A Difficult Time

Ten days ago my mother passed away, on her ninetieth birthday. She'd had health problems for many years but always overcame them. We called her Iron Woman because it seemed nothing could take her down. Over the past twenty years there were a lot of hospital stays with congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and various surgeries. A few years ago she suffered a massive heart attack after knee surgery. Her blood pressure hit rock bottom, causing the doctor to call the family in, but, amazing everyone of us, she came back. She stayed in the hospital for 3 months, then went home and picked up her life again.

This past winter she had several mini-strokes, her heart further deteriorated, her kidneys began to fail and she was diagnosed with the beginnings of dementia. She was in the hospital for 6 long months this time, with not one of the medical staff believing she would ever go home again. Surprise! She did go home and spent 7 more weeks surrounded by her own things and visited by family members before having the stroke that finally ended her life. The truth is we had all gotten used to the idea that she could survive any crisis, so we were stunned when this time, her body failed her.

It really doesn't matter what age a person is or how sick they are, you are just never ready to lose them. I'm feeling the awful truth of these words from Gustave Flaubert: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp the advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it.It's the nothingness in her place that is so hard to comprehend. Will I ever get used to it? I miss calling her. I miss her voice. I miss her face.

After the graveside service I came home to a package sitting on my back steps; the post office had delivered the Christmas gift I'd ordered for her. I had taken an old photograph of the five of us kids sitting on the front steps of my grandmother's house back in the 1950's and had it woven into a throw. She was always cold and I thought she'd enjoy having this reminder of her - and our - younger days on her lap on chilly winter evenings. It turned out better than I'd ever dreamed it would and I want so much to show it to her. I want to see the look of surprise and hear her exclaim how much she loves it. I want what I'm never going to have again in this life.  

We had her for ninety years, making us much more fortunate than some who lose their mothers earlier. I know that, and I'm grateful, but it doesn't really help. It doesn't change the incomprehensible fact that she was here and now she's not. That she'll never be here again. Never. There are consolations, of course. I know she's in Heaven and that I'll see her again, and when I do it will be without all the little personality differences and idiosyncrasies that caused us to get on each other nerves at times. Our love for each other will be perfected, a day I look forward to a great deal. But that's not now.

For now, we'll try to get used to this. We'll try to adjust. We'll cry and we'll remember and we'll tell stories and cry some more. We'll check in on each other to see how everyone is doing, particularly my sister, who was my mother's caregiver and closest friend for many years. We'd had a small family party planned for the day she passed away; not many make it to ninety years old and she was proud of the accomplishment. We did each get to say Happy Birthday to her, not really knowing if she heard or understood. I think she knows and is glad that we were all there; I believe it's what she would have chosen for her final day.

I'm glad you're in perfect health again, Mum. I'm glad you've been re-united with your parents, brothers, and sisters. I'm glad you're experiencing that greatest of joys: seeing Jesus face to face, and I wouldn't wish you back here to suffer for one more minute. You entered Heaven on your birthday, a wonderful day for you but a hard one for us. We miss you.

P.S.  We ate your cake.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of both her names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination on black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.    

Hope you'll check this one out!


Atonement by Ian McEwan

"No one now writing fiction in the English language surpasses Ian McEwan."  - The Washington Post Book World

"McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today..." - Esquire

With accolades like this, one might wonder why I waited so long to read McEwen. I've had the book for years but I don't remember what made me buy it in the first place. Some review on some blog struck a chord I guess. Now that I've read it I'm still ambivalent and I feel almost apologetic about not loving it.

Many of the glowing descriptions I've read are, I think, accurate. It is lush, detailed, intense, gripping and beautiful, all words used by qualified reviewers. I just didn't find it consistently wonderful from beginning to end. There were times when it didn't hold my interest and I found myself reading and re-reading the same passage to try to get myself back into the story.

It is a good story. Thirteen year old Briony is an imaginative child who misunderstands what's happening when she sees her older sister Cecilia in an intimate embrace with a man. What she thinks she saw leads her to an action, a crime, that will change the lives of her entire family, and the damage will be irreversible. The time span of the story is 1935 to 1997, which takes Briony from age 13 through her 75th birthday. I finally began to like her when she turned 75.

I'm just realizing as I'm writing this that I never came to care for any of the characters and that would explain why I didn't love the book. I do think McEwan is an excellent writer, and he is definitely "psychologically astute" to the point of brilliance, but I can't get seriously involved in a novel unless the characters mean something to me, and these ones never got to that place. Who knows why? Sometimes things click and sometimes they don't. This time, for me, it didn't. 


"Quiet" by Susan Cain

I've read this book twice and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The second reading was because our book club chose it for our September selection; I don't think I'd have chosen to re-read it on my own.

I found it to be a very well researched book, so well in fact that if you don't enjoy studies and statistics and such you may find it a bit tedious. I enjoyed that part of it, and I thought it both easy to read and interesting.

Most of my book club members call themselves introverts but there are at least two who would say they are extroverts. In an interesting twist it was one of the extroverts who was scheduled to lead the discussion for this book. It couldn't have been easy but she did a good job, and though this book tends to put everybody a little on the defensive, we all ended the evening friends. I actually enjoyed the discussion more than the book because I find it fascinating to hear other people's reactions to it. So much is learned about each other in the conversation.

Most of the introverts felt the book was supportive and that it encouraged them to value the qualities that are sometimes considered flaws by a basically extroverted society: need for solitude, time to think, an affinity for facts and numbers and a preference for solo work over teamwork. The extroverts felt the book was somewhat biased against them and I agree there were times when they were all lumped together as being loud, pushy and arrogant. We wondered if the author was writing from some negative experience she'd had because she did seem to stereotype extroverts more than necessary. As one of our members pointed out we all use stereotypes everyday, but there is a limit. No person is completely predictable and people shouldn't be filed into labeled slots.

It turns out that I am one of the most introverted of the introverts in our group and yet I didn't seem to completely fit the profile in the book. We are supposed to be indecisive, but I don't have a problem making decisions when they need to be made. I like to consider all the options and hear everyone's input first, but when a decision needs to be made, I make it. This just serves to reinforce our conclusion that we are all far too complex to be boxed in by one descriptive word. Generalizations may be useful at times, but every person is unique and it's a mistake, sometimes a dangerous one, to make too many assumptions.

I'm glad I read the book, but I do have one hesitation about recommending it. I've read it twice and both times ended with the feeling that I should try a little harder to be an extrovert. It did encourage introverts to make the most of their strengths but I still felt that the goal was always to be just a little more extroverted. Yes, we all need to stretch ourselves, but I question why there are so many books, classes, and seminars pushing us to be more extroverted but so few pushing extroverts to be more introverted. The idea that introverts are just somehow "wrong" is wearing a little thin for me.  I've tried over the years to become what our extroverted society wants everybody to be, but I'm not going to make it. I can fake it if I have to, for a short time, but I've come to the realization that I actually like being an introvert. I think I'll spend my remaining years just enjoying it.

"Silas Marner"

Silas Marner by George Eliot

George Eliot has been a revelation to me. I had spent years avoiding her, mostly because I'd been warned that "Middlemarch" was a long, tedious book that would test my patience. Then I bit the bullet, read it and loved it. I didn't find it tedious, my patience didn't suffer at all, and I was happy to have a new (to me) author whose backlist I could add to my tbr.

Silas Marner is the story of a man who left his hometown when he was accused and found guilty of a theft he didn't commit. With his faith in God and man destroyed, he moved to a new place to practice his trade as a weaver of cloth. There he kept to himself, saving every coin he earned until he had hoarded two bags full, making them the center and purpose of his life. But one day the unthinkable happened and his money was stolen. In his despair he became even more isolated and withdrawn, until one night a golden-haired child, drawn by the light of his fire, wandered into his cottage.

When the child's mother was found dead in the snow, Silas decided to raise the child himself.  She restored his humanity and brought him into relationship with his neighbours. She lived a contented life with him until she was about seventeen years of age, never hearing from the man who was her biological father. Then, one day, the mystery of what happened to Silas's money was solved, Eppie's real father stepped forward to claim her as his daughter and....the rest of the story awaits you in this wonderful book. 

I read somewhere a review of Silas Marner in which the writer referred to it as a fable, a good description I think. Fables offer up lessons, of which there are several here. It teaches the folly of putting all our hope in gold, the withering of the soul when we separate ourselves from human contact, and the hope and joy a child brings into our lives. The epigraph is from a Wordsworth poem:

"A child, more than all other gifts 
That earth can offer to declining man, 
Brings hope with it, forward-looking thoughts." 

This was a beautiful story, one that deepened the appreciation I found for Eliot after reading Middlemarch. I wish I hadn't avoided her for so long, but because I did all her books are still waiting to be read and that, as Martha would say, is a good thing.

Top Ten Books I Really Want To Read But Don't Own Yet

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Broke and Bookish. It's fun trying to come up with the various lists of ten that they ask for, though I only seem to get around to doing it once in a while. You know how it is - life keeps happening and getting in the way. But, I'm doing it this week, so here's my list of  10 books I want to read but don't yet own:

1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro - I saw and loved the movie before I knew it was based on a book. I hear great things about his writing and I've been wanting to read it for ages.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens - I'm working my way through Dickens.

3. Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom - because as I age, I notice people starting to speak to me as if the words old and stupid are synonymous and it's making me crazy!

4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - I cannot believe I haven't read this yet.

5. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - I've read such great reviews, and it's about a bookshop owner.

6. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winnifred Watson - it's been recommended on a lot of blogs, and I love the title.

7. Pictures At An Exhibition by Camilla MacPherson - someone told me that it reminded them of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and I loved every page of that book.

8. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams - because it's been on every list of "must read" books that I've seen and I feel guilty about not reading it. I want to get it done.

9. Diligent River Daughter by Bruce Graham - this is the sequel to one of my favourite novels "Ivor Johnson's Neighbours".

10. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington - it's a Pulitzer winner, it was written in 1919 and the word 'saga' is used in every review. It sounds just about perfect.

If you want to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, get on over to Broke and Bookish and sign up. Have a good week!