Summary

‘It wasn’t his job to explain it over and over, to sit the families down and say, “The husband/the brother/the son you knew is no more, it’s only machines breathing for him now, and you wouldn’t be letting him go, because he’s already gone."’ These are the frustrated musings of Paul, a wearily disillusioned brain surgeon who struggles with the emotional aftermath of delivering grim prognoses to his patients’ families. After comforting a patient’s wife who has decided to remove her husband from life support, Paul hangs himself in his family’s laundry room, leaving neither a note nor trace of what compelled him to take his own life. 

Career burnout, perhaps even a nagging sense of futility, would seem to be among the issues behind Paul’s mysterious suicide—in one conversation with a patient, he alludes gnomically to bad dreams that leave him either flummoxed or exhausted. Whatever the cause, Paul’s death leaves gaping lacunae in the lives of his family—his wife, Anna, and daughter, Danielle—that they struggle to patch and, in their own ways, comprehend. It is Anna who finds Paul, hanging, in the laundry room, though ‘she didn’t scream. She didn’t believe what she saw…' In that moment of speechlessness, of disbelief, Anna devises a ‘cold plan’ to keep secret the true circumstances of Paul’s death. Concealing the truth from her daughter, Anna creates a scaffolding of lies, false impressions, garbled half-truths that shape both Danielle’s and her own perception of the past. 

Years later, in a moment of introspection, Danielle intuits, not likely for the first time, that her 'mother was lying about her father’s death. […] Anna insisted that the heart attack hadn’t woken him, but that didn’t make any sense to Danielle, who could be woken up by the smell of toast.’ Danielle dimly senses that her father had ‘woken up and suffered,’ but cannot grasp the facts that her mother withholds.

Commentary

Bordas’ story examines how the fabrication of fiction, of refusing to accept reality, can either ease, or deepen, one’s suffering. Withholding the facts of her father’s death from Danielle, Anna perpetuates a prolonged period of denial, never fulling coming to terms with Paul’s suicide and the general abruptness of tragedy itself. Psychological trauma expert, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, defines denial as a healthy reaction to loss, as it prevents full-scale grief from overwhelming the mind; it affords the mind respite from the emotional turmoil of processing a traumatic event. Janoff-Bulman clarifies, however, that denial becomes deleterious when it ossifies, secluding one in a limbo that denies reality. By obscuring the past, does Anna process her husband’s death or merely repress her grief? She is pursued by the specter of that moment when she encountered Paul's body—‘The seconds she was in would repeat themselves forever, haunt her at odd moments, flash through her head in the checkout line, when the girl asked if she wanted the PayDay with her or in the bag…’ Bordas’ story poses questions that orbit the larger issue of truth and those entitled to it: Should parents obfuscate the facts of tragedy or death to protect their children/preserve the lasting image of a loved one?

Primary Source

The New Yorker

Publisher

Condé Nast

Publisher

Condé Nast

Place Published

New York

Place Published

New York

Edition

August 24 & 31, 1998

Edition

May 20, 2019 (Print Issue)

Page Count

68-75