Don’t Be Afraid
Knopf Canada, 2011
Since author Steven Hayward goes to such trouble to raise and examine the question of life after death, it is worthwhile attempting to determine if he offers any answers.
Besides the obvious encouragement of the title itself, there are a number of scenes that bear close scrutiny as potential sources of insight into the author’s position.
The first appears on page 24, and takes place shortly before Mike’s funeral, as Jim and his father prepare to fulfill their duties as pallbearers. Jim has gone outside to wait for his father. It’s a dismal day, and as he waits in the family driveway, a damp, charred remnant of a book destroyed in the library explosion flies up into his face. Except, it’s not a page from just any book, it’s from a children’s book called The Runaway Bunny
which tells the tale of a mother searching for her lost son. The fragment contained on the page presents the mother as the wind, who can blow her son (in the form of a sailboat) where she wants him to go. Jim experiences a glow of hope when he recognizes the mysterious synchronicities at play. However, the emergence from the house of his father, immediately dissipates the feeling. As Jim says,
“I resolved then to do what he [his father] would do, to regard the wind as he would, from the scientific perspective of a man who had been trained as an engineer. The kind of father who would tell you, even if you don’t ask, that engineering is the study of the world as it really is. That’s how I tried to look at it. As if the wind was just the wind, and nothing else. Just the movement of air across the surface of the earth.”
(As if this were not a mystery, in and of itself!)
Often, in the story, an individual’s perception or impression, will be, seemingly, defeated, or dissipated by scientific thinking. A similar instance occurs on page 170, when Jim questions his mother about her vision of Mike, immediately after the explosion. Filomena admits that she still sees her dead son, describing a recent visit in standard ghost story cliche:
“Last night, I woke up and he was standing right there at the foot of the bed.”
“But you were still asleep,” suggests Jim.
“That’s what Dr. Kasoff says, and he’s probably right, but it didn’t feel like that. I remember opening my eyes and feeling thirsty, then getting out of bed. And there he was.”
Once again, the reader is offered a scientific explanation — Filomena was dreaming, and the empiricists amongst the readers will consider the matter settled. But the glibness of this explanation is challenged by Filomena’s assertion that the affect of the experience was not that of a dream and there is no reason to doubt her ability to make the distinction. She provides a compelling reminder that explanations are not necessarily correct just because they are logical, and that there is no reason to believe that the universe is constructed for the convenience of our empirical senses.
However, Hayward also reminds us that of the folly (and the attraction) of leaping to mystical explanations for puzzling phenomenon — the very spooky occurrences at the library which act as a prelude to the explosion, are entirely man-made. Both Jim (and hence the reader) are completely aware of this, yet in the presence of Hayward’s skillful rendering, one feels the pull towards occult explanations for the occurrences. In this way, the corollary of Filomena’s position is made clear: an inability to provide a logical explanation for a phenomenon is not proof that there isn’t one.
Jim has his own strange experience sensing his brother’s presence, as described on page 202. He has taken to spending time sitting in Mike’s car, an old Gremlin. He is doing just that, thinking about his brother, his memory prodded by the smells in the car, when suddenly,
“…just for a second, it seems like he’s there sitting beside me. A bone-chilling spooky feeling courses through me, and soon it’s freaking me out because that smell is abnormally — supernaturally — strong,and maybe the Gremlin has turned into the kind of car you find in Stephen King movies that gets taken over by a dead thing or a dead person. Though in this instance the dead thing would be my brother, and therefore not exactly frightening. It’d be weird at first, but then I’d mellow out and get into it. At least I ‘d like to believe I’d act that way. I’d turn on the radio, only instead of the radio it’d be his voice, talking about what a drag it was to have come back to earth as the ghostly inhabitant of an old Gremlin.”
Once again, Haywood manipulates his readers into a brush with immense possibility, before deftly dissipating the possibility, in this case, with a welter of absurdities that inevitably accompany any attempt to integrate life and afterlife.
Another key scene occurs on pages 257 to 259. In this instance, Fort Morrison, in an effort to make his wife deal with the reality of her son’s death, scours the house, filling garbage bags with anything associated with Mike, leaving it all at the curb for pick up. Once both parents have departed, into their separate hells, Jim begins to return the bags to the house and on one of his trips, he notices a boy, about his age (although maybe slightly older) who is holding something from one of the bags. Jim insists that the boy return the items, and, as he describes it:
“That’s when I see he looks exactly like Sean Penn.” and a strangely elliptical conversation ensues. It should be remembered that Sean Penn, rather significantly, was a candidate for the role of Mike, in the movie they intended to make about their lives. Petey, who has been hovering in the periphery of the scene, suddenly disappears, and is only found later, safe in a warm bath, and with no doubt about who brought him there.
These escalating experiences culminate in the final chapter, from which the entire book takes its title. Jim is alone in his room, recovering from one of his frequent fainting spells, and receives a further visit from “Sean Penn” who tells him not to be afraid and that the movie has a happy ending. The fainting spell, and the possibility it allows, of some cognitive dysfunction, provides the wiggle room, and once again, the reader must follow his own heart in interpreting the scene. However, Jim notes that despite “a whole battery of tests done to make sure there wasn’t anything interesting or excellent wrong with me,” science fails to uncover any perceptual pathology.