by Jerry Waxler
Robert Waxler found his athletically active son, Jeremy, on the floor, unable to move his legs. Rushed, to a hospital, doctors first suspected a back injury. Tests revealed it to be more sinister, requiring emergency surgery. The memoir “Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler starts like a medical thriller, but soon the lens of the book widens to include the family’s search for emotional survival. Jeremy’s medical crisis awakened echoes of a previous tragedy. Twelve years earlier, Jeremy’s older brother Jonathan died from a heroin overdose. Now, Robert and his wife Linda had to face a new trial.
The book blurb forms a contract with the reader
Before I even purchased the book, I knew from the blurb that the author was an English Literature professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. I knew that “Courage to Walk,” was about the crippling and potentially deadly illness of a second son, and I knew about the death of Robert and Linda’s oldest son, Jonathan.
This preliminary information not only motivated me to buy and read the book. It also set my expectations for what I would encounter inside. I was looking forward to learning about the relationship between this father and his son, and I wanted to learn more about the private emotions of a man who earned his living as an intellectual. Since Waxler had written two memoirs, I had the added incentive that if I liked one, I could also read the other.
Courage to Live, To Love, and To Write
The title “Courage to Walk” refers to the son’s courage to reclaim the use of his legs and return to his place in society. However, there are other forms of courage in evidence. Robert Waxler lived for twelve years under the burden of his previous loss and now he must cope with this new danger. While Jeremy was struggling to stand up physically, Robert Waxler struggled to stand up emotionally in a world that threatened to swallow the ones he loved.
Like any memoir writer, I imagine this author struggled with the dilemma of how much of his private life to share. And since college professors are being paid to tell students how the world works, I imagine he would have even more incentive to hide his vulnerability. The fact that Robert Waxler chose to reveal this family struggle makes his memoir an exquisite example not only in the courage to walk, but also the courage to write.
Professors and emotions
When I started reading “Courage to Walk” I assumed this professor would adhere to my stereotype that “intellectuals hide in their ivory tower.” Suspicious of his ability to express emotion, I was overly critical at first of his occasional literary references. For example, he inserted a poem by Emily Dickenson. “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all.”
“Interesting,” I thought. “But what does Waxler think?”
To explore the suffering a parent must undergo, he quoted Simone Weil’s interpretation of the Bible. Weil said, “A mother, a wife, if they know the person they love is in distress will … suffer some equivalent distress.”
“Yes,” I thought. “I can appreciate this point that a parent would suffer, but why quote Simone Weil?” As I became accustomed to Waxler’s style my prejudice faded and I realized that the quotes were not creating distance between us at all. In fact, they invited me into his inner life. Upon reflection, it made perfect sense that Robert Waxler’s self-portrait ought to include a love of books, poetry, and plays. The references added depth to his character and through the course of the book, I saw how he used literature as a container large enough to include both passionate love and soul-crushing worry.
I thought of the poet William Blake, about whom Robert Waxler wrote his doctoral thesis. William Blake illustrated his poetry with etchings to offer readers an additional window into his soul. Robert Waxler achieved a similar purpose, showing me how other authors embellished his thoughts.
Waxler’s passion for books leaps around the world
While Jeremy Waxler was confined to his room, he read a pile of books. Robert listed the titles of the book, explaining their value for his son. “Like medicine on a shelf, these books need to be taken in and digested by a sensitive reader, and Jeremy is just that kind of reader, the kind that lets language seep deep through the skin and permeate the heart. Such reading gives him buoyancy, a lightness of being. Good books stir his blood and transport him to some other place.” Father and son shared this passion. Books were their common love.
I too am a lover of books. During my college years, I often saw the world in terms of the book in which I was currently immersed. After I graduated, few people in my life were interested in what I was reading, and my literary interest went into hiding. “Courage to Walk” reminds me that I’m not the only one with this impulse to turn toward books for sustenance.
This discovery comes at a perfect time for me. Thanks to blogging, I have been able to share my love for books with a larger crowd than at any time since I was a university student. With access to the purported billion plus people on the internet, bibliophiles everywhere can trade notes, enjoy each other’s company, and spread the word. Book lovers unite!
Writing Prompt for Memoir Readers
What memoirs make it onto your reading list? Look at the memoirs you recently read. What did you know about the author and his or her story that pulled you to read it? What similarities or differences with your own situation added to your curiosity? What questions did you hope to answer about the human condition in general or the author’s situation in particular?
Writing Prompt for Memoir Writers
In your own life or your memoir-in-progress, consider what your book blurb will tell potential readers about the journey they are about to embark on. What special audience might be interested in unique features in your story such as job, cultural or family background, geographical community, or some other special interest group? Brainstorm freely, and see which items would catch your eye if you came upon this book while browsing.
While Robert Waxler’s last name interests me, we are not related.
Amazon pages for Robert Waxler’s books
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
Check out the programs and resources at the National Association of Memoir Writers