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January 24, 2019

One Strong Girl, by Lesley Buxton

“It’s not the violence [of murder mysteries] I’m attracted to. It’s the grief. These mysteries offer me the truest reflections of my own feelings. Unlike ‘based-on-true-life’ stories about children who die, there are no grand epiphanies, no resolution all beautifully wrapped up. In mysteries the characters mourn unapologetically, their lives narrow. I’m comfortable in this milieu. Here nobody ever says, ‘It all happened for a reason’ or asks of the mother to be thankful her child is no longer in pain. Here everybody recognizes that it was better before.”

As I finished reading Lesley Buxton’s memoir, One Strong Girl, last night, I started thinking about birth stories, and how many of these I’ve read over the years. And about the parallels between these stories and the one Buxton shared in the section of her memoir called “So Eden Sank,” the story of the end of her teenage daughter India’s life. Beginning with arrival at the hospital (after six years of India’s illness, which baffled doctors at every turn), and then a move to a hospice where the family settles into their room there, and people come and go, and time moves at the most peculiar pace, and it seems like nothing and everything is happening at the same time as they all move toward a moment that will shatter the universe forever.

But mothers are not encouraged to share the stories of their children’s deaths as they are to share the birth stories, because most of us would prefer to go on imagining that such stories rarely happen. “Nobody wants to visit the place where I live,” writes Buxton, but she’s telling her story anyway so we can at least peek inside the windows. And she’s telling it to put the pieces together to make something of so much loss, I suppose. To give other grieving parents a sense of the path that lies before them, and as a testament to the spirit that was India—and Buxton’s abundant love for her daughter infuses every single word in this beautiful book.

Mother is both a verb and noun, and how do you do either once your child has died? This question is one that Buxton writes her way toward an answer to in One Strong Girl, a raw and heart-wrenching memoir of the kind of loss about which most of us would declare, “I just can’t imagine.” But we can, and Buxton invites us to. It’s not a linear narrative, but then it would not be real if it was. Beginning with a journey to Japan, which had been India’s fascination, and Buxton and her husband are bringing beads that hold India’s cremated remains, beads that they’ve been leaving behind at various locations that would have meant something to their daughter.

The next section outlines the beginning of India’s symptoms at age 10, mysterious falls and small seizures. In “Motherland,” Buxton writes about her own relationship to motherhood, and how complicated it is now that her daughter has died. (Read an adapted excerpt from this section at Todays Parent.) In “A Culture of Illness,” she goes through the 513 pages of India’s medical records, and tells the story through that lens, and how those records accord with her own memories of the experiences of the records track.

The next section is about how India’s illness and death changed Buxton’s relationship with her sense of home, and with her home itself. She writes about her teenage daughter’s bedroom, which is the most incredible kind of eulogy, and provides the reader with a strong sense of the person that India was. She continues with sections on India’s increasing decline, of her death, of where she and her husband are now—though all these sections keep circling backwards, looking behind, as you would too if the alternative was envisioning a future without your child.

It’s a finely wrought and beautiful book whose only flaw is that some of its rawness extends to its copy editing. But I really do love the rawness of he form itself, Buxton’s generosity and candour in sharing these terrible, painful, beautiful moments—all that love. As much a story of life as all the others we tell about our children are, and wholly deserving of a place in the parenthood canon.

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