The next time we see her, Philpott is in her mid-40s, one night at home with her husband and two children in Nashville, when she wakes up to some horrible knocking that sounds like someone trying to break through the front door. She is her teenage son, in the midst of a violent seizure, leading to a diagnosis of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.
“Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives” is Philpott’s second book of essays. His first, “I miss you when I blink,” it was a collection of observations on the tug-of-war of adulthood, motherhood, and the conflicting pressures of home and work. With “Bomb Shelter,” billed as a memoir in essays, Philpott brings us a beautifully wrought ode to life.
By opening the collection with these two episodes, a child’s ignorance of danger and a mother’s direct confrontation with him, Philpott lets us know that she was not born to care. He honestly understands, and with his son’s seizure, he cares more. If she’s not disaster-prone, exactly, she’s chronically disaster-adjacent.
The entire line of the book, such as it is, acquaints us with those Philpott cherishes, often through their illnesses: his daughter’s asthma; her husband’s autoimmune condition; her father’s heart disease. One of her dogs has an eating disorder, the other has chronic pancreatitis. Philpott herself suffers from migraines; When she discovers at age 45 that she has high cholesterol, she puts herself on a diet that includes dry Cheerios.
Most alarming, of course, is her son’s epilepsy. Philpott engages in a brief and useless self-recrimination, wondering if she should have seen signs of her son’s condition years before. She becomes distraught thinking of how she can keep him safe.
Philpott brings his own special mix of fear and hope to this treatise on the fragility of life. And just like in “I miss you when I blink,” he infuses his writing with a great deal of insight.
For example, most people employed as parents can relate to what Philpott has to say about the vastness of that particular job. A stranger who was walking his dog and leaned out of his window, writes, “couldn’t have known that I felt the universe had entrusted me with far more than I could keep safe.” She also wouldn’t see the explosive vest she felt she was wearing. “Every joy, every loved one, every little thing I grew fond of,” she writes, “each one was another stick of dynamite, tied to the rest.” I’ve been there, I felt that.
Philpott handles his anxiety well. He makes her attractive, something like a role model for the restless. Her concerns about her son’s seizures don’t exactly dissipate, but she manages to prepare her psyche for her imminent departure to college. So profound was the impact of her earlier anxiety on this reader that she was tempted to cry out, “No! Do not! Did you forget the danger? Are you crazy?” No, she’s just human.
For good reason, Philpott has been compared to Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, and Anne Lamott. As the famous Ephron family saying goes: “Everything is copy.” And Philpott can make copies of the things of life with the best of them, targeting her talents at a new generation of middle-aged people, who could use a book that speaks to them. And like her background, Philpott has that rare ability to dish out prose that is equal parts comedy and pathos, tragedy and celebration.
Those of us who walk the earth believing that all our good fortune could spontaneously explode at any moment are precisely the ones who will find “Bomb Shelter” as endearing as it is readable. Which brings me to my favorite chapter, titled “Close Calls.” It takes place in an airport, that familiar place of absolute terror. Will the flight be delayed because the pilot’s seat is broken? Canceled because the pilot’s seat can’t be fixed? Will a TSA agent bring us down? Then there is the turbulence app that shows low-level wind shear. Can that be correct? Without revealing everything that happens in this chapter, I’ll just say that Philpott can’t make it to his Nashville home as planned. Who among us has not panicked when we are separated from those we love and cannot return to them? exactly when we want?
“I am obsessed with death because I am in love with life,” writes Philpott. “I am sad because I am very happy.” We listen to you, Maria Laura. And she knows that her loving relationship with life, as charged as it is, is a precious gift to the world.
Love, time and other explosives
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