Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente

When I started to read this book, just a few weeks ago, I had a mother. By the time I finished it, I didn’t have a mother anymore. I’d been orphaned at age 39 just as surely as any of the children in any of the fairy tales that Valente is riffing on, often brilliantly, in this book.

And yet this book will remain forever entangled with the last few weeks in my memory. I started reading it on the train to be there for my Mother’s surgery, surgery that didn’t have precisely the outcome we wanted, but which still was an answer that gave us a lot of hope and years.

I read about Coyote in a small-town America high school, about a detective who finds which story you belong in, and many other stories as I sat in the hospital room in between fetching warm blankets to keep my mother warm and take care of her, while my sister tucked her in and washed her face. I read about a demon expelled from Hell to New England and the struggle for the Bride of the World as we started to think about chemo and radiation, how we would be there for her and her new partner through difficult times.

And although this review is going to be largely about what I’ve gone through, let me say that these stories were the perfect damned accompaniment, entertaining and thought-provoking.

I returned home to my husband reading a brilliant Handmaid’s Talesque take on a Nuclear America with McCarthy as president, and a world above the clouds where words were not the words they meant. Another place where wolves stalked the streets of Brooklyn

Then I didn’t read it for about a week, sinking back into my life and getting used to the idea that things had changed and there were new things we had to deal with. And those themes resonated with these stories.

Then, a week and a half ago, my sister called with the news that my mother had just had a major stroke, and for a couple of reasons, the stroke unit could do none of the near-miraculous things they can do for strokes these days. To get there as soon as we could. I got there just as she was sliding into unconsciousness - I think she saw me, but I’ll never know for sure. We were told that in 48 hours, her brain would “declare itself” and we’d find out if she was going to ever regain any function, or if we were going down the path of palliative care. We were gently reminded the latter was more likely.

I read more of these stories while sitting in vigil with my husband in her room, trading off every five or six hours with my sister and my mother’s significant other. The world took on a strange unreality that comes from being detached from the passage of time or usual sleeping or eating patterns as I read about the Bronte siblings’ inner life made manifest. I read while we were waiting, after we’d started to make plans, if palliative care was the way we were going, to take her home for her last days. I was numb.

I had just started reading “Silently and Very Fast,” a story I’d always wanted to read, something that is a little bit Pinocchio and a whole lot unique, about an emerging AI, when her breathing changed and I called for a nurse, and the nurse asked if my sister was on her way yet, and when I asked if I should call her, she said yes, and I did, and at the end, we never made it to palliative care. The vigil didn’t last until my other sister had made her way back from New Zealand. In the space of the story when I put it down, while one sister was in the air, and the other sister was driving herself and my mother’s partner to the hospital as fast as she could, my mother died.

I’ve been witness to both my parents dying, now, and other than the part of me that wants to scream at the sky for the unfairness of it all, I am struck, again, by how nebulous that moment is. It’s not like in the movies or literature, where the moment of death is obvious. It's not that there’s a switch turning off. Both times, it’s been a little unclear and indistinct. You can put your finger on the minute or couple of minutes, but not on the second. I’d like to see that truth, someday, in something I read.

I finished this book after my mother’s life was suddenly, and so unfairly, over, still sleep deprived and in pain, with that melancholy story of the boundaries between self and other, between machine and human, easing my own passage into the land of grief, where I’ll be for a while. The answers in "Silently and Very Fast" were unexpected and so right, just as I was going through something so wrong. Weirdly, that fit.

There are not many books that would have been good companions for this voyage that I never ever wanted to take. Most would have sat wrongly, or hurt. But not this one. Between her language, and her stories, Catherynne Valente’s voice was with me in stress and in pain and in quiet moments of waiting and hurting, and it was the right voice for that moment.


  1. I read and enjoy your reviews here and on Goodgreads, and I just wanted to say how sorry I am for your loss.

  2. My condolences, Megan. I too have lost both parents, although mine died within 3 weeks of one another. I am so glad you have your husband and sisters to share your grief. Take special care of yourself.

    1. Thank you, Wanda. I'm trying, and am surrounded by wonderful people.