Crossing Mordor

This spring I started reading Lord of the Rings to Sebastian, my nine-year old son. By that time we had cultivated the habit of reading a book together before bedtime for several years, together with my older, developmentally disabled son. We had worked our way through all of The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence, The Hobbit, and others that I cannot now recall.

The Lord of the Rings was always intended to be one of the crowning achievements of this long-cultivated habit. I had read the book as a young teen, several years older than Sebastian's nine years, but he was already precocious and more adventurous with his reading than I had been, and he voraciously devoured content about World of Warcraft and other fantasy video games and movies, and so I judged him ready for our great adventure in Middle Earth. We began to read it together—and almost immediately ran into problems.

The copy of Lord of the Rings that we read, bound into a single volume as God and Tolkien intended.

See, it had been more than fifteen years since I had actually read the books myself, and the movies were fresher in my memory. I remembered that the book was slow starting, and that this was deliberate—but I had forgotten just how long Tolkien lingers in the Shire before even venturing as far as Bree, and how long it took for the properly epic arc of the story to unfold. The beginning of the book is an awkward kind of midway between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. It retains the tone of picaresque adventure that The Hobbit has, but it adopts the slower pace and broad focus appropriate for a book intended for adults. There are some brief moments of excitement in the early chapters—Gandalf shows up and gives Frodo an idea of what the Ring is right away, and the Ringwraiths begin sniffing about the Shire almost immediately thereafter. However, the main characters' early interactions with these elements are brief and separated by long passages that merely describe walking through the forests and fields of the Shire. The first extended adventure sequence is the fight at Weathertop and the ensuing flight to Rivendell, which does not occur in my edition until page 195.

This turned out to be rather much for a nine-year-old. We didn't stop reading the book together, but our pace was rather languid, and I believe that we had just barely reached Bree when our reading was abruptly broken off.

My sons Sebastian and Ciprian atop a mountain we climbed last summer.

Tolkien was no fool, and the opening parts of the trilogy are by no means bad or extraneous. He just wasn't writing for an audience of children in The Lord of the Rings. The reason for these relaxed early chapters is to give the reader a sense of what is at stake. Rather than simply tell us that the world is good but endangered, he gives us ample amount of time to see the beauty and goodness of the Shire, to feel the summer sun on our skin, to taste the frothy beer and fried mushrooms, to stroll pleasantly through the woods and chat with the plump, ridiculous, admirable residents of Hobbiton. We need to know this in order to understand what is threatened by the One Ring and its master. The cheerful and homely descriptions of the Shire are there to provide contrast with the horror to come.

Sebi learned how to make a giant bubble blower from a YouTube video and proceeded to entertain the rest of us for most of the rest of day.

Sebi was a delight. Indulge me, for a little while, to do what all parents do and gush about my children. He was precocious, bright, and kind. We chose to homeschool him and his brother, and his diligence in this matter surprised us. He would wake up early, at six or seven in the morning, and immediately take out his schoolbooks and begin working, finishing up many days by eight or nine in the morning. Now don't get the wrong idea—his purpose wasn't to spend lots of time at school, but rather to finish his schoolwork so that he could go back to his play. My wife and I thought that we could probably push him to complete two grades a year given the speed with which he moved through the material, but we judged that it was better to let him have his time for creativity rather than forcing extra academics on him.

He liked to build things. In my garden I have a table which he built for himself from scap-wood. It's rickety and unbalanced, as you might expect from something built by a nine-year-old without training or proper tools, but I am proud of it nonetheless. We found clay in a nearby creek, and he fashioned a bowl and spoon from them and fired them in our wood-burning stove. It wasn't a proper kiln, and neither of us knew anything about pottery, but that wasn't really the point.

He liked Minecraft and World of Warcraft. In Minecraft, he was fond of secrets, trapdoors, and hidden entrances. He built a house for himself with multiple layers of secrets in it, including a back entrance which let out into a forest maze so dense and confusing that when I visited it later I became genuinely trapped and resorted to simply hacking through the leaves in order to escape. In World of Warcraft he most ardently collected mounts and other cosmetics, and though he wasn't really equipped to participate in high-level play himself, he loved to watch over my shoulder when I took down raid bosses with my guild.

Sebi and his uncle Traian playing silly games as a toddler. Our choice of games varied a little as he grew older but the fun did not.

Every Sunday, my brother-in-law would come over and we would play board games, most frequently Dominion or Ticket to Ride. He beat me fair and square more than once.

He was an excellent swimmer, and he mostly taught himself with only minimal input from me. He could walk on his hands exceptionally well, keeping his balance easily for a minute or more and traveling from one room to the next with as much facility as most people walk on their feet—another skill he taught himself after seeing his uncle do it for a few seconds.

In a similar vein, when I "taught" him to ride a bike, what actually happened was that I set him on the bike, told him to pedal and try to keep his balance, and warned him that he might fall a few times before he got the hang of it. He did not fall off. Instead he immediately rode away, on his first attempt, needing no further guidance from me.

Sebi and Ciprian eating muffins that Sebi made. Among his many interests was cooking, but like me he generally went without a recipe, instead adding ingredients together as the inspiration struck him. This worked out way more often than you would suspect.

He was kind and patient. His older brother is autistic and developmentally disabled, which caused friction as Sebi often found himself the brunt of his brother's tantrums. Heroically, he learned not to hit back even when his older brother was unable to control himself. Sometimes he came to us crying after a particularly difficult encounter, and one of us would have to hold and comfort him. I was incredibly proud of the care he took for his brother, though. It was more than most children his age should have to deal with.

And he would actively engage in his brother's education. During the long evenings of the summer, the boys would find themselves in bed at their usual time, but with an hour or more before dark really fell. Sebi took to bringing out flashcards and helping teach his brother how to read.

In the last week of July, Sebi's favorite aunt and uncle were on vacation in Bulgaria. The day before they were to return his cousin came to our house, and Sebi wanted to make a card to welcome them back. He made a set of cut-out hearts, pasted them together and wrote "Love is eternal" on them, to give as a gift to them the next day.

Like Tolkien, I'm telling you this to provide some contrast with the horror to come.

"I have been so taken up with the thoughts of leaving Bag End, and of saying farewell, that I have never even considered the direction," said Frodo. "For where am I to go? And by what shall I steer? What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one and not return, as far as I can see."

Lord of the Rings, Book I, Ch. 3

On the morning of July 2 I didn't have a lot of work to do. I was self-employed and working from home, and it only took me a few hours to finish up my tasks for the morning and come outside.

My kids were in the swimming pool. This was one of those steel-framed above-ground pools, less than a meter deep, but big enough for the kids to splash around in and play games during the summer swelter. I got my swimming suit on, jumped in, and spent a while chasing them through the water pretending to be a shark, plucking them out of the water and tossing them back in with a huge splash, and tickling them until they begged me to stop. After about thirty minutes Sebi said that he was getting bored, so we toweled off and came inside to make lunch. I made chick pea curry and rice.

Sebi kept asking if he could visit the big public swimming pool down the road. I refused, because we have our own swimming pool in the backyard—small, of course, but big enough that going out seemed like a waste, especially since I guessed he would get bored there about as quickly as he got bored at home. Instead, once lunch was put away I decided to go upstairs and take an afternoon nap.

I woke up to the sound of my wife screaming: Sebi has drowned.

I ran down the stairs. My wife ran past me, searching for her phone. Sebi was lying in the grass next to the swimming pool motionless. I turned his head to the side, cleared his throat, then began rescue breathing. I could taste the curry in his mouth.

My father later asked me if I felt guilty that I wasn't able to rescue him that day. The truth is that I never really believed that I could. I had taken a single course in CPR some eight years before, and I don't think that I really performed the procedure correctly—but beyond that, the course warned us to have low expectations. "Don't think that you're going to do two compressions, then the person will cough and wake up like in the movies. Your only job is to maybe keep them alive until the paramedics come. Don't expect more than that."

Even without that warning, I would have known. As soon as I felt his limp body and touched his cold lips, I knew that he was gone.

Larisa's aunt took this picture. I was not aware of its existence until several days after the fact, but I treasure having it.

When my wife found her phone, she couldn't remember the emergency number. In Romania the number for emergency calls is 112 rather than 911, but even those three digits escaped her. Instead she dialed the top number in her phone's list of recent calls, which happened to be a friend of ours whose husband is a priest. (Eastern Orthodox priests, unlike Roman Catholic ones, are usually married.) She gave Larisa the number then came herself. They were among the first to arrive, followed shortly by my wife's parents, sisters, and their spouses, alerted by the frantic network of phone calls.

Only God knows how many prayers for Sebastian were uttered that day. My own were probably the least among them. For whatever reason, from the moment I touched him lying in the grass, I had the terrible certainty. My own prayers were something more like an inarticulate howl through a haze of shock.

The paramedics came soon. They followed their protocol, but they they were even less effective than our prayers.

When they had given their declaration, my wife and I gathered to stay with Sebi until the morgue van came. We held him, kissed his cold, wet forehead, and rocked him back and forth. We sang to him and told him how much we loved him. When the van arrived, I carried him away myself and lay him in the body bag.

Before the next day dawned their journey to Mordor was over. The marshes and the desert were behind them. Before them, darkling against a pallid sky, the great mountains reared their threatening heads.

Lord of the Rings, Book IV, Ch. 3

It is still mysterious how a child who was a strong swimmer managed to drown in only 60cm of water. When I first came outside I saw that the tarp which protected the pool was only partially drawn back, so I assumed that he had tried to dive under the tarp to swim across the pool and back (the kind of challenge he would often give himself), and had somehow gotten tangled up in the tarp and couldn't make it back to the open water.

However, the coroner's report along with my wife's testimony cast doubt on that. The tarp was partially over the water, yes, but it wasn't tangled up with his body at all at the time she found him, and the coroner found little evidence that he had been struggling prior to his death. They said that it looked to them like he had had a seizure (though he had no prior history of seizures), or that he tried to vomit under the water and had choked.

We will never know for sure.

I won't even attempt to convey the unbearable agony of the five days between Sebi's death and funeral. My parents and one of my sisters flew in from America to spend the week with us. Our house was constantly filled with siblings, parents, uncles and aunts, in-laws, friends, and clergy coming to offer their help, advice, and comfort. Most of that week reduces to a terrible blur, in which I'm not entirely sure what I said and did. I do remember the density of love that overwhelmed us from everyone around. We didn't have to cook a meal for the next two weeks and our house was cleaned top to bottom. We were seldom alone, except for when I woke up at 3am and paced the house crying quietly.

The funeral service, held in a 500-year-old church in our village.

My parents had to leave after a two-week stay. My brother and his wife came to visit a few weeks after the funeral. They had correctly percieved that we would be inundated with help in the immediate aftermath, and their time might be better spent visiting a little while after the rush had subsided. This was a delightful and necessary comfort.

Still, what I did not expect was the long desolation that followed. After a while it becomes necessary to go on living your life. And this means that you will wake up every morning, get dressed, wash the dishes, fuel your car, feed the dog, do laundry, cook dinner, make the bed, go to church, listen to the radio, watch a movie, mow the lawn. I started a new job in this time, a strange act which seemed simultaneously normal and impossible. One's moment-by-moment mood even approaches something like normality. I was able to enjoy things and tell jokes. You might think I was getting better.

Sebi and the kittens which were born at our house this spring. This picture was taken the day before he died. One of the kittens died the same day as him, for no reason that we can discern other than "Sebi took it with him."

But underneath all of that there is a deep and inconsolable melancholy, an ocean of loss over which you sail, sometimes placidly, and sometimes through terrible storms. Because this was another thing that surprised me: the process of grief is inconstant and irregular. I may go hours or days feeling entirely normal, almost forgetting that I have lost the treasure I loved better than anything. Then there come days when I can barely stand, when I feel the loss like a stone on my chest crushing out my breath, when I lie in my bed with a blanket over my head and hate the world for going on without me, without Sebi. The ordinary joys and pleasures that I have during this time are welcome, but all of them are covered with this thin grit of ash that I could never wash away.

The most terrible thing is that there is no exit to look forward to. In most other challenges there is an end in sight, the hope of reprieve or some kind of resolution which one might hope for. But there is no resolution here. There is only the promise of eventually forgetting, of hurting less—and that is precisely what I don't want to do, because it would mean forgetting Sebi, forgetting how wonderful he was, losing sight of how much we loved him and how bitterly he is missed.

"Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?" he said. "And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir's country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?"

"No, I am afraid not, Sam," said Frodo. "At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades."

Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Ch. 3

The problem with faith after death is not so much that you lose it, but that you are left with nothing else. You discover how little of it you have, and how weak and desperate you are for something tangible. You hope for signs and wonders, and you do not receive them.

Sebi at a waterfall, from a trip we took with my brother and his children.

And even worse, you know that there is no reason to expect them. No one ever promised us that our lives would be free of tragedy and pain, that we would not suffer, that we would not have to endure any terrible night. Wiser Christians than I have remarked on the fact that Jesus himself, at the moment of his greatest agony, cried out for deliverance and heard no reply.

What we're left with is a promise and a hope, alongside the cold, barren reality of living every day in the shadow.

One of the last acts of the funeral service here in Romania was the sealing of the grave. We had already taken our last goodbyes, the lid on the casket was fixed, and the coffin was lowered into the ground. The priest then approached and blessed the grave with these words: The grave of Sebastian Mircea, a servant of God, is sealed until the second coming of the Lord. Once blessed, the gravediggers began to cover the coffin with earth.

My brother visiting Sebastian's grave.

I cannot think of any more terrible promise. The priest reminds me of a hope, a distant hope, which may never come until after I have joined him in the grave. But at the same time, for now he is sealed away, trapped under the water in our swimming pool and beneath six feet of broken earth, and I cannot reach him.

I read a lot in the weeks and months following Sebi's death. Someone gave me a copy of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, which I read, followed by Lewis's entire Space Trilogy. I read In Memoriam, that inimitable book of poetry by Alfred Tennyson in which he mourns the death of his beloved friend. I read nonfiction about grief, about science, about anything else.

Eventually I returned to the vast volume of The Lord of the Rings which had lain at my bedside since this spring.

Sebi and his mother at a Christmas pageant from a few years ago.

The Lord of the Rings had always been an emotionally affecting book for me. The first passage of literature which ever brought me to tears was the part on the slopes of Mount Doom where Frodo falls and can go no further, and Sam physically picks him up and carries him so that they can finish their quest. It is a desperate moment of heroism, for Sam has already realized that they have no supplies to return once they have destroyed the Ring. They are fated to climb that mountain, cast away their cursed treasure, and then lie down to await their deaths. And Sam is so determined not to fail that he carries his weakened friend up the mountain when his friend can do no more.

There were many more passages which moved me this time through. Granted, it's not so difficult to reduce me to tears these days. It often happens spontaneously, such as while drinking coffee or listening to music. Nonetheless, I found a depth of sympathy and comfort in the book that I did not expect, particularly in the grim chapters in which Frodo and Sam approach Mount Doom. I felt like I understood Mordor more intimately than I ever had before.

Sebi and me playing around on a trip to Budapest we took together.

We often talk about "hope" as something bright and pleasant, as if being hopeful meant to be optimistic and cheery. When I think of hope these days I think instead of those miserable hobbits on their doomed march through the Mordor of ruin and ash. Their errand to carry the Ring to Mount Doom was all but impossible, and there was no chance of safe return. But they did it anyway, because that was the burden that had fallen to them, and they were determined not to give up in the face of the Shadow.

I admired that they passed through Mordor. I hope that I have the strength to do it myself.

Sebi and the husky puppy he got as his most treasured gift two years ago.

Did I say I never received a sign?

One morning, about three weeks ago, I found myself in one of my more miserable moods, and I dared to ask God to give me some hint that Sebi was alive with Him. I almost immediately retracted my request, saying I didn't need it. Really, I was afraid that nothing would happen.

Not an hour later my wife came to me and said that she had just dreamed of Sebi. She told me a short, simple story of him meeting with an acquaintance, an architect who designed our house. In the dream, Sebi gave him a puppy.

It wasn't much. You could easily call it a coincidence. But it was enough.

And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for even,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Ch. 5

Tolkien takes pains to specify that the fall of Sauron occurs on March 25, a date which many will recognize as the Feast of the Annunciation in the Christian calendar. The Annunciation is date on which the angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and tells her that she will have a child, remembered in Christian theology as the beginning of our salvation.

Sebi and I at the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem.

I mostly remember the promise that Mary received shortly after her son was born: "A sword will pierce your heart." She said, "All generations will call me blessed," and we do, but we also call her sorrowful. I remember that she, too, lost her child.

But most of all I remember that grim Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Saturday is where we have to live, in the long, desolate waiting after your son has died, when the grave is still sealed.

There are no Cracks of Doom, here. There is no moment in which I will cast the One Ring into the fire and be freed of it forever. In any case, the burden I'm carrying is not a cursed item of power, but the memory of my son, which I will never set down and have no desire to be rid of.

Still, one must carry it through Mordor to the end. The eucatastrophe to come can only be reached if you bear your burden all the way to end.

Sebi with medal that he won after running a one-mile race with me.

Frodo famously does not get to enjoy the happy ending at the close of The Lord of the Rings. He is too greviously wounded, and even though he is victorious by destroying the Ring, the memory of it has been printed too deeply on his soul for him to ever be truly whole. Eventually he goes to the Gray Havens, and then out of the world itself in order to find a place where he might finally rest.

This, too, seems familiar. Because eventually you have to go back to the Shire—that is, you go back to your ordinary life, in which you work and play and enjoy the pleasures that you still have. This year I have rejoiced greatly over holiday meals with family, the winter's first snowfall, a hot cup of coffee, and a gentle evening watching movies with my wife. I have another son who continues to grow and delight me. Life does bring joy.

But like Frodo, having once passed through Mordor, I am never entirely well. The wound still hurts. I hope it never stops. Not until I see Sebi again.

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Lord of the Rings, Book VI, Ch. 9

And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."

Revelation 21:3-4

J.S. Bangs
Dec 2019