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The Mourning After : IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT OF A WATER LANDING. By Christopher Noel (Times Books: $23, 273 pp.) : DRIVING MY FATHER. By Susan Wicks (Basic Books: $18, 137 pp.)

August 18, 1996|Kathleen Doheny | Doheny writes about health issues for The Times

It could come in the wee hours, in the middle of a gloriously sunny day or at a time in your life when everything is finally going right. Whatever its timing, the world-shattering phone call often has a ring so shrill you know before answering that the news cannot be good.

Susan Wicks is outside reading, enjoying the garden setting, when she gets that phone call. It's her mother's friend, someone who never calls; the friend soon passes the receiver to her father. In between his wails, he tells her that her mother has just died unexpectedly.

In Christopher Noel's case, the account begins after he's already gotten the terrible call: He's at the hospital front desk, waiting to hear about the condition of his fiancee, Brigid, rushed there after an auto accident on an icy patch of road. Soon, he's on the phone, repeating the ghastly news to her mother, her sister, his mother. And then, hours after helplessly watching her transferred to another hospital, he learns that modern medicine's miracles aren't enough.

From there, both authors delve into the cascade of feelings that typically follows the loss of a loved one: sorrow, numbness, confusion, frustration, a wish to bring the loved one back, a fantasy of running away from it all, memories of the good times, acknowledgment of the loved one's faults and gradually, acceptance.

Though twice as long as Wicks' book, Noel's is the page-turner, a quicker and more polished read. Within a few pages or even paragraphs, he often moves back and forth between decades but never once confuses the reader. In one breath he's talking about his journal, chronicling his relationship with Brigid; in another, he reads from a journal kept by his mother during his childhood, weaving it altogether to try to heal. As he attempts new relationships, he jumps back in time to his relationship with Brigid, remembering their habit of calling each other "Buddy," her weird way of playing dead in bed, her love of making fun of people.

Like a journalist whose deadline mentality extends to his personal life, Noel often makes note of his grief recovery timetable. "Sixteen months and libido lifts," he writes in one chapter. At 21 months, he seems to settle down with Joy, a friend who grieved along with him. About the same time, he describes his attempts at hypnosis to "try to re-approach Brigid . . . to spend time together with her again, at most to relive experiences or have new conversations. . . ."

Perhaps most touching is his description of his video project, undertaken four months after the accident and distributed to 30 loved ones who might, as he did, need to weep. Indeed, a perfect stranger could cry, given his description of Brigid at age 4--red hair and coveralls filling the frame--and later as a teenage bridesmaid at her sister's wedding, with comments from family members about the void her death has left.

Along the way to recovery, Noel doesn't leave out the warts, divulging some painfully personal facts about Brigid's bad opinion of her body and their troubled sex life.

And when the numbness becomes too much, he heads for the rain forests of Central America on a diving adventure, meant to help himself feel alive again.

Wicks' ordeal is much different, since the death of a parent when an adult child has reached midlife is not uncommon. And while the struggle to redefine her relationship with her grieving, aging father isn't easy, she's not as alone as Noel. She has a loving, supportive husband and two daughters.

Her book is not so much about grieving for her mother, although she does some of that, as about forging a new and sometimes frightening relationship with her father. The reality that she is now driving her father (his vision is poor, his health is failing) is perhaps the most concrete proof of the transition.

As she works through the grief, Wicks jumps from the present to childhood and back--but less skillfully than Noel. Sometimes, the passages sound choppy, seeming to be thrown in as she thought of them, not woven together because of any common thread. In the space of a few pages, she recalls her father's shyness, his disbelief over his wife's death, her parents' dishcloth-throwing quarrels that ended in laughter, her new Thursday lunch dates with her father, her fantasy of driving straight past her father's house just one Thursday and her father's past pouting sessions.

Both authors do capture those oddly universal aspects of grief and tragedy, such as the freeze-frame phenomenon when bad news happens, our ability to remember minute details about the experience for years. When the doctor tells Noel soon after the accident that the doctors' attempts to pump more blood into Brigid's brain are failing, Noel can only blink and say, "Oh."

Fifteen months later, he writes, ". . . no matter what I'm doing (even if kissing another woman), I am still blinking and nodding, having only just responded, 'Oh.' "

Wicks remembers in vivid detail that at the time of her mother's death, she was in the garden, sun hat pulled down, reading Flaubert, brushing crumbs from the spine of her book.

Both authors also discover that declaring recovery from grief is tricky business. As Wicks sees signs of her father's decline--failing memory, decreasing mobility--she knows his death will spur more grief and another reconfiguration of her world.

And try as Noel might to become part of a couple again, he admits he will always have within him "the short, simple tune of her."

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