Judith Guest, the acclaimed author of Ordinary People,
offers up her latest novel. The story of a young family coming to terms
with the premature loss of husband and father, Errands paints an
honest portrayal of the everyday ordeals that accompany the process of
mourning and moving on.
Keith, a warm and witty English teacher and father of three, is dying
of a brain tumor. Annie, his briskly in-control wife, is denying
the possibility of his death, stubbornly believing that when Keith
starts chemotherapy, he will start healing. But the worst happens on
a family vacation before the treatments have even been started, and
Annie finds herself thrust into the role of sole provider for their
children. Out of the workplace for 17 years, 36-year old Annie
struggles to find a job that will at least keep ends met while trying
to live somehow with her fresh grief.
Annie's own pain becomes a barrier between her and her children, who
are each trying to come to terms with their own loss. Harry, the
eldest at thirteen, becomes brooding and withdrawn, spending his time
with a new rebellious friend. Jimmy, the middle peacemaker child,
grows increasingly fascinated with the possibility of communicating
with his dead father through the ancient rites and powers of the
Druids. And Julie, the nine-year-old baby of the family, starts
skipping school and lying, beginning a written journal to record all
the things she's done that she can't tell anybody about.
While the children argue more and more, and she herself engages in an
exhausting battle of wills with a superior at her new job, Annie finds
that she no longer has control over her new life. Her sister Jess,
who is in a precarious relationship with a soon-to-be-divorced man,
offers to Annie as much support as she can. When a potential tragedy
strikes the family again, Annie and her children are finally able to
give voice to their grief. In the process, they realize that though
theyare all irrevocably changed, together they can and will endure.
Unrelentingly despairing Errands is not. Guest tempers
the pain with gentle humor. When Annie comes home from job-hunting one
day to find a lamp that she's secretly always hated broken, she
summons the children to explain:
"What was the point of leaving it here for me to
find? Or were you hoping I wouldn't notice?"
"We knew you'd notice," Jimmy says, and she laughs
suddenly, the whole thing striking her as ridiculous. They
look at each other, not believing their luck.
"Does that mean you're not mad?" Jimmy asks.
"No, I'm not mad. I've hated it for years. But how
did it happen?"
They can't wait to tell her; the words wrestling,
gymnastics, and karate feature prominently in the story.
And Julie, endearingly precocious, makes sage observations on family
dynamics and her own experience in her continuing journal:
Today we went to grandma and grandpa's for dinner and Mom
and grandpa got in a fight at the dinner table. He called
her a goddamn liveral and after that nobody said anything
but pass the meat pass the potatoes pass the peas...All day
long Grandma kept saying bless your heart to me. I am the
only one she ever says it to. Every time she does it Harry
and Jimmy make a mark in the air like they're keeping track.
Once she said bless your little heart and they counted that
Ultimately, Annie and her children start down the long road toward
healing and acceptance, and the memories of Keith begin to be
something that don't always have to bring pain:
Make peace with what is, he told her. Last November,
even before they truly believed in it. Whatever happens, it
will be okay. You will still have yourself. And that he has
said to her right here. In this very place. That first week
of June, when they arrived here.
Farther down the beach, she can see a sign. She tries
to focus her eyes, can only make out part of it:
A good way to be, then. Positively. On this beach.
For now, maybe nothing more has to be known.
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