In January 1998, Wayne Courtois returned to Portland, Maine, the home of his youth, after a ten-year absence to sit at the bedside of his dying mother in the last week of her life. This is the account of that last week…
NOTE: This is a review originally written for The Electric Elephant. Due to the nature of the book, I didn't do my usual scoring rubric, though in comparison to other books I've reviewed, I'd place it firmly in the upper end of the 41-45 range.
In a lot of ways, Wayne is everyman. He’s not good-looking, he comfort eats, he’s insecure. He avoids problems and confrontations as long as he can, and though his aunt and brother have been saying for a while that he really needs to come see his mother since her health is failing, he keeps finding excuses not to go. Until it’s almost too late. He arrives in Portland in the middle of a storm, and struggles to find the B&B he’s booked for himself. From there, his journey of the next week begins. He has to face his mother who no longer can communicate except in wordless sounds nobody can make out, his aunt who was once his favorite relative and is now a reminder of what he left behind, and his brother who he never really liked but whose approval he always craved. It’s family, like so many families found in real life, not the plasticine presentations often found in fiction. These people can be cold and mean, selfish and bitter, as well as display the occasional flash of sympathy and ungrudging affection. Including Wayne.That’s not to imply that the book is mean-spirited. It’s evident from the start, even when Wayne is detailing his family’s flaws, that there is an undercurrent of love, a wish for some kind of connection with them that he’s never really been able to make. Part of that stems from being a gay man in a family where it was never brought up, though his uneasy relationship with his brother – who is also gay – has its own causes. Still, even when he presents them in less than flattering light, there is no denying his attempts to try and keep it balanced. He doesn’t play favorites. His presentation of self is just as unfanciful, and it’s this honesty, combined with his careful, insightful descriptions, that draws the reader in.
Courtois succeeds where other authors might falter due to his discerning prose. Details are glorious. He depicts the Portland winter in vivid clarity, making it impossible not to feel the icy chill even when you’re sitting in the middle of a heat wave in California. He paints his time with his mother in sensitive, though painful, colors. It’s evocative passages like this that make it impossible to put down: Later in the afternoon, after Louise had gone home to rest and I was alone with my mother, she started trying to speak again. It was like helplessly watching a drowning person fail to reach the surface. Her discolored eyes were open, staring straight upward; she choked on vowels, her lips stretched as wide as her toothless mouth would allow. I held her hand, barely touching the bruised flesh, and stroked her hair, patted her forehead – none of it having any effect, as if we were in separate scenes superimposed on each other. Later, after he’s finally broken down and called his partner Ralph back in Kansas City to ask him to come, we get to see a different side to it all, a healthier perspective on his life and approach to his family. Much of that credit goes to Ralph, and the balance he brings to Wayne’s life. Their relationship is flawed, much like everybody’s is, but there’s genuine love and respect there that provides hope when it might be lacking elsewhere.But in the end, this isn’t about Ralph, or his mother, or his aunt or brother. This is about Wayne, and the path he travels that last week before his mother dies. It isn’t all neatly tied up in a bow, but then again, life isn’t. It does, however, offer a humane, poignant presentation of a man simply trying to get through each day as best he can. The obvious metaphor of the bleak winter with his childhood doesn’t hold it back. It makes it richer, by reminding us that part of suffering the winter is the comfort we get by seeking out warmth, especially with others.