Penny Wolfson’s essay “Moonrise” (Best American Essays 2002) is the only motherhood essay that I could find when I searched through two decades of Best American Essays. (Someone, please, correct me if I’m wrong—I’d love to be wrong about this.)
Is this evidence that most memoirs and essays about motherhood are not taken seriously enough to be considered noteworthy? I imagine it does, and I will come back to this another day. Today, I want to focus on what makes “Moonrise” such a triumph of an essay.
It’s about Wolfson’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that her son, Ansel, is deteriorating and will die from Duchenne, a form of muscular dystrophy. The essay begins at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Wolfson and her husband are looking at Ansel Adams prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, and she says: “The prints differ greatly in quality from the reproductions one usually sees…but that does not change the essential meaning of the photograph, a meaning one never forgets in the Southwest: Nature dominates. Human life is small, fragile, and finite. And yet, still, beautiful.” This is the crux of the essay for me—the fragility of life, the struggle to focus on the beauty in it rather than on the tragedy.
The rest of the essay is divided into titled, dated sections: Falling, 1998; Chaos, 1999; Moonrise, 2000. Each section is written in the present tense, which creates a sense of time, the moments and events of Ansel’s life, being stacked on top of each other. I think this is a particularly brilliant move—and I don’t use “brilliant” casually. Time creates tension in the piece: Ansel is doing better than most adolescents with Duchenne, yet he is still deteriorating quickly, and he will die young. At one point, when Wolfson and her husband take Ansel to his yearly visit with the neurologist, Wolfson says: “I am very conscious that on our last visit Ansel walked from the waiting room to the office, and I remember the look of surprise on the doctor’s face: how amazing that a fourteen-year-old with Duchenne could still walk! Now Ansel wheels his way down the long corridor, and I am the one surprised that he could have walked so far so recently.”
The essay would have had such a different feel—and not been nearly as successful—if it had been written in past tense. And of course Wolfson knew this, which is why (I imagine) she chose the present. In the essay, after her husband asks her what she is writing, she even says, “it is about Ansel’s growing up and deteriorating all at once, the ‘unnaturalness’ of a child’s beginning to die just when he is beginning to flower.” Bingo. I wonder, too, if using the present helps readers understand how impossible it is for Wolfson (or any parent) to imagine life without her child.
Her prose is flawless, her metaphors carefully measured, and throughout, the sadness and not-knowing are palpable.
She has written a book-length memoir based on this essay. I haven’t read it yet (it’s on my ever-growing list), but I’m sure it’s as beautiful and well-crafted as the essay. It’s called Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy. Have any of you read it?
So thank you, Penny Wolfson, for this wonderful essay, and thank you Stephen Jay Gould (editor of the 2002 Best American Essays) for recognizing the essay’s worth.