Two individuals share a struggle that is grueling, depressing, and whose outcome is probably preordained. The Mother (divorced, constantly tired, and fearful of sickness) is "not a good choice for the parent of a chronic invalid" (p. 168). The Son (smallish, clever, and born with some kind of tumor) has previously had an organ transplant (most likely kidney).

Their trek through the realm of sickness unfurls in seven scenes - all hospital wards and finally Hospice. First, the Son is an adolescent in a pediatric ward where the Machine (presumably renal dialysis) prevents his death. There he spots a baby that he dubs a "Not-Dead." She has multiple birth defects due to a chromosomal abnormality and is kept alive by technology. He intuits that while not dead, the baby is not "properly alive" either. He muses about his own status. His mother is always bedside, propping up his spirits.

Next he is in the ICU and then transferred to a medical floor. He receives a blood transfusion after disconnecting the Machine in a likely suicide attempt. Sometime later, he is back in the pediatric ward after receiving an organ transplant. The Son gets admitted to the Cardio-Respiratory unit for a severe infection. In and out of hospitals, he enrolls in college but quits. After getting married, he joins a commune of survivors of medical illnesses known as "The Saved." This collective lives on a farm and members avoid any contact with family.

The Son's health further deteriorates. He is hospitalized in terminal condition. By this time, he has his own child, a 14-month-old boy named Jaybird. In the oncology ward, doctors diagnose three tumors in the Son's brain but he refuses any treatment (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy). He is moved to Hospice. His absent Father comes to visit and comfort him. When the Son dies, it is the Mother who is alone with him. The Son's wife, Father, Jaybird, and members of The Saved commune are all asleep in the Day Room. Only after the Son dies are the names of the Mother and the Son revealed: Julia and Jonathon.


In this oddly beautiful story of breakdown - of body, mind, spirit, and memory - only parental love and willpower seem capable of warding off the inevitable onslaught of chronic disease and decay. Even medical technology appears to be no match for the muscle of motherhood. Sitting next to the dying Jonathon, whose memory is nearly obliterated by tumor, Julia continues to read and sing to him. She believes, "Deep down in the brain stem is a pebble which is the Mother and the Son, and this is where they are headed. The pebble is ivory and has an embryo etched on it, curled" (p. 182).

The smells, sounds, and sights of hospital confinement are effectively conveyed. So too is the simmering anger - at hospitals, doctors, illness, and just about everything else. The level of frustration is understandably high. The evolution of how chronic disease impacts the lives and alters the personalities of the sick and those who love them is successfully depicted. The role of hope and denial are examined. Are a bit of both essential for getting better? Is it always possible to distinguish the two of them?

Consider pairing this story with two others: "Incarnations of Burned Children" by David Foster Wallace and "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" by Lorrie Moore.

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The Not-Dead and The Saved and Other Stories



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