing that happens by chance, at least as many bad or mundane things happen in the same manner—we just don’t notice them. Coincidence needs no explanation; it’s just the thing that happened.
What I’m calling magic potentially could be chalked up to undefined and therefore mysterious workings of the human mind. Just as the audience of a magic act does not see the trick that makes the tiger disappear from one cage and appear in another, we can’t see all the tricks our minds are capable of.
For example, I have no musical background to speak of but, at certain creative points in my life, I have been inspired to write songs. Lacking any real knowledge of chord progressions or much of anything that might be useful for creating melodies, my songs were not very good. Each had the basic construction of a song and logic of a melody, but the songs were too simple musically and lyrically to be worth listening to. They sounded, at best, like country-western music, a genre I dislike very likely because of its simplicity.
One time, when I wasn’t thinking about writing anything at all, a song spilled out of me, words and melody at once. I can’t even say I wrote it. All I did was grab a pen and catch the thing as it came out. The song is surprisingly good, orders of magnitude better than anything I’d put effort into writing. I can imagine hearing it on the radio or as a cut on an album. It doesn’t feel like bragging to say so because there was nothing intentional about the song, that is, I didn’t struggle with what rhymes with what or whether the melody should next go up or down. The song emerged fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head.
In a sense, the song was not truly my work. Evidence of this lies in the fact that, when the song came out, part of the chorus was missing. I spent hours trying to fill it in, much like having to cut out and paint a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The piece I created with my almost non-existent musical ability is a poor relative of the rest of the song.
Where did the song come from? What trick of the brain caused this idiot savant experience?
While you may not agree that there was any magic in this experience, you probably have no reason to doubt me when I say it happened. This story differs from anecdotes in which you are certain the teller is a liar or crazy. I use the term “lying ghost girl” to refer to that type of story, after a girl I met at summer camp who claimed her house was haunted. She immediately struck me as pathological. But I have to confess I experienced something that seems to me to teeter on the rim of the glass I call magic, with the potential of landing in a realm I can’t define.
When my son Matthew turned four, he began to turn yellow, starting in the corners of his eyes. Over the next weeks, his coloration got worse as he became ill with an undiagnosable liver disease. The results were jaundice, vomiting, and excessive sleepiness. Three weeks after the onset of the illness, Matthew became encephalitic, which is a fancy way of saying he was out of his mind. By the time he arrived by ambulance at the Pediatric ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was in a coma from the toxins that his broken liver was not filtering. He had liver failure for unknown reasons, though likely caused by a random virus gone haywire in a process that medical science does not understand. He needed a liver transplant or he would die very soon—within a week.
I don’t know if I ever really believed he would die, maybe because such bad karma doesn’t happen to my family. I don’t consider it a miracle, magic, or even an unlikely coincidence that a liver became available (meaning someone died of head trauma and their family agreed to donate the organs). Matthew was just in the right place at the right time.
(However, there was more than a little irony to how he got the organ. I’m very much against having guns in the home, particularly because a young cousin of mine died from one of those I-didn’t-know-it-was-loaded accidents you read about. So it certainly was a bit bizarre that the young man whose liver saved my son’s life died from a shot to the head during an in-home accident, the type of accident that would never have occurred if I made the rules. In effect, my son’s life was saved by a gun. Reconcile that.)
Two weeks after Matthew’s transplant, he and I came home from the hospital. Among the other errands I had to catch up on, I wanted to develop the last roll of film I’d taken before Matthew got sick. On the roll were pictures from Matthew’s fourth birthday party. The photos were important to me because the healthy Matthew with the carefree life on that roll of film was gone. The new Matthew was one whose health I would now worry about, in varying degrees, forever. Additionally, the medications Matthew was taking made him look like a different child—hirsute from his anti-rejection drug, puffy from steroids. His gums were swollen and his teeth were turning gray. I wanted to hold the last visual record of my untainted child in my hand.
When I went to pick up the developed roll of film, I was alarmed by how thin the packet felt. “No charge,” the cashier said.
I opened the package and inside was a note stating that the film had been blank—probably due to being loaded incorrectly—thus the lab was unable to develop the photos. I took the negatives out of the package and held them up. Sure enough, they were blank. I was sorely disappointed, but the photos were the least of my concerns. I was much more worried about Matthew’s health—that he would go into rejection or develop one of several life-threatening infections that were common post-transplant.
Not long after I attempted to have the film developed, Matthew did acquire one such viral infection, which required him to return to the hospital for treatment. The doctors said they had never seen such a high viral load. If not contained, the disease could cause gastric bleeding and retinal scarring that could result in permanent vision loss, blindness even. I soon realized that, with all the risks associated with being a transplant recipient, the cure for liver failure was almost as worrisome as the disease.
We soon came home from the hospital again, the virus under control but requiring home infusion therapy, an IV pole now present amidst the stuffed-animals in Matthew’s bedroom. But, as I watched Matthew beat back this challenge and others, I started to believe he would be okay.
A few weeks later, I was cleaning out my car in the garage and came across the package from the undeveloped roll of film. As I opened the lid of the trash can to discard the packet, I decided to look at the negatives one more time. I pulled out a strip and could clearly see on it the images from Matthew’s birthday party. I pulled out strip after strip: all had images on them, a perfectly normal set of negatives.
I stood over the trash can screaming “Oh my God!” over and over.
I’ve searched for an explanation, because taking what happened at face value makes me the lying ghost girl. Maybe I didn’t look at the negatives carefully when I first got them and the images were there all along. (But why had the lab seen the same thing?) I wondered if the chemicals that were used were faulty and they had somehow delayed the developing process, but I didn’t really believe that was possible. Either the images were on the roll to be developed immediately, or they weren’t.
So I’m left to puzzle.
Having experienced this and other incidents makes me feel justified in being ambiguous about Santa Claus with Alex. Let him keep an open mind for a little longer than his logical nature would on its own. Maybe seeing some magic for himself will inspire him to become the man who draws back the curtain and begins to understand.