Healthy Living

Four Uplifting Books About Losing A Parent

A few weeks ago, I shared that my father had passed away unexpectedly. He was my hero and it was complicated; I wrote this song for him. Strange coincidences before and after his death have felt like a blessing and here’s one more: In the weeks before he died, I randomly chose to read these uplifting books, all of which deal with an adult processing the death and dying of significant family members in fascinating and beautiful ways. Each one affected me differently — but all were powerful and, also, damn good reads. Have you read any or all of these books?

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

I devoured this book in a few hours on a chaise lounge in Palm Springs. Given my interest in and writing of speculative fiction, a friend had shared her copy and I threw it into my bag before the trip. After the first few pages, I was hooked. The story takes place on Amalfi Coast, one of my favorite places and one I have longed to go back to for years. I’m not giving anything away — it’s in the back jacket copy — by sharing the premise: Katy, the narrator, had planned a trip with Carol, her mother, to Positano, the small coastal Italian town where her mother had once lived. After her mother dies, a grieving Katy takes the trip anyway — only to encounter her 30-year-old mother at the hotel. Having also written a novel that involves a woman using metaphysical means to reconnect with her dead mother, I loved this on so many levels — especially figuring out the puzzle that is satisfyingly resolved at the end.

Run by Ann Patchett

I’ve read all of Ann Patchett’s novels, including, many years ago, Run. But since then, I completed an MFA in fiction and after re-reading this book am further convinced that she is one of our greatest living writers. This book covers race and politics and gender and family — including the decline and loss of a patriarch, of which I can’t say more without giving it away — all condensed in a 24-hour timeframe — which is what I’m trying to do with my work in progress, so I was taking notes. It shows mastery of plot, character, setting, and the voice, omg. “Doreen Clark had made it clear that she had no interest in [boys and] was leaning towards the convent as is a strong wind were blowing her there.” Aack! Or this on snow: “To tilt your head back and look straight up into a streetlight was to have some comprehension of infinity.” And this perfect note to build character: “She tore off half of the sandwich without looking down and passed it to her friend, her best friend, the only person she had ever told.” Without looking down — that detail nails it. How does someone achieve this level of mastery? Guess I’ll have to keep re-reading.

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Days after my father passed away, a friend sent over this meditative collection of flash and longer essays. Renkl, who writes about plants and animals for the New York Times, excavates the first-person narratives of her ancestors and details growing up in the South in the 1960s. With perfect grace, she navigates the story of how her mother’s depression affected her family. The narrative weaves between present day naturalistic writing and Renkl’s personal history, and locks in on how her experiences affected her perception for and appreciation of the natural world. In many, she combines the two themes to stunning effect, such as the essay in which she describes a photo taken just after her birth: “…all my kin…my parents and my grandparents and my great-grandmother, all of them, have gathered to watch over me. They are looking at me as if I were the sun, as if they had been cold every day of their lives until now. I am the sun, but they are not the planets. They are the universe.”

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

I recently completed a time travel novel and began reading this as research — until I fell in love. It is so beautifully written, and greatly reminded me of another of my favorite books — The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Nifenegger. The narrative is just as rich and complicated as that earlier book and the central question is the same: What if you could go back in time and change something that would affect your present relationships? But rather than romance, This Time Tomorrow centers on the relationship between a daughter and a father who, in the present time, is dying.

Because the plot is fluid, Straub is able to explore different eras of Alice’s relationship with Leonard, her single-parent, writer father, and the narrator’s experience parallels my own in an uncannily familiar way. Like this: “…in Leonard’s book[s]…Alice could find little messages…all tiny little parts of him, preserved forever, molecules that had rearranged themselves into words on a page, but Alice could see them for what they were, which was her father.”

“No one talks about [it]–at least not to the dads,” Leonard says. “Maybe moms talk about it more…but no one ever talked to me about it…what it feels like to love someone so much.” And this — which brought me to tears: “The day that you were born, that was when I became the best version of myself.”

Although her narrator is not a writer, Straub is, and it shows: “The good [novels] — those were always true,” Alice notes. “Not the facts…not the plots…but the feelings. The feelings were the truth.” In terms of feelings, the unique temptations presented by time travel ead so very real: “It felt good, for a little while, to treat going back and forth…as if each day were a new day…she felt like she could do it forever, and like no one would ever die.” Even without the context of my father’s recent death, that idea was exquisitely poignant.

Today, I re-read this passage: “Grief was something that moved in and stayed. Maybe it moved from one side of the room to the other, farther away from the window, but it was always there. A part of you that you couldn’t wish or pray or drink or exercise away. She was used to him being so close to gone that gone was almost desirable — no one wanted to watch someone they loved suffer. But she was also tired — tired of how tense her body was when the phone rang, tired of how nervous she felt whenever she walked out of his hospital room, tired of how it felt to know…that she was going to have this enormous hole forever. Soon, Alice thought that it was probably exactly the inverse, the mirror image, of how it felt to be pregnant…So many of the customs were identical — people would send flowers, or cards, or foot. Someone would have her name on their to-do list—Write a note…and then it would be done, just her problem again, day in and day out, forever.”

There is no truer description of my current experience that this. I’d love to know if you read these books and what you thought of them, in comments below. Thanks!

P.S. Click here to learn more about joining me for the free Mommy Greenest Positive Climate Fiction Summer Book Club, which kicks off July 19.

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