Lives examined through the death of a child

Monday Book Review

February 15, 1993|By Judy Fowler

ANNA: A DAUGHTER'S LIFE. By William Loizeaux. Arcade Publishing, New York. 213 pages. $19.95.

ANNA Loizeaux was born with a cluster of congenital problems involving the improper placement and formation of key body organs. Within her first hour of life on Jan. 21, 1989, she underwent surgery to open an esophagus blocked at both ends. She died 5 1/2 months later when her kidneys failed following an operation to repair her heart.

Written in diary format, the book that Anna's father, William, began as a very private effort to come to grips with his grief flowers into a document of public and universal meaning, weighing the relationship between parent and child and past and present, finding beauty and happiness in ordinary daily events. The diary-like entries, which occur every two or three days, cover the months of Anna's short life and the year following her death.

During her brief lifetime, Anna did the endearing things babies always do: inspecting her tiny hands at close range, kicking wildly at the sight of someone familiar, bouncing in her Swing-o-matic, sleeping with her rump propped heavenward.

But "Anna" concentrates more on the impact that Anna had on others, on the bonds that she unknowingly forged, on the awareness that surfaced because she was here. Mr. Loizeaux recounts, for example, the comfort he feels when his father holds Anna and when his mother, found to have Anna's blood type, gives blood for one of the operations: Anna generates the connections that the three adults want but cannot voice.

In another incident, the Loizeauxs meet and admire a woman in native African dress who watches her baby boy so intently when both he and Anna are in a Georgetown intensive care unit. More than a year later, in a scene offering hope for cross-cultural understanding, they encounter the woman again and discover that the little boy is now healthy.

Nearly every incident will spur memories, prodding readers not only to consider an event's significance but even more to savor its joy. On July 4, 1990, one year to the day after Anna's death, a neighbor's 10-year-old adopted daughter, a native Korean, arrives on the Loizeaux porch, hands Mr. Loizeaux a cinnamon and apple coffee cake and says, "This is for you. For Beth [Anna's mother], too. My mother and I just baked it." The child then stands a bit awkwardly, flops her willowy arms on her sides, and --es off the porch and across the yard toward her house. "I turned," writes Mr. Loizeaux, "and brought the cake into our house, feeling its warmth in my hands."

Of course, a book whose motivation is the death of a child cannot contain only happy passages. The first 35 pages are especially intense, not just because the author concentrates on the sad beginning and the sad end of a real child's life, but also because a real father speaks of his concurrent rage and feeling of helplessness. No parent forgets the child who died, and pious platitudes, self-help books and therapy groups won't change that. Mr. Loizeaux establishes it early on and never retracts it.

Mr. Loizeaux's delicious prose alone would make the book an aesthetic experience. The sharp imagery, the motifs, the writer's voice, the selection and positioning of events in the diary -- all combine for riveting reading. Mr. Loizeaux, who lives in Hyattsville and teaches at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, knows his business.

Inevitably, "Anna: A Daughter's Life" will tease its readers to classify it with things they already know. A pre-publication testimonial reproduced on the book jacket, for example, compares it to "St. Augustine's Confessions" and James Agee's "A Death in the Family." But "Anna" reminded me of "Our Town" and "J. B." All three works show us that in the midst of searing, inevitable and inexplicable pain, we can find joy in our private and daily lives.

I'm glad the publisher decided to postpone the release of "Anna" from October to February. While an October publication would have supplied a thematically rich and seasonally appropriate book for giving and reading during the holidays, a release during the thick of the fall presidential combat would have cheapened the book's emphasis on family and community and would have distorted not only its message but its art.

With its February release, "Anna" can have its own well-deserved forum.

Judy Fowler teaches writing at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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