Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
I began reading Brooklyn around this time last year. The Oscars were right around the corner and the movie was nominated for awards. Instead of following the instructions given by every media outlet, I bought the book and did not rush out to see the movie. I’m a bit of a purest in that way. I had just begun to work my way through the novel’s exposition when I got the call. My mom was sick. She was in the hospital and doctors were not giving a hopeful prognosis. It was a weekday and I was in the middle of teaching Brave New World to eager young minds ready to explore the dystopian society of Aldus Huxley. As I explained the generalities of a caste system and the government’s control over the society in the World State of Utopia, my mind was plagued with the decision to drop everything and rush to mom’s bedside or wait until the weekend. Mom had been in an out of the hospital for a few years as she battled lupus, and the decision to go or stay was becoming ever more challenging.
My brother and I decided to go. I threw together sub plans, left work early and raced home to pack a bag. Once the decision was made, we felt the urgency to make the 3-plus hour drive to Las Vegas and see her. As life would have it, though, I was destined to face yet another problem. Little did I know I was racing home to a momma dog, in-whelp with 3-week-old pups, suffering from mastitis. It was the smell that hit me first as I entered the house. I hesitantly walked to the whelping box and found the biggest mess I have ever seen. Mom and babies were covered in vomit and diarrhea. Plans shifted, I moved all the pups to a clean towel, cleaned them gently one-by-one, and then put them in a laundry basket to keep them safe. I then moved to momma. She was listless and I had to carry her, mess and all, outside where I could rinse and clean her in the frigid February air. Once she was clean, I had no choice but to leave her lying in the sun to dry off a bit as I then moved to the challenging task of cleaning the whelping box. As I cleaned up blanket, heating pad, and the whelping box, each corner and crevasse, I knew that there was no way I could just leave. I called my brother and explained that I had to take the dog to the vet, who later confirmed my suspicions – mastitis. It set us back a couple of hours, but once mom and pups were stable and my husband was home to supervise them, I got on in the car and traveled to see mom. Only my brother knew what had happened. I decided not to mention it to my dad and sisters, I just could not deal with all the stress; both my mom and my dog were suffering.
I am sure this is a common occurrence among very busy people, but I find that very often I cannot turn off my thoughts. I ponder and ruminate on so many “what ifs” that I cannot sleep, I don’t want to eat, and the stress just builds. Reading has always been my escape. When I read, I do not think about my life, problems, or any “what ifs;” I simply escape. In the middle of all the hospital conversations and tears, I read snatches of Brooklyn. As the late nights led us back to mom and dad’s house, and the late-night conversations with my siblings, I read some more. Brooklyn was my escape, for a time, from just about everything.
That first weekend led to many more, traveling with my brother to see mom as she weakened and became a bit frailer, day by day. My husband took over all of my dog’s care, as her mastitis got worse and then needed surgery and, the subsequent early weaning of her pups. I left all the decisions up to him; I could not handle both crises. I checked in with my students about 2-3 days a week, taking long weekends as I left them to work through Huxley’s Brave New World on their own. And I? I continued to escape in Toibin’s Brooklyn.
What struck me so deeply about the novel was the romance between the Irish protagonist and her Italian boyfriend. The novel is set around the same time my parents dated and married. Though Brooklyn is set in, well, Brooklyn, and my parents are Boston born and raised, the story held startling comparisons to my parents. My mom, Irish, and my dad, Italian, defied the subtleties of racial divide, fell in love, and married just as the characters in the novel were doing. The story became a bittersweet reminder of everything my parents were to each other. My parents often told stories of the dances they attended in their youth and would often proceed to demonstrate those dances throughout their entire marriage. Just as my parents enjoyed that time of organized community dance, the characters in Brooklyn followed suit. And just as the protagonist faced her first Italian meal, I recalled my mom telling us stories of her first experience of a many course Italian meal complete with the after effects of having a bloated stomach from eating too much while trying to be polite.
When Spring Break rolled around, we took everyone out to visit with grandma and visit with her sisters who had come to share in those last precious moments of lucidity that she had left. I stayed as long as I could, but needed to return home to take care of my growing puppies. They were 7-weeks-old now and ready for evaluation. One was headed to a show home and needed to be selected. I cleaned my house like a crazy woman, having no idea where the strength was coming from, hosted a puppy party, and put on a brave face for my friends. It was a sunny day in an otherwise gloomy time in my life. The sun was not to shine for long though, the very next day I got the call. Mom was back in the hospital, and though she was awake, was not communicating. With bag packed once again, I left my husband to care for the pups, secure them into their forever homes, and off I raced with my brother to see mom.
This visit was the most heartbreaking for me. My mom was not a weak person, she was not silent, and she was never alone in a crowd. The woman we knew, the one who never met a stranger, talked a blue streak to anyone who would listen, and corrected us constantly due to our inappropriate jokes, was slipping away. We took turns holding her hand, wrapped in paper-thin skin now, and tried to step out of the room as the tears got the better of us. One afternoon, I found myself alone in her room trying to deal with the silence. The nurse came in and got her up to use the portable commode. He asked me to sit with her to make sure she didn’t fall. If this is not the most awkward position I’ve ever found myself in, I do not know what is. So, to fill the silence, I began to tell her about the book I was reading. She looked through me as if I wasn’t even talking, but I continued telling her about it, drawing on comparisons to her and dad. Once she was back in bed, I picked up my Kindle and began reading aloud mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. I was startled when she reached out and took my hand, looking me straight in the eye. It was a small indication that she was still in there, somewhere. The difficult decision was made to take her home and care for her there. She was very adamant about her hate of hospitals, and knowing we were close to the end, we abided by her wishes and prepared a place in her living room for her to rest comfortably.
Easter was now upon us, and I was barely aware of it. My entire focus was on mom, unless I was escaping into the pages of Brooklyn. I will never forget the precise moment she came back to us. I sat, holding her hand, updating her about my book, and she looked over at me and said, “I. Love. You.” She squeezed my hand and dragged it to her chest. The day was then filled with bedside chats, signing her favorite songs, and crowded family visits. She did not lose her clarity again after that. After the excitement of the day began to fade, and the house became quiet again, she looked at me and asked, “whatever happened to that girl in the book I was reading?” Amazement turned to joy as we realized that she was listening and had remembered some of what we had said to her.
Even though I had just finished reading the novel, I did not want to ruin the ending. So, we rented the movie so that she could watch it with us. She loved it, even reacting in horror and disgust as the protagonist, who travels back to Ireland for a funeral, wrestles with the idea not to return to Brooklyn and her now Italian husband. Well, I won’t tell you how Brooklyn turns out, you’ll have to read it for yourself, but in my story, I got a few more precious weeks with mom. And this story, connected to a book I picked up because it’s film adaptation was up for an award, holds within its pages and comparisons, a connection to her. We did lose mom, but not before she had the last word. She fought to return to us and refused to give up. In the end, it was her body that failed her, not her mind. We miss her, and I have since escaped into the many pages of multiple stories. I have not returned to the pages of Brooklyn, nor have I seen the movie again. I guess the pain of memory is still too strong. Today, however, with the Oscars looming on the horizon, I am reminded of this sweet novel and how it gave me one last connection with my mom.