Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Harry Potter and the Ultimate Bedtime Story

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
By J. K. Rowling

Yes, I realize that I finished the book (Tuesday night around 10:20) nine days after anyone who considers themselves to be a "true fan," and long after anybody on the planet needs a review of the book. But this isn't a review. The book is fantastic, and ties up all the loose ends, and gives great background on characters about whom we always wanted to know more. I loved it. But, as I said before, this isn't a review. It's a paean.

I was late in finishing for two reasons. First, I didn't even get the book (my copy was legit) until last Friday night (I had far more interesting plans on the release date--yes, more interesting even than dressing as an overgrown boy wizard and pushing small children out of my way to be the first in line), and to slow myself down further, I chose to finish the series as I had started it: reading aloud.

When Harry Potter first landed stateside, I was in high school, and still bristling from the popularity of ridiculous fads like Beany Babies and Pokemon. I refused to join these camps, and regarded young Harry to be a similar obsession. Later, after I had entered college, a family friend gave my mom the first two books in paperback, telling her how much fun they were.

(this is the point where I'm going to lapse into the sentimental crap I usually reserve for my own blog, because it scores well with the Chick Demographic. If you'd prefer the sort of scathing commentary commonly dished out in fat, steaming piles here on Rage in the Page, I'd suggest you skip this and go read one of Ket's posts.)

Less than halfway into my freshman year, my mom was diagnosed with inoperable, incurable, Stage Four lung cancer. She had never been a smoker. In the summer following my second year, after losing her hair for the second time, she was hospitalized briefly with double pneumonia. She used a wheel chair for a bit, and I quit my job that summer to push her to work, doctor appointments, and movies. A couple weeks after I returned to school, one of the metastatic tumors in her spine (they were also in her skull, hip, and ribs) grew to the point that she became paralyzed from her hips down. The short version of the story is that I dropped out of college to become Mom's 22-7 primary caregiver. (I walked the dog for an hour a day, and left the room for various other small tasks, but for the other 22 hours, I was right there, handling medicines, visitors, and menus) Nobody else could take the time off, and we couldn't afford to pay somebody. It wasn't a hard decision to make.

We soon realized that we both ran out of things to do, even with a steady stream of well-wishers and actual medical personnel dropping in to see her. One of the nurse's aides lent us movies ranging from Simon Birch to Deuce Bigalow. At some early point, I grew hungry for some text, and started looking for a book in the house I hadn't already read (not an easy task). I found the paperback copies of The Sorceror's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. I asked Mom if she was interested, and so began Story Time. After whatever routine we had for the day, I'd pull out Harry Potter and a glass of water, and read aloud to my mom.

I'm not sure how far I made it before I started doing voices. Certainly not long; after a childhood spent with two or three Monty Python audio tapes (yes, children, it was a long time ago) and the complete Weird Al collection, I was doing strange voices and accents most of the time anyway. Later, when the movies came out, I was elated to discover that I had gotten them all right. Except I mispronounced "Hermione." Every character had their own voice, and I managed somehow to keep them all straight. Whether this added to the experience for Mom, or was just irritating, I'll never know. At one point, a second-degree friend brought over audio tapes for the Goblet of Fire, knowing that we had been reading the books. I never told anyone before, but I was a little insulted. What right did she have to tell me I was getting the voices wrong?? Maybe it was because I backed my Jeep into her car the previous summer.

We made it through the first two and a half books together. We loved the imagination and humor, and I clung to puns like "Diagon Alley" and the Mirror of Erised. I was even convinced that some of the jokes were so subtle that they might not even have been intentional. As Mom grew more drained and spent more and more time asleep, I started cheating on her, reading ahead and keeping two bookmarks. Many times, I stopped reading, thinking that she was asleep, only to have her ask me why a moment later, after she realized that I wasn't just pausing for a drink or dramatic effect.

When we first plunged into the books, neither of us realized what a permeating theme death would be. We both knew that it was coming, though we never talked about it, and that acceptance helped me to keep my voice steady when Dumbledore told Harry that "to the prepared mind, death is but the next great adventure."

We only made it through the first two and a half books because Mom was eventually sleeping through so much of the day that she was really only awake for food and drugs. She slept through a couple visits from the nurse while I handled all the questions and requests for an increased dosage of painkillers. I finished the third book on my own, a little before Mom died. By then I was reading only to myself, and Mom never found out the truth about Remus Lupin's time at Hogwart's. When I started the following books, I always felt like I should be reading them out loud, and I never did, until the last book. And I'm glad I did. I had forgotten how to do some of the voices, but they came back to me. The book begs to be read out loud, and sounds great--much better in my voice than in my head. It forced me to slow down and appreciate how much emotion is in Rowling's words, because I heard that emotion in my own voice, without even meaning to put it there. She's a fantastic writer, and proves that by bending you to her will and making you feel, or at least empathize with, the pain and joys of her characters. I love when I have a physical reaction to something I'm reading, whether it's sudden laughter or a gasp when I have a moment of epiphany and realize what's going on, and Rowling manages this constantly. It's something I strive for in my own writing, often irritating people who read my stuff by asking them why they laughed or threw up.

I love Harry Potter because it's a great story, and a thoroughly-realized world wrought by a master hand, but I also love it because it was one of the last things my mom and I shared. It spoke frankly of death, pain, and sacrifice, but it also revealed joy, humor, and hope. When I finished the last chapter (and epilogue) and finally closed the last book in the series... I think I'm man enough to say that a tear may have found its way to my eye. Maybe a couple. But they weren't entirely for Harry and his friends. I had finally finished telling Mom the story. Now I may have to go back and read her the rest, too.

Thank you, Ms. Rowling, for making this fantastic world. Thanks for sharing it. And thank you, most of all, for being so honest about the subjects that scare us the most.

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posted by reyn at 1:10 PM


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