Hey, friends. I started to write this before Christmas and couldn’t get the words out. The holiday season is a recent memory, but I’m still swapping stories with friends about fraught family encounters—gatherings filled with family drama fueled by sentiments left unsaid for too long. I’d intended to post this then, as a note to self to not let the important things go unspoken. But there’s really nothing seasonal about this, so here goes.
In October, in North Carolina, I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t mind as much as I should have. If you’re an avid reader, as I am, a sleepless night has its upside: lots and lots of pages read. I couldn’t sleep, so I took my novel to the bathroom (so as not to wake my friend), and read the last hundred pages sitting on the cold tile, my back resting against the tub.
The book was Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place, our February MMD Book Club pick, though I didn’t know that at the time. I love the way O’Farrell portrays an intricate web of family relationships, and how she deftly illustrates how when it comes to the people we love, the smallest moments matter.
In the book, an otherwise unconnected character visits for a brief interlude, a messenger of sorts. This woman—a 68-year-old whose life has not gone as she planned, nor as she wished—shares an important conversation with our protagonist. (On a mountain top, if I remember correctly. Make of that what you will.) The woman’s marriage has ended, and badly, and she explains her theory: “marriages end not because of something you did say but because of something you didn’t.” In her relationship, something important had gone unsaid. With time, the damage became irremediable.
(“So all I have to do now is work out what he didn’t say? That’s it?” our protagonist asks. “Were you not listening?” she says. “It’s not exactly straightforward.”)
I finished the book in the bathroom that night. If I had to endure a sleepless night, I couldn’t have done any better.
I loved this book so much, and wanted to read it with the MMD Book Club—there’s so much to discuss, about the things that really matter: family, relationships, choices, actions, destiny, hope, courage, dealing with all the crap life throws you.
But one thing gave me pause. Two things, really. First, our inciting incident is a little far-fetched, but I can easily forgive one far-fetched encounter in a novel. But there’s a second, much later in the book, a random act of violence in a neighborhood drugstore. A person is shot and killed; the family is undone.
O’Farrell subsequently explores what grief does to people, to families—and she does it well. The novel worked. But I wondered if this invented scene was perhaps a bit too dramatic, for a novel obviously seeking to tell real truths about characters so real they could be our friends, our neighbors, our own family. I enjoyed the novel so much, but this scene nagged at me.
Two weeks later, our friend was shot and killed. “There’s no easy way to say this,” my husband said, before he told me the news. “That’s impossible,” I said. “He just got back from his honeymoon.”
And he had. But less than twenty-four hours later, he was shot and killed in front of his new wife, a random act of violence. It was a robbery attempt gone horribly wrong: a 15-year-old pulled the trigger, a 13-year-old drove the getaway car. If O’Farrell had put this scene in her novel, I’m not sure I would have found it believable. I see myself wondering: isn’t this scene a bit too dramatic, for characters so obviously meant to be people we could actually encounter in our real lives?
We weren’t at his wedding. The last time I saw our friend was over a year ago, drinking bourbon on our old back patio. Our friend loved bourbon. At the visitation, I told his mom about our last visit, and she smiled, saying that sounded exactly like him.
It did sound like him. But I should have seen him much more recently.
The night I should have seen our friend, we were hanging out at home. He was in the neighborhood; Will ran outside to get something and bumped into him on the sidewalk. He popped his head inside and said, “Anne, do you want to come say hi?” But it was well past dark and I was already in my pajamas, cozied on the couch with my book. Changing into jeans sounded like hard work. “Tell him hey for me,” I said.
I regret that now. How hard is it to put on pants?
I’ve been thinking about what if lately. What if we said what we meant to say, what we wanted to say, what we really thought and felt—kindly, of course, or as kindly as we could manage—to the people in our lives? What if we found the courage (or end-of-day energy) to say the things that shouldn’t go unsaid? What if we let the important unsaid things drive the plots of novels instead of the narratives of our lives? What if I’d grabbed a coat and headed outside in my pjs, and told my friend it was good to see him?
It wouldn’t have changed anything, really, but it would have changed me.