Among the curses our random world imposes, few can equal watching one’s young, healthy child die within 36 hours from an illness that sounds inconsequential, a minor irritant seemingly zappable by antibiotics.
On April 16, 2002, writer Ann Hood, then in her mid-40s, raced her 5-year-old daughter Grace to an emergency room because the latter had fallen and appeared to have broken her arm in ballet class.
After X-rays and tests, Hood and Grace returned home. That night, Grace’s temperature rose to 105 and her mother hustled her back to the ER. While sitting in a treatment room, Grace suffered a grand mal seizure. A battery of procedures followed, among them a spinal tap, an EKG, more blood tests, a brain-wave scan.
Soon after, a doctor leading increasingly desperate attempts to keep Grace’s vital signs from slipping looked Hood in the face and said, “Your daughter is not going to make it.”
On April 18, Grace died, a victim of strep throat in its most virulent form—the kind that enters the bloodstream and ravages organs.
In recent months, we’ve watched from afar as mothers of two nations, Myanmar and China, mourned the loss of thousands of children whose names and details never make it to us. There’s not enough broadcast time. Perhaps it’s felt that we don’t want to know the details.
But detail in the death of a child is the only thing that matters if it’s your child. It’s why parents cling to left-behind clothes and toys, create shrines in the vacant space where a young voice sounded, burst into tears at any reminder of her or him.
Advice books about grief flood self-help sections, and many, to be fair, prove useful. Comfort is something different - a sublimely written memoir, literary in every good way, about abandoning oneself to grief, then finding the thread of life again.
Hood never for a paragraph or a page loses control over the story that suffuses her, the sound of the words, the impact of images. Instead, by crafting them to be true to her own inner journey, she repeatedly breaks your heart, precisely rendering and reflecting on the aftermath of instant loss.
Unabashedly, almost offhandedly, Hood laces through Comfort the many thoughts that others offer to inconsolable parents in hope of creating the blessing that forms Hood’s title—a feeling that can itself seem disloyal to a lost child:
“She is in a better place.”
“She is still with you.”
“There is a heaven and you will see her again.”
With unerring writerly punch, Hood intermittently talks back to them, in italics: How can a five-year-old little girl be in a better place without her mother?
Advised of the rabbi who lost his son, of other women who lost children, of how Lincoln, Churchill and Twain all lost children, Hood rightly replies, But none of them lost Grace.
Urged to give her daughter’s clothes to the needy, Hood silently asks, Her two-pointed brightly striped pom-pom hat? Warned that it’s “not healthy to keep a shrine,” she thinks, But there are shrines to lesser things. To Jim Morrison. To pets. To saints who are no longer even considered saints.
Told to “do something with your hands,” Hood takes up knitting, because it allows her “to start over again and again.”
It’s that raw, honest, endlessly observant voice that enables this agonized soul to rivet the reader quickly, accomplishing what only the finest writers—as different in other respects as Dylan Thomas and Thomas Mann—can ever do: make us feel powerfully again the utter wrongness of death, however much we’ve become accustomed to it.
While Grace continues to fight for her life, Hood hears a doctor yell “for someone to get the mother out of here. The mother. Me.” She recalls stoically how her daughter gave her age that last month as “five and seven twelfths,” the way the funeral director said the family could “place anything we wanted in her coffin.”
Describing how her remaining threesome—husband Lorne, and older son Sam—pushed on, Hood tells of running out of a grocery store when the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” came on, a song she would sing at the top of her lungs with Grace, the same one 8-year-old Sam belted out at his sister’s memorial service.
Lorne finds comfort “in sitting at Grace’s grave and talking to her.” Hood can’t manage that, but cooks Grace’s favorite dish of pasta shells with butter and parmesan to feel closer. Crying, she writes in regard to herself and Lorne, “became a part of our lovemaking.”
Slowly, Hood, the author of eight books of fiction, learns that grief “is not linear,” that it “doesn’t have a plot.” Step by step, she finds her way to a new notion of family. Watching Grace’s beloved nanny Hillary get married and give birth brings joy and more tears. Throughout, happily, the author brings her little girl’s wry, spunky personality to life. Told at one point that their family ophthalmologist thinks young children like Grace won’t wear glasses and usually lose or break them, Grace harrumphed, “Why wouldn’t I wear them? I can’t see without them.”
At a time when loathsome officials like Myanmar’s leaders block essential supplies to survivors, and Chinese police pull grieving mothers from their protests, the fantasy that every bereaved parent anywhere might somehow read Comfort becomes even more airy and preposterous.
Yet I wish everyone, in every language, could and would. It is that wise, naked, immediate and unforgettable.