I invite my colleagues to help me. It is an intimate group: six friends, different ages, different races, different backgrounds, all women. Another woman writes her responses because she can not make our meeting. The meeting place is stark–a conference room hidden behind a lab in the cancer center where I work.
The place is somehow wrong. I usually read on my living room sofa or stretched across a chair on my back screened porch. My dog is usually lurking about–sometimes sprawled across me or underfoot, always within petting range. Or I read in bed–soft mattress, very washed linens that cool me. In my bed, the dog is banished, though he walks through the room now and then to check on me. It feels strange to be meeting in a stark conference room to discuss something that feels intimate to me. We are discussing how “A Small, Good Thing,” feels in this conference room off a hallway full of labs.
The story itself evolve for Carver. The first version seemed dark and bleak; the second full of some important light. It began as a rather sinister story and flowed into something altogether hopeful. I still remember reading the version that won the O. Henry prize. I remember reading it and thinking that I knew this story and knew how it would end. And then, out of nowhere, I realized it had been revised. The new ending took my breath away. It felt like I was moving through a new country, moving past some point I had visited before and into a new, critical place that I had overlooked the first time around. I have read it probably once a year since the early 80s. The final paragragh still takes my breath away:
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
When I first began to think about my idea, which was simply to create a seminar for a small group of cancer patients who would read a few pieces of short fiction and who might find comfort, this story is the first one that entered my mind. My idea has evolved, just as Carver’s story evolved. Lots of cancer centers have book groups, but nearly always the selections are about cancer or written by cancer survivors. I find this to be the problem with our treatment of cancer patients. We think that what they need is simply information, that the information is what they long for. Surely, they need information about their disease and its treatment. But I think they need a great deal more. For most, a cancer diagnosis is not simply a clinical problem. Rather, it is larger and existential in nature. I believe that an existential problem needs fiction.
I remember after my only sister became very ill and was dying, reading the sentence: They swallowed the dark bread. It was a time when the light of the ending could not be felt or experienced.
This is what I imagine might be of benefit to someone who is experiencing an existential crisis.
So as the idea evolved, I knew I would need help as I searched for the right stories. I thought that “A Small, Good Thing,” should be one of the stories. But I knew I needed to check myself and not be blinded by my own taste, my own notion of comfort. I know it is important that the fiction be short and easily read, and I needed to see if my choices met these criteria. And then there is the real problem–one person’s comfort is another person’s controversy. I decide then that I had better “test” the stories. My colleagues agreed to be my testers. Talking to them about the fiction would be good practice for offering the seminar to patients.
And so my friends tell me what they think:
“It was distant, choppy. The end glazed over the real feelings. It didn’t comfort me.”
“I did not like the way the African American family was portrayed. I felt it was stereotypical, and I found the word negro objectionable.”
“The role of food worked for me. It is such a part of my culture to make sure that the family of the deceased eat, and I identified with that.”
“I found it comforting, and I think patients would too.”
“It felt dated. I couldn’t identify with the circumstances. I wanted to know more.”
One reader is startled when I ask the questions I have prepared. I have ask what for me is the central question, How did the story make you feel? There is a kind of silence. I direct the question to one friend, and she says that she never reads “like that.” She says that she takes a more academic approach, less personal. I am reminded of my thesis defense when one of the members of my committee asked me why I had decided to study the fiction of Joan Didion, and I said, “Because her writing saved my life.” The silence that followed seemed to contain volumes then. In that silence, I felt exposed and I suddenly saw myself clearly. I knew that my thesis was adequate, that I would be awarded my MA. But I also knew that I was not a scholar, that I would never apply to a PhD program. I knew that I was just a reader. It feels good to be reminded that I am just a reader.
There is more discussion about the story itself–the pain that it might evoke because of the subject matter of the death of a child, the potential avenues that might steer the discussion if someone latches on the notion of prayer that is mentioned by the mother of the child. I hadn’t thought of that. What if in the course of trying to offer comfort, I create a forum for someone who wants to convert? The thought chills me.
Will this story work? Should it be added to the Canon of Comfort I am searching for? Most say yes, but a few say no. I fight the urge to plead the case for its inclusion. I ask someone to read the last paragraph, thinking Carver’s words will fill the room and sway them.