It is also a spot-on portrait of the complex melancholy of early middle age: A time when cuddly children “who used to creep into your room at night and sleep curled up against your side, under your armpit,” morph into petulant teenagers, then return as fascinating — if somewhat mysterious — separate people. When there’s an endless “string of endings, proud and bereft at once”: kids driving off in a car with a brand-new license, working a summer job, going to college. When there’s the push-pull of finding yourself old enough to have almost grown kids and almost elderly parents, but young enough to want to run from the reality of being the grown-up in any room.
“I thought I had more time” is one of Philpott’s refrains. It surges, full of righteous anger, when her son’s pediatrician gives her a brochure, “Getting Your Baby Ready to Leave Home,” long before the high school senior’s departure for college. This amounts to an “attack upon my soul,” the author writes, with what may or may not be hyperbole. Because, for someone like Philpott, there is nothing more destabilizing than being caught off-guard.
Her brain craves certainties; life in the 40s serves up layers upon layers of existential doubt. Her son’s diagnosis is an unwelcome discovery that she can rise to meet. But another — unearthed not long before she began writing this book — eludes her powers of mastery: Philpott made a casual and sinister discovery. Her father, a highly respected surgeon, lets drop that, in the early to mid-1970s, he’d worked at “Site R,” or Raven Rock, the secret underground bunker near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, where he’d been assigned to help keep top government officials alive in the case of a nuclear attack on the U.S. capital.
This bombshell lands with shattering impact. The author revisits her entire early childhood and sees herself, every morning, placidly chomping on her toaster waffle, while waving goodbye to a dad who knew and accepted the fact that he might “never walk in again” — because at any time, on any day, she, her baby brother and her mother “would all be blasted into hot dust.” And that image crystallizes all the haunting uncertainties, the torturous ambiguities that — again, for someone of Philpott’s sort — have a tendency to get stuck in the brain. “No one is really saved, only temporarily protected,” is her present-day takeaway. “What is a bomb shelter but either practice for something that will never happen or a postponement of the inevitable?”
The mental fallout is like a cascade of dominoes. Philpott learns that her husband of 20 years can juggle; what else hasn’t she known? Her son realizes that the 4 a.m. seizure was probably not his first; what else has been missed? Philpott reads online that J.M.E. commonly has precursor symptoms, “absence seizures” during which a kid will seem to space out, slowly blinking; could there be a crueler instrument for self-torture? “If a kid like that spaced out at the dinner table and his blinks were long enough that he appeared to be sitting there with his eyes closed, a parent might think the kid is just having wacky table manners,” she writes.