The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs (2017)

“We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”

 

brighthourMy best friend Dinah died of breast cancer in 2009. It amazes me every day that I have been able to live without her and that we will not be rocking-chair old ladies together. I had never been closely involved in someone’s cancer fight before and while the pain of this loss is deep, the humor and wit she was known for is also part of my memories.

After decades of a close friendship Dinah shared easily her thoughts on her prognosis and living for almost 5 years with stage four breast cancer, the 3 ½ rounds of chemo and when she finally called it quits, the hair loss/regrowth and loss again and how she playfully exploited her baldness to get to the front of any line and the best table in restaurants, and finally her belief that Jesus would heal her, even when it was obvious she was going to die.

Through the years after her death, I have often picked up memoirs of cancer survivors or in the case of The Bright Hour, those who died. I am not sure what I want from these books, but I am drawn to how people live, not knowing the outcome, and how like Dinah they put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, keep living and experiencing life as fully as they can.

In The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs is a 37 year-old wife and mother of two young boys when she learns she has breast cancer. At first it is just “one small spot,” but chemo and radiation do not do their job and by the time she tries the last treatment available she is at stage four.

Between treatments she tries to live as normally as possible for her boys. She and her husband John are always honest with the latest treatment outcome. Freddy and Ben learn to live in an atmosphere of uncertainty over their mother’s health.

As if Nina’s fight isn’t consuming enough, her mother has been fighting breast cancer for five years and provides some of the lighter moments in the book. A dedicated book club member, even at death’s door she wants to keep up with the book selection schedule. With poignant moments, the clubbers understand.

Nina’s optimism carries her a long way, the title being a clue. As the great, great, great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she is trying to live in that bright hour and not “be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”

This isn’t a depressing book, but because I knew she was going to die there was a bit of dread at each page turn wondering when and how that would occur. Her writing style is contemporary and conversational which adds to this feeling of immediacy, but also gives a measure of comfort as if I was peering into the heart of my own friend. Nina does not gloss over the effects the various treatments and procedures have on her physically and in that regard the book may not appeal to everyone. But this is the reality I experienced with Dinah and no matter how gross or painful, this is the reality of our friends and family.

In the afterword written by John, we learn Nina finished the manuscript for the book in late January 2017. And with the prospects grim, entered hospice in February. She died on the 26th.

Nina leaves us with a good outcome, even though hers was not so good–live life as best as you can, because…well, you just don’t know what’s up ahead. Books like this help us turn our sadness into marveling at the human spirit that just wants to live well, no matter the prognosis.

_____________

My Edition
Title:The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
Author: Nina Riggs
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 320
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Nonfiction Reading

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Looking Toward 2018

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I don’t have a great desire to do a recap of 2017. I want to look forward. But I do want to mention two things that were important to me this year:

  1. Favorite books of 2017: I am making myself choose only four, three classics and one historical novel, even though it is an impossible task! Dracula, Northanger Abbey, House of Mirth, and Radio Girls.
  2. “Enriched by reading the reviews” of other bloggers’ books is one of the ways I would characterize this year as well as reading your comments on mine.

Number 2 brings me to my plans for 2018. I am going to concentrate on what I would call the foundational classics I have not yet read, like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and books by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. I want to read Rebecca and find out why it is on so many top ten list of favorites. And maybe I’ll tackle a Woolf.

And I want to read some American foundational classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick and books by Willa Cather and Henry James. Maybe do some traveling with Charley. Louisa May Alcott wrote so many other books besides Little Women…time to dust some off? And I want to find out more about Sarah Orne Jewett whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I so enjoyed in 2016.

 

 

In order to help with these deficiencies, I am taking part in a number of (overlapping) challenges, including Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, Back to the Classics and the Victorian Reading Challenge. These will also help me with my Classics Club list.

Since I can’t deny my attraction to the 19th century, I am also going to read more historical fiction that takes place in that time period, so I have signed up for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The second emphasis for the year is to expand my awareness outside the UK and US by concentrating on Reading all Around the World that I neglected last year,  participate in the European Reading Challenge and Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Challenge. I can’t promise I will stay out of the 19th and early 20th centuries with these challenges, however, but more history and different perspectives and experiences is always a good thing!

I am also doing a personal challenge on the American Civil War with thanks to Jillian who helped me craft the categories.

Good gracious, this is a lot! And I know there will be readalongs and other events throughout the year that I will participate in…well, a good way to stay out of trouble!

I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

My Life in Books (2017)

 

 

Adam, at RoofBeamReader.com, just posted a fun end of the year round-up. Called, ‘My Life in Books,’ you answer a set of questions using one of the titles you’ve read this year.

I hope you’ll join in. I’d love to see what you come up with! Here’s mine:

 

1. In high school I was: (one of the) Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford

2. People might be surprised: (that) Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

3. I will never be: Dracula, Bram Stoker

4. My fantasy job is: Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

5. At the end of a long day I need: A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith

6. I hate it when: (there is) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

7. Wish I had: The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare

8. My family reunions are: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

9. At a party you’d find me with: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, Pamela D. Toler

10. I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

11. A happy day includes: The Nature Principal, Richard Louv

12. Motto I live by: Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

13. On my bucket list is: The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene

14. In my next life, I want to have: Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, The Library of Congress (2017)

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Opening a drawer and flipping through the well-worn cards, many handwritten and filled with marginalia containing valuable information not to be found in an Internet search, leaves one with a sense of awe at how catalogers distilled so much information onto simple 3-by-5 index cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

The library card catalog. I spent my college career rifling through those long drawers, sticking pencils between cards to save my place when class notes or a professor’s recommendation drew me to another drawer. I remember having to wait when another student was in a drawer I wanted, impatient while they jotted down the title of the material and its location. I took my book-hoard to ‘my’ study carrel on the second floor next to the vine covered east windows where the sun dappled the desk. I did a history degree with the card catalog, volumes of the ‘subject index’ and an electric typewriter!

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures traces the history of the card catalog and the various methods of organizing library materials, while celebrating the creation and the vast holdings in The Library of Congress.

History

It is fascinating to think that even though we are highly digitized at this point, we still use the same, but expanded foundation Zenodotus, the first librarian at the library of Alexandria developed when the proliferation of scrolls needed some kind of organization. After inventorying the scrolls and arranging them alphabetically he attached a tag at the end of each scroll to indicate the author, title and subject.

Once people started writing on velum and bound the pieces together at one end and put a cover on them creating a codex or book, it made better use of space. One could write on both sides of the material, number the pages and put information on the spine making for quicker reference.

 

A Library for a Nation

The Card Catalog details the evolution of the Library of Congress, the trials and tribulations of deciding what books to purchase (James Madison had an idea), how to collect and purchase them (British firm of Cadell and Davies), how the War of 1812 damaged most of the nascent collection and what the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private library did to expand the future of the collection.

While still an undergraduate at Amherst, Dewey was obsessed with bringing order to the school’s library, and he recounted that while day dreaming during a long lecture one day, “without hearing a word, my mind absorbed in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!'”

Into the early years of the 19th century, there still remained the problem of standardization, but that changed when Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey developed his classification system which was adopted at the first meeting of the American Library Association in 1876. To make it easier for public and university libraries, the ALA Supplies Department became the shopping source for all materials related to the card catalog. So, with Dewey’s system in place and a one-stop shop for cabinets, cards, stamps and so on libraries and a patron’s experience were standardized.

By the 1950s, the main card catalog at the Library of Congress had more than 9 million cards. As computers came on the scene and began to digitize this data December 31, 1980 was declared the end of the printed card.

The text of this book is written by Peter Devereaux of the the Library of Congress Publishing Office. The narrative is fast paced, colorful and full of photographs that help the reader visualize the history of the card catalog from the discovery of the of the first card catalog made from clay tablets (a listing of 62 literary works, including The Epic of Gilgamesh) up to the present with online catalogs available in every public, private and university library.

Highlighting materials from its collection, each item has its cover photographed on one side with its catalog card on the opposite page. Many of the cards are handwritten with information not found on the Internet when the cards were digitized. It was fun, instructive and a bit nostalgic to read through this book.

For me the card catalogue has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in. Barbara Tuchman, 1985, The New Yorker.

 

Some examples below.

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English Bible. Selections, 1788. The card reads in part, “Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth; designed chiefly to familiarize tender age, in a pleasing and diverting manner….” In other words, keeping kids interested in the Bible is an age-old problem!

 

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This is the title page of the 2nd edition that includes the words, A Romance. My edition, a Signet Classic published in 1980, doesn’t have that either on the cover or anywhere in the front matter. I wonder when that changed?

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The card reads, The library of the late Harry Houdini on magic, spiritualism, occultism and psychical research, bequeathed to the Library of Congress in 1926, may be consulted upon application to the Custodian of the Rare Book Room.
Houdini said his library of psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and evil spirits contained material going back to 1489. With this bequest, the Library added 3,988 volumes to its collection.

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Some editions are simply gorgeous, like this title-page font for Robert Frost’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, New Hampshire. The card reads, “Of this edition, three hundred and fifty copies only have been printed. This copy is number 187.” Signed by author.

 

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Another gorgeous cover, but there is no “The Legend of….” on the cover, although the card catalog gives it. Did editions in Irving’s time add that or is it modern? This must be a beautiful edition, because the catalog card also mentions the “ornamental borders” on the title page and within the text.

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The cards can indicate a name change.

 

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The cards can also indicate how subject designations change.
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I enjoyed reading this book. And I think the original cover art is the best I have seen on any other edition.

__________

My Edition
Title: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
Author: Library of Congress
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Living in Mary Austin’s House, The Land of Little Rain (1903)

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Mary Austin’s Home, Independence, CA       California Historical Landmark No. 229

Weather does not happen. It is the visible manifestation of the Spirit moving itself in the void.

Mary Austin (1868-1934) is a southwest writer who wrote about the desert and mountain areas of the Sierra Nevada and the Death Valley region of California. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1903 and was subsequently published in book form. For Americans in the east and middle parts of the country, California at this time still evoked mystery and an Eden-like quality, but the desert was an unknown entity.

Austin brought interest to these regions by her lyrical and descriptive writing style (and an independent use of words and phrases to furrow an editor’s brow), not only of the land and animal inhabitants, but as an ally to the plight of the Shoshone and Paiute Indians who had been shut out and shoved around by the “progress” of the encroaching White population. She trekked through mountain passages, Spring-flowered valleys and scrubby foothills observing and finding connections among the nonhuman and human animals who populated the nooks and crannies of a place where only the hardy could survive.

 

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Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, California. Known for their long lives.

 

She writes like John Muir personalizing the animals that she observes and brings to life what many people don’t see in the desert. And like Muir, who roamed the Sierras as well, she sees the nondenominational hand of Spirit that both animates and connects all the world. However, unlike Muir and the male dominated “nature” movement shouting to the wide world, her voice is for the local personal relationship with a particular piece of land.

Originally from Illinois, she moved west with her family after college. She married and had a daughter finding a base in the tiny town of Independence where she wandered throughout the desert foothills and mountain trails with Ruth strapped to her back in a device she learned from the Indians.

 

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Outside the Austin house front door.

 

I lived in her house for the summer many years ago when I came back to California after 5 years in Chicago. A friend owned her house and asked me to stay while she spent long trips backpacking and peak climbing throughout the Sierras. I had never spent much time in the desert let alone such a small town where there was a last street before the wilderness.

 

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Bighorn sheep let me take their picture!

 

As odd as it might seem, I didn’t read any of Mary Austin’s extensive work. Instead, I spent days wandering the foothills coming upon bleached cow bones, poking at the dirt for horned toads, discovering ancient Native petroglyphs etched in big stone rocks, sitting on granite boulders in the evening while the red-tailed hawks above me searched for dinner below, and watching the shadows change the color of the Sierras and the Inyo/Whites as the sun’s shadow passed over them from sun up to sun rise.

 

 

Petroglyphs on boulders saying something…?

 

After reading The Land of Little Rain over the weekend I was duly stunned by what this collection of essays brought up. It wasn’t just the memories of one of the best summers of my life, but why I love to be outside walking trails and keeping company with all of Nature’s creaturely inhabitants and how I am often opened to praise That which is bigger than myself.

 Austin eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico where she continued to write books, poems and plays.

Below are passages from The Land of Little Rain that particularly struck me. And incidentally, all the photos on this page are mine. Excuse the quality as they are digital photos taken from snapshots.

A communion of creatures—

Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind. When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt. Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth knowing is how much of their neighbor’s affairs the new generations learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.

The Desert
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.

The Desert—
For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars…It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.

When food is scarce, women are vulnerable—
On the slope the summer growth affords seeds; up the steep the one-leafed pines, an oily nut. That was really all they could depend upon, and that only at the mercy of the little gods of frost and rain. For the rest it was cunning against cunning, caution against skill, against quacking hordes of wild-fowl in the Tulare, against pronghorn and bignhorn and deer. You can guess, however that all this warring of rifles and bowstrings, this influx of of overlording whites, had made game wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted. You can surmise also, for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became in turn the game of the conquerors.

Why do people live in the desert?—
…One does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it…For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God’s world. Some day the world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.

 

Independence also has the disturbing distinction as one of the centers of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Manzanar is situated at the edge of the town.

The entrance is on the left. On the right,a  cemetery marker where survivors and others sometimes leave personal mementos.

My Edition:
Title: The Land of Little Rain
Author: Mary Austin
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1974, is the complete text of the first edition, 1903
Pages: 171
Full plot summary

_________________
Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics

 

Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, Claire Prentice (2016)

My Edition:coneyisland
Title: Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine
Author: Claire Prentice
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 2016
Pages: 95
For a plot summary

About a year ago, I came across a segment on NPR that told the strange and wonderful story of an exhibit of incubator babies at Coney Island amusement park. Organized by German-born doctor Martin Couney, who saved thousands of premature infants with this new-fangled contraption, appealing to the public was the best way to show the skeptical medical establishment premature infants had a chance of survival.

And who would have thought trying to save babies from certain death would cause such controversy?

At the end of the 19th century when Couney started exhibiting his incubator babies, the survival rate of a premature or underweight infant was dismal. In general, 15-20 percent of infants did not live to their first birthday, which was devastating enough; the rate of death for premature babies was much higher. When a woman delivered such an underdeveloped baby, all resources went to her survival, as the baby’s death was just expected.

“Take it to the people” then if doctors and hospitals are skeptical. So Couney brought his doctors, nurses, wet nurses and 6 incubators to the Berlin Exposition in May of 1896. His set up consisted of a room for the nurses, a separate one for the male physicians, a second for the weighing, feeding, changing and bathing of the infants and a third large space which was open to the viewing public: the displays of incubators.

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So odd was the concept of babies nurtured in a box, that the exhibit was not in the official science and technology building but in the amusement section “sandwiched between the ‘Congo village’ and the Tyrolean Yodelers.” During the expo, Couney took in “batches of babies” bringing them to 6 pounds, all surviving, all going home with their parents.

The next year, Couney displayed the incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition, where visitors picked out their favorite babies, often returning to watch their progress. It should be mentioned that Couney never charged the parents who brought their babies to him. Like any exhibit, the public was charged a fee, so it was from that Couney was able to pay his staff and buy equipment. It must also be noted Couney accept all babies regardless of race or class during a time when many places of amusement, not to mention hospitals, were segregated.

At some point after this exhibition Couney came to the United States and attained citizenship. (According to the author Claire Prentice, some of Couney’s early personal life is a little sketchy). His first American incubator exhibit occurred in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi International Exhibition in the city of Omaha. Though hospitals would not release any infant born prematurely to Couney, desperate parents did. And the incubators were always full. Couney was at the exhibit every day explaining to the public how the incubators worked; that they replicated the body temperature of the mother, filtered in clean air to keep away germs and in such a clean supportive environment the babies thrived gradually gaining the requisite 6 pounds before being allowed to leave the incubators in the arms of their parents.

After several more exhibitions in the U.S., Couney was invited to a new amusement park on Coney Island, New York, called Luna Park. The spectacular attractions drew a large audience and after just one summer became the entertainment capital of the world. Couney was promised a prime location on the main thoroughfare.

Come this way, ladies and gentlemen! See the tiniest little bits of humanity in the world warmed, nourished and fed, given a good fair start to become strong and able-bodied citizens. Maybe the future President is inside! Maybe there is another J. Pierpont Morgan breathing the pure tar scented air! All done by the baby incubator! Step right in and watch the babies grow well and strong before your eyes! 

With a permanent base on Coney Island, Couney continued to exhibit the incubators at world’s fairs and exhibitions. Though his success rate was phenomenal attention from the medical establishment was slow to come. By the late 1920s, most hospitals still had no incubators and the few doctors who believed in the technology had no recourse but to send their premature patients to Couney at Luna Park.

Prentice goes into detail about Couney’s personal life, including his marriage and the birth of a premature daughter, his name change from Cohen to Couney and his fight to bring members of his family to America from Germany before Hitler’s reign would make it impossible for them to leave.

Prentice also reveals a stunning bombshell regarding Couney’s medical training, that is, whether or not he actually had any and what such a truth would bring to bear on his life’s work. Perhaps he was lucky that his technology was so derided by medical men and that he had to operate outside the medical establishment; surely, working in a hospital alongside actual doctors he would be caught as a fraud?

couney1However, does this knowledge, if it is true, take away from the fact that what Couney created worked? He saved thousands of children with a machine that is now part of every hospital on the planet. He was always careful to have doctors working with him who could take care of any medical emergency and trained nurses who believed in his work. He made it possible for babies who were given up on to live, and to grow up and create families of their own. His official medical credentials may always remain a mystery. But his contribution to medicine and to society can never be in doubt.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2006)

My Edition:yearmagicalthinking
Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Vintage International (Random House)
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2006
Pages: 227
For a plot summary

 

I like Joan Didion’s work, but when this was originally released my best friend was dying and I just couldn’t touch it. Even though the book wasn’t about cancer, I didn’t want to read about death, as if doing so would be a jinx. And ha! now I understand that was MY bit of magical thinking.

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”[i]

On December 30, 2003, as John Dunne was drinking Scotch and talking to his wife as she made them dinner, he had a massive heart attack.

Didion kept notes as a way to chronicle the many stages of grief she experienced during that first year after her husband’s death. I want to say right away this is not a depressing book. There are many moments of humor as is common even in the most grievous of situations. Instead, she chronicles the large and small thoughts and experiences as she tries to come to terms with his death.

The crazy thoughts that run through her mind ask—“could I have prevented his death in some way? Or could he? Were there clues to this impending tragedy that we both missed?”

~When John asked that they move back to New York City, she put him off, but if she hadn’t would that have affected his heart?

~If she alerted him to studies about the efficacy of low dose aspirin would that have saved him (even though she knew he was on the more powerful anticoagulant Coumadin)?

~In that last conversation before dinner he asked if the drink she made him was with single malt Scotch or the other Scotch, “because I don’t think you should mix them.” Did she miss the meaning there?

~Was he trying to tell her something a few years ago when he wondered if they were frittering away their lives and not really living?

“As I recall this I realize how open we are to the persistent messages that we can avert death.”[ii]

In the end, her grief turns to mourning as this first year passes into the second. Already some aspects of her husband are fading and she thinks of this as a betrayal. But she has to go on. She is still here.

Remembering bits of a conversation when they were swimming to a cave where the tide had to be just right to swim in, John said, “You have to feel the swell change. You have to go with the change.”[iii]

_____________

[i] p. 3.
[ii] p. 206.
[iii] p. 227.