I’ve never cried reading a book. The closest I came was at the end of Craig Thompson’s epic 592-page graphic novel Blankets. In the books’s remaining panels, the protagonist, Craig, walks alone on a snowy evening, reminiscing on first love and it’s inevitable end.
Craig, in the last shot of the nearly 600-page book, takes a leap five feet ahead, his foot marks from before filled from the falling snow.
“How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement—no matter how temporary.”
It was a conclusion to digest, an ending you let settle.
Ted Closson’s As Before, So Behind is 25 pages. And it broke me.
The heavy subject matter—grieving the death of his infant son—requires a gravity of both prose and art, a pillar the other stands on. Closson absolutely delivers here, with both fluidity and weightiness.
Obviously a story in which a child dies is incredibly sad and terrible. But why this comic, why did this get to me?
First, it was the way in which Closson took only 25 pages to tell this story. The prose, illustration, and pacing that make up this comic were flawless. He executed his craft to perfection. But most importantly, it hit home. It was personal. I saw myself, my wife, and my child in this comic. Or, more accurately, what could have been.
The story jumps timelines, back and forth, piecing together both past and present, swirling around the nexus, the center, which is is the birth of his son. In the opening of the comic, before he begins is story, Closson states that he “began to write a narrative that I hope might give context, rescue fragile details form fading memory.”
The comic begins with a recall to a trip to the river, establishing water as a metaphor for what follows. When his baby is born there’s a panel of faceless doctors and nurses, their heads cut off at the top of the page, out of focus. They are all standing, looking at each other, quiet. It is a sudden and empty feeling. This is moments after their baby was born, but the panel Closson produces is sterile and full of dread. His prose within the panel quietly underpins the scene:
“There is something wrong with your head.”
“The room is quiet.”
Closson follows up the clear-throated, matter-of-fact prose with “you are very quiet. You are not moving.” It’s as if the only way to process this information—whether in the moment or grieving after the fact—is to present it in bite-size nuggets, the only way I can imagine you would be able to comprehend it.
What follows cuts straight through to the bone. Wires are glued to his son’s head. Closson wants to take an item—a sock or a mitten—anything physical that would tether him to his son, but he accepts the fact that he cannot.
I started to break here.
When I first read this comic I reached out to Ted Closson on twitter to gush over how beautiful this piece was. He was very kind, and we spoke briefly. I told him that I had gone through similar issues, but did not tell him that my daughter lived. When she was born we spent five days in Children’s hospital, our week in hell, but she survived. I couldn’t bring myself to mention that.
I felt guilty. I read this comic and I cried and I thought, I couldn’t have been able to go through something like this and make it through to the other side. Reading this comic, I felt relief, and reading this comic I felt guilt for feeling relief. Because he wasn’t afforded that luxury, and the relief I feel is based off the grief I see pouring out in this comic.
I couldn’t shake my guilt. My daughter’s head was poked full of wires, too. We stayed and watched while they planted each and every wire on her head. She screamed for an hour, our week-old baby. I sat there and watched, and when it was over I didn’t feel the desire to take a sock or a mitten, like Closson illustrated. I felt the opposite.
Something broke inside for the first time. I could hardly stand to be in the same room as my daughter. She was having seizures uncontrollably and the doctors were gluing wires to her head, frantically trying to find out how to stop them.
But she couldn’t. I would hold her in my arms and she would shake against me, seizing, and I wasn’t strong enough to stop her. So while Closson describes wanting to nab a sock or a mitten—anything that would bond father and child together— I felt waves of guilt radiating over me because I wanted the opposite. I found it harder and harder to sit in that room, holding my daughter or even looking at her.
Closson finally gets his opportunity to hold his son. With the acceptance that the physical ties are quickly drifting away, the art work begins to shift into the surreal.
Closson, after establishing water as an anchor of this piece, bears the fruits of his labor. He begins to illustrate the comic in a more surreal manner after several sobering and sterile panels, illustrating a man losing grip with reality.
Closson now holds his boy, his tubes and wires and machinery now but seaweed, with both man and child underwater. This is a man drowning. He ends with a gut-wrenching realization:
“What do I do now?
All my fears as a parent are confirmed.”
The remaining few pages go on to explain the aftermath. Winter approaches but time somehow persists, “forking away into darkness.” And then he dreams of his son. Closson imagines what is son could look like at 7, 8, or 9 years old. It is not a comforting thought. He asks “who is this? How have you lived?”
And then, directly from the mind of a parent, he shatters me, saying, “I have forgotten to feed you.”
And here—the page that broke me. Five years had healed me. But in less than 25 pages, Closson broke me once more.
It is a full page illustration. A woman stands in water. Back again to the water. Closson questions his identity here, and when I read it I openly gasped. Then sobbed.
“I wonder,” he asks on this page.
“Am I a parent?
Am I a father?”
I cannot imagine a darker thought, a sadder realization, like cold water creeping up, and swallowing you whole. This haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Am I a parent? Am I a father?” How do you answer that question, let alone ask it?
When I sat at the hospital with my daughter, watching her seize time and time again, I was drowning. I would often think, is she brain dead? Am I watching my daughter die? But I never had to ask myself if I was a parent, because her doctors found medication that stopped her seizures, and saved her life. I never had to ask myself that question, so reading it aloud tore old wounds open—and relief washed over me where cold waters once lied.
Maybe someone without children, or a parent who didn’t have to go through anything like this may not be affected as strongly. So maybe it connected with me in a way that for others it simply may not.
But it did. And isn’t that the point of art?