Ajack-in-the-pulpit, the forest flower that looks like a hooded cobra ready to strike, once frightened me so badly that it gave me nightmares for years. I was a very young child who had just fallen down the side of a mountain nearly to his death (I can’t say my death, for it was a different person, a different me) when I discovered it staring at me as though it had contrived the fall to bring me within its power.
The experience was so long ago that the memory is really a memory of a memory. Now, when I see a jack-in-the-pulpit, I associate it not with fear but with my brother Peter, who wasn’t yet born, though he was about to be.
“Because of its predominantly green color,” says Wildflowers in Color by Arthur Stupka, “this plant is often overlooked in the rich woods where it normally grows. It is a common herb at low and middle altitudes where it flowers from April to June. The tube of the spathe, often colored or veined with purple, may be 1—3 in. deep. A showy cluster of glossy red fruit replaces the familiar “Jack” by late summer or autumn.” The spadix, or Jack, is sometimes also called the Preacher because, at least to the eye of whoever gave it the name, it resembles a man standing up beneath an elegant canopy to deliver a sermon.
My parents had left Washington to escape the heat. They liked to hike; they took me, their only child so far, to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Somewhere near Front Royal, Virginia, they rented a cottage. From there, they—and I, to the limit of my tiny powers—made hikes every day. It was the only sort of vacation they could afford. Besides, there was a world war on; other amusements were hard to find. How young they were! My father, recently returned from a perilous trip to Australia and assigned for the moment to the new Pentagon, had not yet turned 30. My mother, two years younger, was now six months pregnant. It was, I suppose, intended to be their last escape to the mountains before a second child made such trips more difficult.
Each generation has its own tastes in vacations. When my wife and I feel the need of escape, we go to the beach instead. Perhaps all the rainy camping trips of our childhoods had the effect of making us seek the heat rather than try to get away from it. Just as the sea itself represents eternity watching over the shores of an uncertain world, so for many people the dunes and their waving grasses—so different from the flora of mountains and forests—are the very symbol of summer. Renting a cabin in the Blue Ridge is not for us.
When the summer session at my university in Pennsylvania finally ended last August, I was a wreck. We stayed home until after Labor Day and then, having no energy for a long trip, went only as far as Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, the beach of Washington civil servants, where I had not been since our last vacation as a family in 1959, the year before my parents moved to California and I went off to college. Nancy, although she too grew up in the Washington area, had never been there at all.
You would expect a popular resort to have changed out of recognition since the Eisenhower administration, but in this case you would be wrong. Apart from a few high-rise hotels and condominiums along the ocean front, it was the Rehoboth of my childhood, the same streets and boardwalk where my brothers and I had occasionally persuaded my parents to bring us when they would have been much happier camping and hiking in the mountains. When I first smelled the mixture of ocean salt and buttered popcorn on the wind, I thought, my God, I’m ten again. Even after Labor Day, the place was packed with young parents, most of them clearly second- or even third-generation Washington suburbanites, initiating their preschoolers into the immemorial rites of sand, surf, and saltwater tafiy. As I drove happily through back streets of aging bungalows where my brothers and I had tracked sand into the tiny kitchens at whose miniature stoves and sinks my mother had slaved without air conditioning all those years ago, I thought of Peter, who loved the hot weather and the beach more than anyone else in the family except me.
Perhaps it was the combination of growing up in Washington and then moving to California at the age of 16. In any event, he declined to consider colleges or, later, graduate schools in latitudes or longitudes where summers were short or beaches far away. When he finally came east again, it was back to Washington, where his credentials in political science brought him to a job in the federal government, a situation not altogether dissimilar to his father’s 35 years before. Unlike his father, however, he gloried in the heat of the capital and looked forward to begetting a family who would grow up happy in the sun. If he could not live in Los Angeles, Washington would be a satisfactory runner-up.
Alas, there came a change of administrations. My brother’s field of specialization, first at the CIA and then at the Energy Department, was nuclear proliferation, a topic that the Reagan administration regarded with suspicion. Soon he found himself exiled to a minor job in a remote suburb. Not long after that, he had no job at all. It was time to move on. There were few prospects in Washington for policy analysts of a Democratic hue. When an appropriate job finally materialized, it was at a foundation headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There he lived for eight years, hating the climate and frequently wishing he could move either to Florida or back to Los Angeles. One summer he discovered Cape Anne. It was better than nothing, but Massachusetts summers were so speculative. His wife liked Boston better than he did and helped him overcome the despair that lurked in the fog every November. They were not only a devoted but a handsome and outgoing couple who began to make a lot of friends. They joined a church. His employers were much impressed with him and became ever more so. He worked hard and cheerfully, accepting the present situation but hoping for better things.
When he got sick, we were not terribly worried. He was young and strong; his prognosis was excellent. The doctors were confident that chemotherapy would quickly solve the problem. So he told us all in a flurry of telephone calls, offering reassurance and at the same time seeking it, before he went into the hospital. He was anxious, of course, but not really frightened. He would not even have to stay in the hospital for long; he could go home between medications, even do some work, and be with Pat. They had a son now, Bill, who was three years old. The treatments lasted several months, but by the time they ended there was no further sign of the disease that had attacked Peter’s lymphatic system.
We celebrated his recovery with a family reunion in Ithaca, New York, where our parents had first met each other and still had many friends. It was late summer, time for the vacation that no one had previously felt like taking. For three days we all stayed in a motel near the Cornell campus. The parents visited their friends; the rest of us made expeditions to the gorges that we had not seen since our last visit there before the move to California. In the evenings we were all together again.
What I remember best from that trip, apart from conversations, is a tableau of Lake Cayuga at sunset on the last day. We had gone there for what proved to be a rather disorganized picnic with some cousins who lived in Ithaca. Some of us hiked up Taughannock Falls, a brave few swam in the frigid water of the lake, while others just sat around eating or drinking. There were enough small children to keep each other busy while the adults did the things that adults do on such occasions. It was, I suppose, a fairly typical familyreunion picnic. Someone had brought a bright-red canvas kayak that would hold two people in a pinch, and various members of the party had taken turns, singly or in couples, at trying to make it move in a consistent direction across the lake. There seemed to be a trick to it that hardly anybody could master; after 20 minutes or so of going around in desultory circles, most people gave up and rejoined the rest of us at the two picnic tables we had moved together above the rocky shoreline. By now the sun was beginning to go down. The children were getting tired; the adults were finally ready to eat.
But Peter had figured out the kayak. Taking Bill with him, he had paddled it around a point on the lake where it briefly disappeared, and I wondered when it would reappear and from which direction. I wanted to take a picture before it got too dark. Soon I could see it coming back in a more or less straight line, its crimson sheen beginning to dull but still dramatic against the darkness of the lake. Bill was sitting in front, leaning against Peter’s chest and wearing a bright orange life jacket. There was utter silence except for the low, monotonous lapping of the paddle in the black water. I could see Peter’s silhouette towering above his small son and the kayak (it looked as though only magic could keep such a top-heavy shape from capsizing), wearing sunglasses against glare that was now fading to twilight and a cap to cover the hair that was only beginning to grow back, his bare arms now holding the double-ended paddle in perfect balance above the water as they glided back to shore.
On that long-ago afternoon (was it really morning?) in the Blue Ridge, my parents and I set out along what I imagine to have been (but what probably was not) the Appalachian Trail. It had been drizzling (or why should it be slippery?). The sun had come out and the path looked deceptively dry. The sun had not come out; consequently the path was hard to see. We were surrounded by pine trees, and the path was covered with needles. . . . All detailed memories of early childhood are suspect. Only sharp fragments survive here and there. I do know that my parents both wore old-fashioned, hightopped leather hiking boots, treasured and carefully maintained possessions from the prewar world. What was I wearing? Above all, what sort of shoes? God only knows. I have no recollection of wearing anything.
What I do remember is the complete lack of a transition between two states of motion: between walking safely along the path with my parents, and rolling uncontrollably down the side of a chasm that had no bottom visible through the trees. I must have slipped on the edge of the path, but I can clearly remember not remembering having done so. The knowledge of-utter helplessness overwhelmed me when I felt myself gaining speed, force, momentum, weight, all those concepts that I had not lived long enough to understand. Children are said to accept most of what happens to them, however odd, as normal, because they have so little experience to compare it with. In this case, the sensation was too rapid to be defined even in childhood terms as a situation requiring new reflexes; as a change in rules that had made no sense to start with; as a just punishment; as treachery on the part of a mysterious world.
What I remember is rolling sideways faster and faster down a precipice of pine needles, not being able to stop myself, grabbing at stones that only hurt my hands, screaming (I can remember my own voice but no one else’s) until the breath was knocked out of me, and—-and—inevitably running into a tree that caught me smack in the middle and stopped me instantly. Once again there was no transition between two drastically different states. One second I was falling toward the valley floor a thousand feet below. The next I was lying in the angle made by a tree growing out of the steep bank. Lying in the dark, dripping gloom of the forest, unable to speak or scream, in the instant before I realized what had happened, I saw growing just above the level of my face the jack-in-the-pulpit, an emblem of bottomless evil and terror in the world.
It was watching me. I could hear it laughing at my smallness and helplessness, as it simultaneously decayed and exulted. It seemed not only malicious but very, very old. I thought it was going to swallow me up like a nightmare. There was no sky visible through the branches.
Heedless of the danger to herself and my unborn brother, my mother threw herself down the bank to where I lay pinned, apparently on the instinctive principle that a child in the hand. . . . Or rather not in the hand, but alive, endangered, and now visibly kicking.
At Rehoboth it was gloriously hot. On our second day there we walked two miles up the beach, away from the crowds, and spread our towels. After an hour of lying in the sun, I inflated an air mattress, forced my way out through the breakers, heaved myself aboard, and watched the sky bob uncertainly above. I was finally beginning to relax. As always, Nancy kept an eye on me from the shore, just in case the undertow should wash me out to sea while my attention was riveted by clouds or seagulls. Once in North Carolina it had almost happened.
The second time Peter got sick was much worse. He had gone for four years without a recurrence and seemed to be cured. Now it was a question of transplanting bone marrow, which involved weeks, perhaps months of isolation. Before that could be done, he would have to undergo radiation.
By this time he was deeply involved in writing a book about nuclear proliferation. During the long, frustrating wait for an opening in the schedule of the clinic where the transplant would be performed, he continued to work on the book and, as much as possible, kept going to his office. He was on crutches at this stage—the disease had affected his hip—and as a form of therapeutic exercise he did a vast amount of swimming. When we visited a pool with him in the middle of a Cambridge heat wave, we found his upper body more powerfully developed than it had ever been before. From looking at him you could not have told that anything was wrong. After a few weeks he switched to a cane.
The transplant went fine. While he was in isolation, he worked on his book. The telephone in his room was always ringing, which pleased him. He recovered quickly and was allowed to go home ahead of schedule. Pat and Bill were jubilant. He no longer needed the cane. In a few months he was welcomed back to his office and to Christ Church, where he was now a vestryman.
A little more than a year later the third time came—without warning like the first and second, and this time without hope. The doctors had done what they could, and it had not availed. The family began to arrive, not all at once, to make what it was now clear must be their farewells. So did friends from the Washington and California days, people from the church, Cambridge and Boston friends in great numbers. Peter received them all politely, but it was not the same as it had been twice before. By now he had withdrawn to a place where only two other people could approach.
In the hospital he would wait impatiently for Bill to get back from his Little League games so that they could play chess together. When he was alone, he worked on the last chapters of his book, which was nearly finished and under contract to a publisher. If he could not live to read the proofs, at least the manuscript would be ready for someone else. With Pat, he helped make plans for a future that he would not share and chose hymns for a funeral.
When this is over, he said to me in one of our last conversations that June, Pat will need to get away for a while. There was a beach on Cape Anne called Annisquam where they had been spending a few weeks every summer. They had friends who owned a cottage nearby. Would I help persuade her to go? I promised I would.
There is no need to turn a sad story into a sentimental one. After a few weeks in the hospital he was dead at the age of 46. On the day of the funeral, it was 97 degrees in Cambridge, and the eulogists at Christ Church joked ruefully about how much Peter would have loved such a day.
When it was all over, we came home. I limped through the rest of summer school, and three weeks later, after Pat and Bill had gone to Annisquam, we left for Rehoboth.
My brother’s life had been risked for mine, in a manner of speaking, before it ever began. But that time we both came out of it safely. The tree had stopped my fall before I reached a fatal speed. Our parents half led, half pulled me up the slope to the trail, terrified but physically intact except for a few bruises. Children’s bones are hard to break. In short order they assured themselves and me that I was in one piece, dried my tears. One of them rescued my cap and put it back on my head. My father carried me back to the car.
Although she never forgot it, our mother suffered no injury as a result of her leap down the mountainside. Pregnant women are also tough. Some three months later Peter was born healthy and undamaged. Our father continued working at the Pentagon until the end of the war; there were no more trips through submarine-infested seas. Eventually we acquired one, then two younger brothers. We kept going to the mountains throughout our childhood, though Peter and I much preferred the ocean. We grew up, married, set out on our own travels. He had a son who now, at nine years old, is an almost perfect likeness of his father at the same age.
So in the end my fall, a run-of-the-mill event in the life of a young family, caused no harm to anyone—not me, not Peter, least of all our parents, both of whom are happily still alive. What does a child, what does a parent know about the future? Irreparable harms would not come our way for 40 years. The only lasting consequence I can trace from the accident is that I could never again see a jack-in-the-pulpit without experiencing a shiver of revelation at the garish, mocking image of violence, the abyss of death lying patiently in wait for us just below the summer horizon.