A mother’s account the death her 5-year-old daughter from a ruthless form of strep contrasts with Elizabeth Edwards’s approach to the death of her 16-year-old son
Comfort: A Journey Through Grief. By Ann Hood. Norton, 188 pp., $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
It is Ann Hood’s bad luck that I read Comfort a few days after finishing Elizabeth Edwards’s Saving Graces, which has a moving section on the death of her 16-year-old son. Edwards says that on what would have been Wade’s 17th birthday, she and her husband went to a park and handed out 100 printed cards that read:
“CELEBRATE WADE’S BIRTHDAY
“July 18 would be the 17th birthday of Wade Edwards of Raleigh. Please use the attached coupon to celebrate his birthday with an ice cream or treat from the Pullen Park concession stand.
“The gift you can give in Wade’s name is to do something nice for someone else.”
This lovely gesture caused some pain for Edwards and her husband, John, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice-president:
“It occurred to us later that this would have been a happy way to celebrate Wade’s birthday if he had lived. Instead, the delight on the faces of the children as they returned from the concession stand with ice cream treats was a sad reminder of what it might have been had Wade lived.”
Sad it may been, but the incident shows a warmth and humanity less apparent in Hood’s more self-absorbed account of death of her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, from a ruthless form of strep in April 2002. In a typical passage in Comfort, Hood seems outraged that nearly a year and a half after her daughter’s death, her church sang “Amazing Grace” on a September Sunday “close to Grace’s birthday” and “without any warning” beyond the usual notice in the bulletin. She and her husband went to see the ministers and apparently got the apology they sought: “It was a mistake. They were sorry. It would never happen again. In fact, they would not play ‘Amazing Grace’ in September, or in April, the month Grace died.”
Hood’s anger about this incident is believable. Anyone who has lost someone greatly loved knows that small events can have titanic emotional force and you may need do all you can to protect yourself from them. But “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the world’s most popular hymn www.hymns.me.uk/50-most-loved-hymns.htm and invariably ranks on surveys among the top ten. Perhaps more than any other, it has brought comfort to older people and others facing their own deaths. And the satisfaction that Hood finds in her church’s willingness ban the hymn for two months a year — even as she allows that it still “should be played” at other times — typifies the me-first tone of Comfort. This approach differs both from Edwards’s altruism and from the more journalistic treatment of books such as John Gunther’s classic memoir of the death of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud.
In a sense, the self-indulgence of Comfort is true to life. Grief makes narcissists of us all. A searing loss can leave us – when we want most to remember someone else – aware only of our own pain. But Edwards and others have found ways to acknowledge this reality while offering a more complex view of grief.
In Saving Graces Edwards writes of going after storm to the cemetery where Wade was buried and seeing a man, carrying a small dog, who often visited his father’s grave: “The only tree in the man’s section of the cemetery had fallen, and it had fallen across the grave of his father. His pain and helplessness were overwhelming. I made a small bouquet from the flowers at Wade’s grave and took them to him. He usually brought something for the grave, but that day he was empty in every way. Sometimes we pressed on as if we were not weakened, and then we saw ourselves in someone else.”
Saving Graces is Edwards’s first book, and Comfort is Hood’s tenth. But that cemetery scene may tell you more about grief than anything in Comfort. Hood spells everything out as neatly as an article in Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal, two magazines for which she writes, in prose as smooth as glass. Edwards leaves some things implicit or unanswered, as great novelists do. (Why was that man at the cemetery carrying his dog?) In that sense, Saving Graces is truer to perhaps the most painful aspect of grief: Its depths are unknowable, except to the people who feel it them.
Best line: After Grace’s death, Hood and her husband adopted a baby girl from China and learned in the process some Chinese mothers mark or “brand” their babies with small scars before they abandon them “as a sign of love.” She and her husband traveled in a group of families, all of whom received their children at the same time: “Soon people were lifting pant legs or the cuffs of sleeves to show the small scars on their babies.” On the neck of her new daughter Hood found “a thick rope of scar tissue, round and small,” which a pediatrician belived was a burn that had healed.
Worst line: Hood says that she used to sleep holding her daughter in the crook of her arm: “So that I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”
Recommendation? Tara McKelvey wrote correctly in a review in the New York Times Book Review that Comfort “doesn’t offer comfort, not really – only grief.”
Published: May 2008 www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring08/006456.htm
Furthermore: Hood also wrote Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and The Knitting Circle. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.