Excerpt: 'Where We Going Daddy?'

Where We Going Daddy?
Where We Going, Daddy?: Life with Two Sons Unlike Any Other
By Jean-Louis Fournier
Paperback, 128 pages
Other Press
List price: $12

From the moment he got into the Camaro Thomas, aged ten, has kept on asking the same question he always does: "Where we going, daddy?"

At first I answer: "We're going home."

A minute later, still just as genuine, he asks the question again. It's not registering. By the tenth "Where we going, daddy?" I've stopped answering ...

I'm not really sure where we're going any more, my poor boy.

We're going with the flow. We're heading straight for a brick wall.

One handicapped child, then two. Why not three ...

I wasn't expecting this.

Where we going, daddy?

Let's take the freeway, against the traffic.

We're going to Alaska. We're going to stroke the bears. We'll be eaten alive.

We're going mushroom-picking. We're going to pick death caps and make a lovely omelet.

We're going to the swimming pool, we'll dive off the highest board … into the pool that's been drained.

We're going to the seaside. We're going to Mont-Saint-Michel. We'll go for a walk on the quicksand. And get sucked down. And go to hell.

Unperturbed, Thomas keeps it up: "Where we going, daddy?" Maybe he'll improve on his record. By the hundredth time it really is a joke. You're never bored with him; Thomas is master of the running gag.

Anyone who's never worried about having an abnormal child, please raise their hand.

No one raises their hand.

Everyone thinks about it, just like we think about earthquakes, and the end of the world, the sort of thing that only happens once.

I had two ends of the world.

When you look at a newborn baby, you're full of admiration. It's so well put together. You look at its hands, count the tiny fingers, note that there are five on each hand, same with the toes: it's mind-blowing  not four, not six, no, just five. It's a miracle every time. Not to mention the insides, which are even more complicated.

Having a child means running a risk … You don't win every time. But people still keep on having them.

Every second on this earth a woman brings a child into the world … She really must be found and told to stop, added the comedian.

I remember the day we went to the convent in Abbeville to introduce Mathieu to Aunt Madeleine, who is a Carmelite nun.

We were taken to the visiting room, a small, whitewashed space. In the far wall was an opening closed off by a thick curtain. It wasn't a red curtain like they have in a puppet theatre, but a black one. We heard a voice from behind the curtain, saying: "Hello, children."

It was Aunt Madeleine. She's in a closed order so she's not allowed to see us. We talked to her for a while, then she wanted to see Mathieu. She asked us to put the stroller in the opening, and turn to face the wall. Nuns in closed orders are allowed to see young children, not older ones. Then she called the other nuns to come and admire her great-nephew. We heard rustling robes, chuckling and laughter, then the sound of the curtain being drawn back. Next came a concert of superlatives and ticklings and teasings for the heavenly babe. "He's so adorable! Look, Mother Superior, he's smiling at us, just like a little angel, a little Christ child … !" They came very close to saying how advanced he was for his age.

To a nun, children are first and foremost the Good Lord's creations, and are therefore perfect. Everything God makes is perfect. They don't want to see the failings. And, anyway, this was Mother Superior's great-nephew. For a moment I felt like turning around and telling them to stop laying it on so thick.

I didn't, though. I did the right thing.

To think Mathieu was being complimented for once ...

I'll never forget the first doctor who had the courage to tell us that Mathieu was definitely abnormal. His name was Professor Fontaine, it was in Lille. He told us we should be under no illusions. Mathieu was backward, he would always be backward, either way, there was nothing we could do about it, he was handicapped, physically and mentally.

We didn't sleep terribly well that night. I remember having nightmares.

Until then the prognoses had been vague. Mathieu was a slow developer, we had been told it was only physical, there were no mental problems.

Lots of friends and relatives tried, sometimes clumsily, to reassure us. Every time they saw him they said how amazed they were by the progress he had made. I remember one time telling them that, as far as I was concerned, I was amazed by the progress he hadn't made. I was looking at other people's children.

Mathieu was limp. He couldn't hold his head up, as if his neck were made of rubber. While other people's children sat up arrogantly to demand food, Mathieu just lay there. He was never hungry, it took the patience of an angel to feed him, and he often threw up all over the angel.

If a child being born is a miracle, then a handicapped child is an inverted miracle. Poor Mathieu couldn't see very clearly, he had fragile bones and in-turned feet, he soon became hunch-backed, he had thick shaggy hair, he wasn't beautiful and, more than anything else, he was sad. It was hard to make him laugh, he kept repeating a monotonous lament of "oh dear, Mathieu … oh dear, oh dear, Mathieu ..."

Sometimes he was convulsed with heartbreaking tears, as if he couldn't bear not being able to tell us anything. We always felt he was aware of his situation. He must have thought: "If only I'd known, I wouldn't have come."

We would have loved to protect him from this fate bearing down on him. The worst of it was there was nothing we could do. We couldn't even console him, or tell him we loved him just the way he was: they'd told us he was deaf.

To think that I'm the author of his days, of the dreadful days he spent here on earth, that I'm the one who brought him here, I want to ask his forgiveness.

Excerpted from Where We Going Daddy?: Life with Two Sons Unlike Any Other by Jean-Louis Fournier. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Copyright 2010 by Jean-Louis Fournier. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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