A writer recounts the emotions and memories of losing her mother and battling cancer.
“Have you ever heard a tooth smash?” Avery (The Last Nude, 2012, etc.) asks readers early on. “It’s a tiny sound, and a terrifying one.” Avery, winner of the Lambda Literary Award, offers 15 autobiographical essays about grief, death, and illness—and on almost every page includes a powerful observation, usually both tiny and terrifying. In 2011, the author received word that her mother had died, and in her essays dealing with her grief, she weaves together short, piercing moments ranging from childhood to the months after the funeral. By moving nonchronologically from her mother’s alcoholism to family Christmas fights to selling her mother’s jewelry after her death, Avery avoids simplifying her mother or their relationship, offering instead an emotionally driven and complex portrait of her family and of herself. Avery also writes about her deteriorating health, overhauling her diet, and the search for alternative treatments to fight cancer and arthritis. Months after her mother died, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called reactive arthritis, and the medication she takes subsequently led to the development of a rare form of uterine cancer. By her own admission in the introduction, some of the essays, like “Goodbye Ruby,” delve deeply into the technical aspects of her conditions to help readers facing the specific health challenges she did. But even as she explains dense research and terminology or painstakingly recounts frustrating conversations with doctors, she anchors every new challenge with carefully crafted and insightful moments of everyday life. A small child interacting with a cat, a simple trip to the grocery store, or her most embarrassing struggles with menstruation take on fascinating new depth in the context of her illness. As Avery waits in a hospital at one point, she writes dryly about her thoughts with each bouquet of flowers that arrives, “You have cancer. You are getting a hysterectomy. You might die.” Her narration throughout this heavy subject matter strikes an uncanny balance between funny and sad because she has taken the time to pay attention to the details in every moment and then written about them with honesty and wisdom.
A well-wrought memoir that turns simple observations and memories into powerful illustrations of grief and illness.