SOMETIMES IT takes guts to be a critic. So often you feel you have no right to be pronouncing on someone else's hard work and insight. Your whiny little voice wheedles off the page. And every once in a while, the emotions you encounter in a book are so raw -- not sentimental, not artful, just plain raw -- that you can barely keep reading, much less recommend what you're reading to anyone else. "Comfort" is such a book. After you read it, you feel utterly depleted.
Ann Hood has written about her little girl's death. Grace died on April 18, 2002, from a virulent form of strep. She was 5 years old. One morning she was there and the next she was gone, leaving her tights on the floor and her leopard-print rain boots in the hall and her hat with the pompom on a hook by the door.
"Your daughter is not going to make it," the doctor told Hood when she brought Grace in with a high fever. "We're losing Grace," a nurse said, hours later. The doctor "yelled for someone to get the mother out of here. The mother. Me." And then she and her husband, Lorne, had to tell Grace's 8-year-old brother, Sam, that his sister had died. "If watching your child die is a parent's worst nightmare, imagine having to tell your other child that his sister is dead. . . . Although I am certain that he cried, that we all cried, what I remember more is how we collapsed into each other, as if the weight of our loss literally crushed us."
"Comfort" is the anticlosure book. Good riddance to a dumb idea. One week passes, a month, a year, two years, three years, and Hood does not miss her daughter any less. (The only practical advice she can offer us is the possibility of knitting, which is the only thing that seems to help.) "I have read that when someone loses an arm or leg, for months afterward they still feel pain in their missing limb. A phantom limb, it is called, as if the outline or shadow of that limb is still there. That is what my arms became. Phantom limbs, aching for Grace. At night I would wake up in pain, my arms actually hurting with longing for her. It is hard to imagine that emptiness can cause pain, but my empty arms ached."
She goes back over the day, the day before the day, the weather, the conversations she had; she is drawn back again and again, as if trying to make sure that Grace had actually died. Some passages reveal strange locutions, like a record with a skip, as if the writer had turned a corner and suddenly found Grace, whom she reintroduces again and again: "my second child, Gracie," "our daughter, Gracie," "my little girl."
"Grief doesn't have a plot," Hood writes. "It isn't smooth. There is no beginning and middle and end." Her daughter's death "left everything in mid-cycle."
She goes into Grace's room two days after the death: "[T]he first things I saw were those tights. I saw them and I screamed, not the kind of scream that comes from fright, but the kind that comes from the deepest grief imaginable. It is a scream that comes when there are no words to express what you feel. It is an argument with God or life or death. It is a scream that rails against logic and fate and everything there is. I saw those tights. I screamed. I closed the door to the room, hard. Then I sat on the floor in the hallway outside Grace's room and I cried." Three years will pass before she can go in again and put everything away in boxes.
You think you can't bear it, and then you remember that she did. You think, "It's only a book, for God's sake" (which my son kept saying as I sat weeping and turning pages on his bed). What makes this book so different from other such memoirs is that it seems to be taking place in real time. Hood doesn't cut us any slack. Even Joan Didion, grieving the loss of her husband and her daughter's illness in "The Year of Magical Thinking," held back from the brink, retreated into her vast intellect. Hood will not retreat.
Lorne finds some comfort in church and God. Hood tries, for his sake, but cannot. She feels herself splintering, going insane. "I am the woman in dirty clothes that do not match, wearing flip-flops in the hard rain, crouched in her car, watching all the beautiful children leaving school. . . . . I am the woman screaming at the airline ticket agent. . . . Yet I am here, somewhere else. I am the woman with the cool vintage glasses. . . . I am the proud wife beside her husband. . . . I am the writer who has written a new novel."
This makes sense -- more sense than the myth of the whole person. Why wouldn't pieces of us peel off when we lose the people we love? How could we ever be whole again?
"Comfort" enriches our lives, brings Gracie into our world. I will most likely never again eat pasta with butter and Parmesan or cucumbers cut in perfect rounds, Gracie's favorite foods, without thinking of Ann Hood and her daughter. And I have never met either one.
At the end of the book, Hood and her husband adopt a baby girl from China and name her Annabelle, which is Gracie's middle name. The agency thinks Annabelle was born on April 18, 2004, two years to the day from Gracie's death. Annabelle makes Ann and Sam and Lorne happy. "The feelings of grief and joy live side by side now in my heart," she writes. "I did not know that they, such opposites, could coexist." I imagine Hood's heart stretching to make room for Annabelle, next to Gracie. And I must admit, the thought is comforting. *