Reflections on Arnold’s “You Owe Me”

In order to write about this essay, Miah Arnold’s “You Owe Me”, I found myself going back to read it multiple times last week and this weekend. I found the story heart-wrenching, but also difficult to come to any conclusions about.

Easy to understand are the ways in which people close themselves off from dwelling on sadness when it is a part of their daily life, as well as the pull that Arnold felt the stay at her position as a writing teacher for the children. In a hospital for children with rare and aggressive cancers, tomorrow is not promised, although tomorrow is something that we feel belongs to the children of our society. It feels so wrong to think that a person should die without ever having tasted life; a child so kind and so special, that you can almost see what they would’ve become. Arnold’s co-workers avoided conversations about the children for this very reason – that no words can bring the child back, and that the pain of being helpless to intervene is excruciating.  Similarly, Arnold couldn’t leave because she knew that writing helped the children; even if an exceptional child died, there were more entering the class every day that needed her to help them express themselves and deal with their illness through writing.

However, the part that I have spent so much time pondering, is her exploration into the question, “why?”.  I think this is a question that anyone witnessing this much tragedy would ask, or anyone reading this piece for that matter. Arnold discusses her immediate desire to attribute the death of children to the grace of God; their movement out of life peaceful, all part of a bigger plan. However, she quickly moves away from this as she becomes more aware of the ugliness, despair and senseless nature of disease and death. I think that this realization is very upsetting for her, as well as the reader, as she concludes that children die and there is nothing graceful about it. I was profoundly upset when she made this statement, followed by her criticism of people who claim to have reinforced their faith by watching children suffer from cancer and die. She made the whole idea seem barbaric, even cruel; that someone would need children to die peacefully and heroically to reinforce their belief in a god.

From what Arnold describes, sweet children dying from cancer is almost never heroic or peaceful. The most heartbreaking information that Arnold imparted to the reader in this piece is that many of them are so scared. This was devastating to read, because I think that it is only human for us to want to think of the death of a child as something they’ve accepted; we can’t think of them struggling to live, and wanting life up until their last day. As I said before, these are our children, and we’ve promised them many things: protection, love, safety and a future.  When we cannot give them tomorrow, we hope that suddenly they are able to understand death with a wisdom beyond their years; however, Arnold asserts that this is not always the case. Having established that it is wrong to believe that God takes children to teach us lessons, Arnold let the question “why?” escape her. She stopped caring about the reasons, and instead focused on how she could make the last years, months, weeks, of the lives of these babies a little more pleasant.

After reading Arnold’s essay, I feel that I have more questions than answers. Why do we suffer? Does our suffering have no meaning, no value? How can we help children who have to leave this earth too soon? How can we treat them with dignity and not place our expectations on them? And most of all, I pray that every child has someone like Miah Arnold, whose class they are able to look forward to every day, and who teaches them to express the difficult feelings that they are dealing with in the face of their illness.

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One Response to Reflections on Arnold’s “You Owe Me”

  1. maknouk says:

    Hey Elizabeth,
    I completely agree with everything you said. This reading did leave me with so many questions unanswered as well. How do you deal with these situations? How can we accept that these children are dying to teach other people a lesson? It’s so hard to accept that and not feel selfish when saying that. I guess that leaves us to do nothing but trust. I feel like living life with a religion makes life’s unanswerable questions easier. When I hear terrible stories like these, it leaves me so confused about how to act and how it could happen, but that is why I just leave it all to trusting God, because it seems that is the only thing you can do. Just last week actually, a 10 years old boy in the cancer center here at Stony Brook passed away from cancer. I immediately thought of this story and felt heart broken for the family and the people who have gotten to know the young boy. It’s a part of life that I cannot get myself to accept. I guess we just have to keep doing what we can to make these children happy while they are here, to momentarily take their mind off of their struggles.

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