One more reason I read fiction…

Rebecca Brown’s 1994 book The Gifts of the Body follows a homecare worker as she cares for HIV and AIDS patients.  This is an open letter to the author.

Dear Ms. Brown,

I spent some time with your book this winter.  The first time I picked up my paperback copy I read it quickly – the clear, simple prose held me close, kept me moving.  I read more slowly the next time around.  I poured over each chapter on cold Sunday evenings hoping that my students were shut in their dorm rooms doing the same.  As I read I remembered the AIDS epidemic of my teens – the scary, calculated sex education that felt like a legal brief on the death penalty.  As I prepared for my classes I tried to assemble the facts for my students.  I found timelines and journal articles.  I watched clips of Magic Johnson and Ryan White.  I wanted to give them background and context so they’d understand the story.

When the class met for the first time, my students surprised me.  I expected fear and misconceptions about AIDS and the gay community.  I’d been warned about their ignorance – the Millennial picture of HIV is a healthy NBA star.  But their compassion and understanding shocked me.  The book’s caregiver captivated my students.  They were unsurprised by her generosity; they expected her tenderness and perseverance.  My students instinctively understood that the caregiver’s ability to build relationships with the dying made room for the gifts of the body.  Our discussions progressed easily with the caregiver as our guide.  The gifts of the dying were clear to them; they embraced sweat and wholeness and tears.  They wrote about perspective and grace.  They got it.

I, however, was a little slower on the up-take.

Three weeks after I’d shelved your book in my office, I ended up in Southern California for my uncle’s funeral.  His bed was still in the living room when I got there.  Someone had moved the wheel chair out and packed up the sheets and pillows, but the little corded box that moved the hospital bed up and down was still in the middle of the room.  The bed hummed in the background of every conversation.  I think I tripped over the cord seven times before I wondered aloud about the empty bed overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  My dad yanked the cord from the wall plug and the room went quiet.

By Sunday afternoon the bed was gone and the room was full of tables and flowers and people.   We celebrated my uncle’s life with rich food, good wine, and laughter.  That evening I sat at a corner table with my oldest brother.  As we visited with our tablemates, we realized we were surrounded by Bob’s caregivers.  One man told us how he’d balanced our aunt’s dinner plates on broom sticks to entertain our bedridden uncle.  A woman told us about how even at the end when ALS had taken nearly all of him, Bob loved to see his little dog, Whimsy, on the edge of the couch.  Another woman brought three perfect calla lilies wrapped in brown paper.  They were Bob’s favorite.

Books have always been some of my best companions.  They line my walls and keep me company.  But at times in the classroom, I struggle to communicate the true importance of reading fiction.  My students quickly found the point of strongest connection in your stories.  It was the scholar who needed to be hit upside the head.  Without The Gifts of the Body, I would have left that living room knowing less about my family.  I would not have paid enough mind to the hours and hours those three strangers spent sitting with a man I loved.  I would not have known how death really looks.  I needed fiction to remind me to pay attention.


– S

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