A disclaimer: This is the first time I’ve tried to write about my mom. I’m struggling for it not to come across as precious, or trite, or cheesy. But – this writing thing is a journey. So, here it is. I’m a work-in-progress.
This book will knock you down.
It’s about AIDS in the late ‘80s, and loss, and love, and regret. It’s also about a family, and shame and grief and forgiveness. And it’s beautiful and tragic and hold-your-breath, heavy-in-your-lungs magnificent. And somehow, inexplicably, it’s Carol Rifka Brunt’s very first novel. You won’t believe it when you read it. It’s really that good.
Quick background: The story is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old June, who loses her favorite relative, Uncle Finn, to AIDS, in 1987. And because the novel is set in the late ‘80s, there is an incredible amount of shame and secrecy and misinformation surrounding the disease. As June comes to terms with her loss, she develops a friendship with her uncle’s partner, Toby. The book chronicles the development of their relationship alongside June’s coming-of-age and the journey of June’s entire family.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t want to risk telling you too much. For me, though, this novel did something else.
It was a book that made me remember my mom, in June of 2001, the summer she was diagnosed with stage IV, inoperable, you’ve-got-three-months-to-live cancer.
You see, there’s this part I loved – and here I need to quote, because I know my paraphrasing wouldn’t capture the weight of these lines.
Toby told me once that when he and Finn first found out they had AIDS, instead of feeling damaged and like time was running out, they felt just the opposite. He and Finn felt all-powerful. Like nothing could touch them.
It made me remember a walk I took with my mom, before she was really sick, before she couldn’t walk anymore. It wasn’t hot yet – it was one of those perfect Oklahoma evenings in June when the lightning bugs come out and flicker around your ankles and the sky flushes pink and hazy at dusk. And I asked her if she was scared.
“Scared? No. I’m not scared. Maybe I will be later. Right now I’m just having a wonderful time.”
And I looked at her, bewildered, because obviously she’d gone crazy.
But then I got it. She was doing everything she wanted to do. She quit her job so she could spend time with her family, and her friends, and so that she could read and rest. She hired painters and repainted the living room walls. She planted perennials in her garden, so that they would come back every year. She took me shopping and bought me a wardrobe of sundresses, spending more money on clothes in one day than we’d ever done before. She got a puppy. Our family sat on the back patio every night, and friends came by to bring her wine or milkshakes or casseroles. She was having a wonderful time.
And then I said, “I understand. It’s really kind of awesome, to get to live like this, right now, isn’t it?”
I took her hand. And we walked home.