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 Alex Revisited 

April 22, 2004 
I don’t feel like writing today. I just read one of those books that make Read Joe's columns the day he writes them. you feel like you’ve nothing left to say. If you haven’t read it, please do.

It’s a tiny book called Alex: The Life of a Child, by Frank Deford, first published more than twenty years ago now. I reread it every few years, and it never fails to bring tears. It’s Deford’s account of how his little girl died of cystic fibrosis.

Such a story is bound to be sad, but it didn’t have to be beautiful. But Deford is a gifted writer, best known for his way of capturing the human workings of sports. He has his ups and downs: On a bad day he is merely very good. On his best days he is unforgettable.

One of his most inspired sports stories was a true account of a boxing match that ended in a fighter’s death. He began by telling the reader that one of the two young men would die, but not telling which one. Then he wrote profiles of both young men, showing each as lovable, admirable, full of hope, and unaware of impending tragedy. This simple approach created terrible suspense and pathos. All you knew was that the end was going to be heartbreaking. And it was.

That fight convinced Deford that boxing should be abolished. No mere argument could have made his point as powerfully as this plain narrative of two sweet boys, punching each other’s heads. They might have been the best of friends. Deford turned each into a vivid character. Fictionalized, this might have been a great short story about war; as it is, it’s one of the most moving sports stories ever written. Once you’ve read it, it’s hard to watch boxing with a clear conscience.

[Breaker quote: A sad modern masterpiece]In similarly plain style, Deford tells the story of a little girl, who happened to be his daughter, born with a wasting disease that would kill her at age eight. Her whole life was a painful effort to stave off death. Once again the reader learns the tragic ending at the beginning, and this only intensifies the suspense.

For Alex lives. Her parents know she’s going to die young, and she comes to realize it soon enough, and every day of her life is one of torment — a painful, incurable lung disease, held at bay with painful therapy — and her father describes it all, including his own feelings, in an unsparing, matter-of-fact way, not without humor.

He admits he’s sentimental: “I cry at weddings. I cry when people lose on TV quiz shows. I cry when people win on TV quiz shows.” His and his wife’s feelings are very much part of the story, but he lets the details of Alex’s fate speak for themselves.

Still, this poor little victim turns out to be anything but passive. She insists on living her life as if it might be as it should have been.

Alex plays with dolls, makes friends, asks why girls can’t do the things boys are allowed to do, fights with her older brother (though she adores him), and plans on growing up. “I won’t have to do therapy when I’m a lady, will I?” she asks her father hopefully.

But the sense of doom is always there. Alex laughs a lot, even though it hurts her lungs; and after one bout of laughing, coughing, and choking, she sits on her father’s lap and says, “Oh, Daddy, wouldn’t this have been great?” She shuns self-pity, not wanting to upset her parents, but she can’t help feeling a bit wistful when she “imaginates” — her own coinage — a normal life, “just what it would be like not to have a disease.”

Pitying those who pity her, Alex tries to cheer others up; she feels it’s her responsibility. She learns early to bring out the best in people, even other children. But, pretty as she is, she is ashamed of the way her disease has wasted her body and slightly deformed her fingers. She confides her special “secret” to an adult friend: She balls her hands into fists “so I won’t have to see my own fingers.”

Rarely since J.D. Salinger has a child been brought to such vivid life on a printed page. Frank Deford has given his child the gift of literary immortality. How touching to reflect he’d rather not have had to. Alex would have been 33 this month.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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