Is there really “Life after Life”?
People are asking me that question are not talking about survival of the soul. They are teasing me about my excitement about popular writer Jill McCorkle’s first novel in 17 years.
The book was officially released this week. So it is time to evaluate the results.
The novel is set in the fictional Pine Haven Retirement Center, where characters come together as residents, staff, visitors, and family.
The central character, Joanna, provides hospice-like counseling and comfort to dying residents and their loved ones. Her activities give the novel a gentle storyline and provide a persistent reminder that illness and death are an inescapable part of the experience at Pine Haven.
A mentor tells Joanna, “Make their exits as gentle and loving as possible. Tell them how good it will be, even if you don’t believe it yourself. You’re Southern, you know how to do that.”
McCorkle describes how family members embrace Joanna “like she is one of them. Lung. Brain. Breast. Uterus. Pancreas. Bone. The families discuss and explain the symptoms and diagnoses for her as if they have never been heard of before, have never happened to anyone else, and she listens.”
Each of McCorkle’s characters has a different set of challenges, but the onset of fatal illness and death is a constant.
For instance, there is Stanley, a lawyer and widower. After his wife’s death, his son moved into the family home, would not leave Stanley alone, slept beside him in his dead wife’s place in their bed, and was driving the grieving Stanley crazy.
To get away from his son, he decided to act as if he really was crazy and therefore needed to be in a retirement center. He constructed a new image for himself, a kind of senility combined with a loss of judgment that led to inappropriate remarks to women. His crude descriptions of his desires and how he wanted to fulfill them proves that his mental condition requires institutionalization. Stanley’s crazy conduct was an act to get him away from his son and into the retirement center. It worked.
For me, however, Stanley’s act is a tragic reminder of what sometimes happens to people whose minds are slipping away. It also brings back painful personal memories of watching my father struggle to say the right things while Alzheimer’s was taking away his memory and beginning to eat away at his judgment.
Stanley’s situation did more to me. It raised fears that I, like Stanley, also a one-time lawyer, would someday be stripped of the deference that lawyers come to expect and demand. What Stanley had been did not matter much once he got to Pine Haven. Prior status might even count against new residents, especially those who made too much of their prior importance. My mother’s struggle for acceptance when she moved into her hometown retirement center was complicated by her pride in having been the active and important wife of a college president. For a time, word passed around that she needed to learn that it did not matter in the retirement center who she was or how important she had been before,
Stanley is only one of the several characters whose situations evoke sympathy, pain, and laughter.
Dealing with the presence of death is a part of life’s experience. Reading “Life after Life” deepens a reader’s realization of its oncoming approach. It makes one wonder again why we are here, why we are still here, and whether or not there is really some life after life.
McCorkle’s introductory quote from Thornton Wilder suggests her answer: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.