Novel November

When David Lost His Voice

by Judith Vanistendael

Reading Review by Michael Channing

When David Lost His Voice by Judith Vanistendael

This is a beautiful and sad graphic novel. It's about cancer. It's about death. It's about watching your loved one die, powerless to help. Rendered in soft watercolors, we witness David's slow descent from several viewpoints, his own and that of his wife and daughters as well. His youngest daughter gives us the few sparks of light that a story like this can offer. She and her friend from across the hall conspire to bottle David's soul and then mummify his corpse when he dies, going so far as to practice mummifying their stuffed animals, pulling the cotton batting out with hooks and replacing it with sand. His older daughter becomes more of a pragmatist, steeling herself for the manual labor of taking care of a human being growing ever sicker and weaker. His wife, however, who is at least ten years younger than him, does not take the news well at all. She comes to a near emotional collapse before finally figuring out how to channel her grief and anger into her art.

As for David, he bears the weight of death as he has all things in life: silently. He's always been quiet, stoic. This is a point of contention between him and his family, one of the things that drives his wife to madness. He keeps the diagnoses from his daughters for two months. He tries to continue with a normal life, taking the younger daughter on their annual boat trip around the lake, telling her how when he's better they'll be able to sail wherever they want. You have to wonder if keeping his pending death a secret is for their benefit or his own. Is it because he doesn't want them to get hurt, or because he simply can't face the truth? When the cancer finally spreads too far, the doctors remove his larynx, rendering him permanently speechless. Only then does he regret his lifetime of silence. He tries to make it up to his wife by writing down his most personal and sincere thoughts. It's a touching moment, but we can't help but wonder if it's too little, too late.

There are some fantastic details in this story that deepen our empathy for the characters. Just little insights into their lives that make us care for them. When David and his younger daughter go on their sailing trip, the daughter and her friend back home want to send letters to each other. When the boy writes his, David's wife offers him a balloon to send the letter. He ties the envelope to the balloon string and sends it out the window. A few panels later, we see the woman has secretly switched out the letter and takes it to the post office to mail. When David receives the letter a day later, he ties it to the string of a balloon and snares it to the top of the boat's mast. It's clear that the two children have completely bought into the idea that they are communicating by balloon. For years, the grownups have been conspiring to ensure the kids have this small bit of magic in their lives. I was floored when I saw that.

There's something this book gets absolutely right about cancer. It takes its time. On the day David learns of his diagnosis, his granddaughter is born. When he is in his last few days, the baby girl is walking and beginning to talk. So that's about a year, maybe a little less. That might not seem like a lot, but when you suffer through it one heaving second at a time, it feels like eternity. Often, panels repeat, either completely or with only slight alterations, to give us the feeling of stasis that comes with dying. It's weird to say that dying feels like stasis, but it really does. Taking care of my mother-in-law, I've seen the slow grind of cancer, and even from the vantage point of an observer, it was agonizing. I can only image what it's like to live every moment of your life in pain, vomiting; crying; suffering; relying on others to eat, dress, go to the bathroom; counting the days till the blackness descends and releases you. When you have given in to the fact that your time is extremely short, you feel obligated to account for every second. But you have no future to look forward to. All you have is now. And then another now. And then another now. And every single now is torture. As David wastes away, his loved ones also take inventory of their lives, and they can't help but feel guilty. They are powerless to help him, and the time they have beyond his feels selfish and unfair. That they, and David, manage to find a little dignity in such a cruel part of life is truly the heart of this book. Death is brutal. But if we live correctly, we can find a scrap of beauty and truth even among the ugliness.

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