By Eliza Factor
Back in my twenties, a good friend and I used to stay out til dawn, bopping from bar to bar, scoffing at the patriarchy and howling at the increasingly fuzzy moon. A dozen years later, she sent me a homemade card that featured portraits of her, her husband and their two kids photoshopped into a sepia tone Victorian family portrait. Inscribed were the words: It happens to the best of us.
I kept chuckling about that card as I read Emma Nadler’s memoir The Unlikely Village of Eden. Nadler was also convinced that she’d never get married, much less to a man. Then she met a blue eyed saxophonist who smelled like the woods. And so she found herself, queer as ever, with a cisgender husband, two kids and a house in Minneapolis. Then they moved from the city to the suburbs. Then she wanted a puppy. Then comes one of my favorite lines in the book, spoken by the saxophonist. “Babe, I agree. Let’s fuck shit up and get a dog in the suburbs.”
It happens to the best of us.
But Nadler’s family would fit less well into that Victorian photograph. Her second child Eden, born with a rare genetic deletion, would probably not have survived in those days. Nadler is great on the surrealness of parenting a child engulfed in the medical system: “All the hospital visits started to blend together in a strange and disorienting way. We had been roomed all over the sixth floor, so that nearly every corner held previous memories, to the point where if I stepped out to refill my water or take a phone call while Eden slept, I would head back to the room that we stayed in the last time, only to find that the sign on the door now said Marcus or Kiara.”
The doctors did not know how Eden would develop, only that she would be affected by her genetic condition. It was a large deletion. A feeding tube became necessary. Night nurses were enrolled. Mountains of uncertainty, bureaucracy, exhaustion and guilt scaled. One of the mysteries of good writing is the way experiences no one would wish to experience get transformed into compelling material. In Nadler’s case, her voice does the trick; it’s so rich with honesty, wit, intelligence and love that you don’t want to stop reading.
As Eden grew, she learned how to walk and talk, how to dance and blow kisses, how to appreciate and love a best friend. She also learned how to physically attack herself and others. Her brother, quite marvelously, dubbed her outbursts “fuckfits.” Nadler vividly and at times humorously (there’s a great Barnes & Nobles scene) illustrates their frequency and unpredictability.
It’s not easy. As Nadler puts it, being Eden’s mother was ”both a spiritual calling and something like a fork stuck in my eye.” In my experience, being in emergency mode 24/7, day after day, year after year, is one of the hardest things about raising a child prone to these sorts of fits. You begin to fray. It becomes more and more difficult to lead a full life. Eventually Nadler gets to the point where she fears that she can no longer work as a psychotherapist. This is a double blow. Her job is important financially and is also keeping her afloat mentally. Nadler is refreshingly open about not wanting to give up the many loves of her life. She wants to practice her craft. She wants to see her friends. She wants to wear short skirts to her husband’s concerts. She does not apologize for this, and why should she? But there is so much social pressure on mothers to prioritize their maternal duties above all else, it almost seems brave.
There are many heroes in this book, chief among them a remarkable nurse named Julie and her retired husband Marc (Eden’s best friend). Due to the radical generosity of this couple, Nadler doesn’t have to quit her job, her son can have some uninterrupted time with his parents, the book can be written and the sparkling gifts and charms of Eden shared with a wider group of loving people.
Sadly Julie and Marc cannot be cloned. But I know there are many unsung Julie and Marcs out there, doing their part to keep the world spinning on its wobbly axis. This book is a tribute to them and a reminder to all of us of the joy and rejuvenation that can come about when we stop trying to do everything alone and learn to share our most precious responsibilities.