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VIGIL by Alan Shapiro

VIGIL

By Alan Shapiro

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-226-75034-5
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

 Award-wining poet Shapiro, whose first memoir, The Last Happy Occasion (not reviewed) was highly acclaimed, wrenches all he can from this chronicle of his sister's death from breast cancer. As his mother, father, and brother join him at Beth's bedside in a Houston hospice, Shapiro (English/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) recalls the rebelliousness of his oft-estranged sister. He notes the joy ``we all felt for the first time as a family; joy . . . in an intimacy whose very rarity added sadness to the joy.'' A founder of Students for a Democratic Society while at Michigan State University, Beth would further alienate her parents by marrying an African-American. As Shapiro reflects on these events, he does so as a loving younger brother who admired but did not share her feistiness. His sometimes critical observation of other family members' behavior during her last days is juxtaposed with his own deeply felt emotions: Russ, Beth's husband, ``was a peripheral figure'' during those final days, in part because of his own battle with heart disease, but also because of his intense sorrow and discomfort with the family. Shapiro's father dealt with it ``the way he dealt with everything--by thinking there was nothing he or anyone could do about it.'' His mother, doting and sad, showed her frustration by constantly kvetching about medical incompetence. Younger brother David, an actor, entertained with jokes and impressions. In the last hours before Beth died, David and the author stood at her bedside, each holding a hand: ``All I could do was look on in amazement at the mystery as it unfolded.'' He closes the volume with a few rather heavy-handed poems and a jarringly corny recollection of dancing to Motown records at Beth's wedding. Has its moments, both sad and profound, but as a memoir of a sister's life and death, it's far outclassed by Richard Stern's 1995 A Sistermony.