Elfrieda is a successful, internationally-known musician with a loving husband. Her younger sister Yolandi is a struggling writer, a single mother with poor judgement when it comes to men, and two children by two different fathers. Elfrieda is the one who keeps trying to kill herself.
Elf took my hand, weakly, like an old dying person, and looked deeply into my eyes.
Yoli, she said, I hate you.
I bent to kiss her and whispered that I knew that, I was aware of it. I hate you too, I said.
It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.
Sometimes, all the love in the world is not enough. Sometimes, we are given impossible dilemmas. Mental illness is as mysterious for the patient as it is for that person's family. There are hard truths in All My Puny Sorrows, and also the healing rays of forgiveness. This is Toews' best book yet.
By the time I'd finished reading, my copy was full of little flags marking favourite passages. I've copied some below, to make it easier for me to revisit them. Read on if you like. (No spoilers ahead.)
When [Nic] came back to the table he asked me to look at his eyes.
They're seeping, he said. Like I have an infection or something.
Pink eye? I asked.
I don't know, he said. They always seem to be running, just clear liquid, not pus. I lie in bed and all this liquid dribbles out the sides. Maybe I should see a doctor, or optometrist or something.
You're crying, Nic.
Yes. That's what they call crying.
But all the time? he asked. I'm not even conscious of it then.
It's a new kind of crying, I said. For new times.
Yoli, she said, I'm just saying that apologies aren't the bedrock of civilized society. All right! I said. I agree. But what is the bedrock of civilized society? Libraries, said Elf.
All right, so the brain is an organ that's made to solve problems so if the problem is life and its unlivability then a rational, working brain would choose to end it. No? I didn't know what to do. It felt like someone was throwing darts at the side of my head, five seconds apart. It sounded naive to me now and selfish and fearful to say you must live, you must want to live, you have to live. That's your one imperative, the single rule of the universe. Our family had once been one of those with normal crises like a baby (okay, two babies) born out of wedlock. Now I couldn't think or write. My fingers hated me. I was afraid that when I went to sleep I'd wake to find them wrapped around my throat.
Look, he said. I'm not interested in passing a notebook back and forth between us and waiting while she scribbles things down. It's ridiculous.
I know, I said. I understand. It can be laborious but I'm just, I mean, you're a shrink, right, so you must have seen this sort of thing before?
Of course I understand it, he said, I just don't have time for it.
No? I ask.
Look, he says, if she wants to get better she'll have to make an attempt to communicate normally. That's all I'm saying.
My phone was buzzing away, texts from men wanting divorces and children wanting me to condone underage sex and kill insects from three thousand kilometres away.
I kissed my aunt and she held me tightly, incredible strength for a pre-op heart patient, and looked me in the eye. Yolandi, she said, give my love to Elfrieda. Tell her I love her and tell her that I know she loves me too. She needs to hear that.
I promised I would and turned to go.
Also! called my aunt from her bed. We are Loewens! (That was their maiden name - my mother's and Tina's.) That means lions!
I smiled and nodded - and I murmured to the nurse passing me that my aunt was the king of the jungle so please handle her with care. The nurse laughed and squeezed my arm. Nurses in cardio are far more playful and friendly than they are in psych.
If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.
I googled: can writing a novel kill you? And found nothing useful.
My mother was often asked to write eulogies because she had a breezy style that was playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating.
[A friend] told me that she's been worrying about me so much, it must be awful, everything I've been going through, and that in her opinion 'to die by one's own hand' is always a sin. Always. Because of the suffering it causes the survivors. I asked her what about all the people who suffer because of assholes who are alive? Is it a sin for the assholes to keep on living?
The girls had to pee and I suggested they do it into a cup and throw it under the front steps to keep the skunks away, like the renovation crew guys had recommended. Don't worry about my mother, Nora told her friends, she's a hippie. When she was a girl she had nothing to play with but the wind. You don't have to pee into a cup. We have a washroom.
It was all familiar to me, the gurneys in Emergency, but hers was a cardio case not a head case so there were no lectures from the staff, no righteous psych nurse demanding of her: why won't you behave?
Will carried Zoe on his back and zoomed up and down and lost one of her flip-flops so we had to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life.