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Summary:In this collection of essays on writers' end-of-life memoirs Berman combines a fine-tuned appreciation of literary strategies with reflections on how writers, who have defined themselves, their philosophies, their voices, and their values publicly, bring their life work to characteristic and fitting conclusions in writing about their own dying. The writers he considers cover a broad spectrum that ranges from Roland Barthes and Edward Said to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Tony Judt to Art Buchwald and Randy Pausch. Each essay offers insights into the writer's approaches to death and dying against the background of his or her earlier work.
Annie Howard is beginning high school in Tacoma, Washington in 1950, four years after her father returned from World War II, having been blinded in combat. Her mother has opened her own beauty salon as a way of coping with her husband’s disability and the loss of earning power it has meant. Annie loves her father, and maintains a close relationship with him, but is dismayed by his recurrent depressions and his steady refusal to get a guide dog, go out into the world, and respond to invitations to volunteer with an organization that helps other veterans similarly afflicted. As the school year begins she meets two new friends, a Dutch brother and sister—refugees whose parents were killed in the war and who now live with an aunt and uncle. Through them, and ultimately through her father, Annie learns some hard truths about the lasting effects of trauma, about the role of acceptance in healing, and about how a more grown-up love involves willingness to accompany others through some of the darker dimensions of suffering.
A Little Something is a story of a medical catastrophe for a family: at a baseball game, 10-year-old Justin is struck in the face by a foul ball. He seems OK initially, but he has a loose tooth. His father takes him to a dentist, where, left unattended, he has a drug reaction and loses consciousness. Paramedics take him to a hospital, but he does not wake up. He becomes the still center of the book; three circles form around him. The closest circle includes the attending neurologist Dr. Goldstein and, of course, his parents. His mother Kath is a pediatric physician; she follows closely the medicine involved and knows well the hospital where Justin is being treated. His father Sam is an introverted financial man; he measures everything in numbers. Their marriage is stressed even before the accident. Kath’s nurse at her clinic, Jonesie, is a steady support. Granny, a Licensed Vocational Nurse, comes to watch over Justin. In a moving scene, she bathes the unconscious boy.
A second circle includes other family and friends, the clientele of Kath’s pediatric clinic, the children, and their parents. These are largely Latino, underserved in Fort Worth, Texas, of 2001. (Kath has chosen a medical specialty that earns less money than other fields—in contrast to her money-grubbing mother, who is satirically portrayed.) Next door to the clinic is a firehouse, where Justin has visited and made friends. The blue-collar firemen are public servants who help make a community work.
A third circle is less defined but contextual for the novel: country folks, like Granny, who are not intellectual but practical. They believe in keeping going no matter what, a folk wisdom of realistic, durable hope.
For three-quarters of the novel there’s suspense about Justin’s recovery. At one brief moment, Sam is sure of a turnaround when he sees (or thinks he sees) a smile on Justin’s face. For nine days Sam and Kath experience hope, anger, exhaustion, expressed rage, confusion, and continuous uncertainty.
Finally there is “the meeting,” a gathering of the doctor, the family, Kath’s faithful clinic nurse Jonesie, and Father Red, a Catholic priest from Justin’s school. Dr. Goldstein says there is no hope for recovery and gives the medical details of Justin’s brain death, which has both anatomical and legal certainty.
Kath and Sam decide to disconnect Justin from life support and allow organ donation. When Justin must be transferred from the children’s hospital to the neighboring one, Sam carries him in his arms. A surprise ritual is an honor guard of firemen who line the path of the procession.
We read the specifics of disconnecting the vent tube, watching the heart race on the monitor, then the flat line of the still heart. Father Red reads from the Book of Common Prayer. An hour later, a helicopter takes off from the hospital with Justin’s donated heart.
An Epilogue six months later describes a Thanksgiving dinner at the firehouse. Sam and Kath are closer now, and he plans for them a trip to Hawaii. There’s has been, however, no easy “closure,” and the couple combines memories with mourning.
In a dramatic monologue, Joanne traces the devastation of a familial proclivity to breast cancer through four generations of women: her grandmother Sarah; her mother; Joanne herself and her two daughters, one of whom is also Sarah.
Joanne’s mother and grandmother both died very young of breast cancer; however, many other family members vanished in the Holocaust and the number of familial cancer deaths is insufficient for her to qualify for genetic testing. Her friend Linda, also a mother of two daughters, learns too late that she carries the BRCA gene; she urges Joanne to be tested.
Tormented by not knowing and equally tormented by what should be done if the test is positive—both for herself and her daughters, she convinces a doctor to lie so that the test can be performed. It is positive; Joanne opts for bilateral preventative mastectomies. During a visit to the gravesite of her mother and grandmother, she begins to explain the genetic risk to her daughters.
The conventional, young, corporate executive, Ross Gardiner, is sentenced by a judge to pay weekly visits to the recently widowed and childless Mr. Green. Ross had knocked the elderly gentleman down when he stepped out into the road without looking. No real damage was done, but the judge decided that Ross had been driving too fast.
Neither man wants to be anywhere near the other. Mr Green sends Ross packing, and the younger man appeals to the judge for a different punishment, without success. He therefore returns bringing the peace offering of soup from a kosher deli that the passive-aggressive senior grudgingly devours. “Would I waste good food?” Their common Jewish identity makes everything better for Mr Green, although Ross does not care. For Mr Green the Jews are a people who suffered intolerance and murder and must stick together now.
They begin to tell stories of their lives. Mr Green grievously misses his wife who did all the cooking and cleaning; “we never argued once in sixty years.”
Things slip back again when Mr Green learns that Ross is gay. Negotiating that shock is facilitated by the older man’s bafflement over how Ross’s father has abandoned and derided him; they slowly grow closer. Mr Green wants Ross to find a nice girl and be happy as he was. Ross patiently explains how that cannot work for him.
Then another crisis erupts when Ross learns that the Green’s had a daughter who married a Gentile for which crime she was shunned by her parents as if she had died. It is compounded by the shocking discovery that Green’s wife had been writing to her daughter for thirty years without telling her husband.
Summary:Marie Commeford, daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants who grows up in Brooklyn, narrates her life story in episodes rich with reflection on the losses, failed fantasies, illnesses, and disappointments of a life at the edge of poverty, which is also rich with love and poetry and humor and the stuff of which wisdom is made. The story unfolds as memory unfolds, in flashbacks and reconstructions shaped by a present vantage point from which it all assumes a certain mantle of grace. From the opening story in which a neighbor girl slips on the steps to a basement apartment and is killed, to repeated glimpses of a blind veteran who umpires the neighborhood boys' street games, to the bereaved families Marie meets when she works for the local undertaker, to her gradual discovery of her brother's closeted homosexuality, and to her aging mother's death, the story keeps reminding us of how much of life is coming to terms with the "ills that flesh is heir to," and also how resilience grows in the midst of loss. Because much of the story represents the vantage point of a child only partially protected from hard things, it invites us to reflect on how children absorb large and hard truths and learn to cope with them.
Summary:Damon Weber's proud father, Doron, has written a searing memoir that enfolds a story of parental love and loss into a medical exposé. By the time Damon turned four, he had two open-heart surgeries to correct a congenital malformation that affected circulation to his lungs. His parents were led to believe that after the surgeries, their effervescent, sociable, academically and artistically talented son was set for life. However, as Damon turned 12, they became concerned about what his father calls "his unsprung height," his shortness of breath, and a strange protrusion in his abdomen (40). Returning to his attending physician, they were surprised that she withheld information from them about a condition known as PLE (protein-losing entropy), which can manifest months or years after the kind of surgery (Fontan) their son underwent. PLE enlarges the liver and allows proteins to leak from the intestines. Without adequate protein, Damon's body could not grow. His father worried that they might have passed the established window of opportunity to treat the complication.
Young, beautiful Caroline Mathilde (Vikander) writes a letter to her children explaining why they have been separated. A few years earlier in 1766, she was sent from her native England to Denmark to become consort to King Christian VII (Følsgaard).
Her hopes are dashed when she discovers that her regal husband is deeply disturbed and little interested in her. They manage to conceive a baby boy – and all further relations between them discontinue.
Dr. Johann Struensee (Mikkelsen) is a progressive, German physician, interested in helping the poor. His friends wish to curry favour with the monarch and sway politics. They believe that Struensee might be good for the King and good for them. He is recruited to the royal entourage.
The plan works well. Struensee is able to calm the king, who grows fond of and dependent on his physician. Under his influence, the king asserts his own authority and begins making progressive laws – banning torture, improving sanitation, outlawing biased financial practices for artistocrats. These changes displease some of the very people who had brought Struensee to court.
Worse, the doctor understands Caroline Mathilde and her loneliness. He is instrumental in a partial reconciliation between the queen and the king, but inevitably he and she fall in love. Their affair is an open secret at court. When she bears a daughter, the King recognizes the child, but everyone knows that the infant is not his.
Eventually the affair is used to bring down both Struensee and the Queen. She is sent into exile without her children. He is lied to, and brutally decapitated in 1772. Three years later, she writes to her children and dies of fever.
Summary:Benjamin Rubin is completing his surgical residency in a Tel Aviv hospital when the director of the hospital asks him to accompany him and his wife to India to rescue their daughter who is critically ill. This invitation distresses him, as he recognizes in it a way of removing him from competition for a position in surgery at the hospital. He makes the trip, however, and is entranced by Indian culture and mysticism, and, eventually, not by the daughter but by the mother he accompanied. Back in Tel Aviv, he has a brief affair with the mother, moves into an apartment she owns, leaving his mother's home, and, to allay his obsession with an unavailable woman, marries an independent-minded woman who has also traveled in India and absorbed Buddhist spirituality and Eastern philosophy she discovered there. Working as an anesthesiologist, Benjy continues in that setting, conflicted about both work and life, unable to connect deeply with any of those whose love he has received or sought. Eventually his wife leaves with their baby daughter to return to India, where she has found a spiritual home, and Benjy remains in a divided state of mind in a divided country where his own spiritual heritage remains to be plumbed.
Kitty Fane is a beautiful young woman whose mother has raised her to make a suitable match. But Kitty refuses a number of suitors; several years pass and eventually she is reduced to marrying Walter, the colonial bacteriologist in Hong Kong. Walter is a shy and awkward man who loves Kitty passionately, but has no idea how to express it; Kitty is charming and socially adept, but vacuous. In Hong Kong Kitty engages in a yearlong affair with Charles Townsend, the assistant colonial secretary, and a married man whose celebrity potential far eclipses Walter's stolid scientific work. The novel opens when Walter discovers his wife's infidelity.
Kitty believes that Townsend is madly in love with her and prepared to divorce his wife and sacrifice his career to marry her. Walter, who suffers from a broken heart, gives Kitty an ultimatum--either Townsend must promise to divorce his wife and marry her, or Kitty must accompany Walter to a city in the interior where he has volunteered to go to fight the cholera epidemic. Townsend demurs; Kitty is crushed; and the desperately unhappy pair travels to the cholera-ridden city, where they move into the house of the newly-dead missionary.
There, Walter (who is also a medical doctor) sets to work, day and night, to institute public health measures and care for dying patients. Meanwhile, Kitty meets Waddington, the British consul, a cynical alcoholic, who is at heart a good and honest person; and the French nuns, who labor tirelessly to care for orphans and the ill. Impressed by the nuns' selflessness, Kitty begins to devote herself to assisting them and trying to understand their spirituality.
When he learns that Kitty is pregnant, Walter asks if it is his child; Kitty responds, "I don't know." This completes the destruction of Walter's heart, and he soon dies of cholera--presumably as a result of experimenting on himself to find a cure. Kitty learns that the nuns, the soldiers, and all the people of the city consider Walter a saint, who has sacrificed himself for their welfare. However, while Kitty has learned to respect her husband, she could never love him.
Kitty stays only briefly in Hong Kong before returning home to London. Shortly before her arrival, she learns that her mother, whom she believes is responsible for her (Kitty's) shallowness, has died. The novel ends with Kitty vowing to bring up her daughter as a strong and independent woman, and preparing to move with her father to the Bahamas, where he has recently been appointed Chief Justice.