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    BOOK REVIEW: Mojtabai movingly weaves life, death

    By Richard Dyer,
    The Boston Globe
    November 23, 1998

    "Soon" is a book everyone should read because it is about a subject no one wants to think about. But A. G. Mojtabai's theme - terminal illness and death - is a universal one, and she approaches it with sympathy, humor, and an educated heart.

    Sixteen years ago Mojtabai, one of America's most gifted and sensitive novelists, went to Amarillo, Texas, to do research for a magazine article that evolved into her great nonfiction book, ''Blessed Assurance,'' a study of apocalyptic religion in the town dominated by the final assembly plant for American nuclear weapons. Up until that time, Mojtabai had led an unconventional but cosmopolitan life in New York, Iran, and Cambridge, where she held an appointment at Harvard; in Amarillo she unexpectedly found home. For several years she has been a volunteer worker in the hospice at St. Anthony's Hospital in Amarillo, and the 17 miraculous stories in ''Soon'' come out of that experience.

    The stories circle around the experience of death no one can describe from within, so they are stories about the living - about the staff and volunteers of the hospice, who appear and reappear throughout the cycle of the story; about friends and families; and about the dying patients. The title of one of the stories, and the substance of all of them, remind us that the dying are ''still here.''

    They have reached the seventh of Shakespeare's ages of man, although they are not all old - there's a child, not frightened by the grim fairy tale of ''The Juniper Tree''; there's a young man, dying of AIDS, alone. They are not even sans everything, though their belongings don't amount to much. ''Ruthie's mother held tightly to the possessions in her lap, all she would ever need at this, or any, time: comb and brush, cup, tooth swabs, a cake of soap, and a small, kidney-shaped basin - they filled a pink plastic tub, not much bigger than a bread box. ... Waiting for the hospice admission procedure to begin, Ruthie would catch her consulting her empty wrist. It was hard, Ruthie guessed, to put aside such an old habit as time.'' These people are beyond wardrobe; they are without any remaining public manifestation of ''identity''; they are without hope, as most people understand that emotion; many of them can no longer speak, or don't make sense when they try. But Mojtabai's special grace is to show us that none of them is without humanity.

    There are details and anecdotes embedded in ''Soon'' that have the ring of experienced truth. Mojtabai knows the exceptional routine of daily activity in a hospice, and she knows the anecdotes they tell the tour groups - and the ones they don't. One delights in the little tale of the cowboy reunited, briefly, with his beloved horse, and the story of the baptism in the whirlpool bath. One shudders at the father who shouts into the room where his son is dying of AIDS, ''It's your own fault.''

    But most of the stories Mojtabai has had to invent, because the people she writes about were past being able to tell her anything, and as a volunteer she had no access to official medical or family information. She saw things, felt them, and wondered. A woman, keeping up appearances, a turban piled atop her head, exhausts her remaining strength writing letters; to find out what was in them, Mojtabai had to write the letters herself. A patient lay with an orchid pinned to her pillow. Mojtabai imagines how it got there, what it meant.

    The stories are utterly lucid and concrete, but mysterious. They are divided into two groups - ''Looking On'' and ''Trying to See.'' Some patients die with the consolations of religion; others do without. All of them seem to understand and accept things their friends and relatives do not, even the ones who are not prepared to give up the fight. Children play while a grandparent dies. (''`Kids help a lot,' [Amy] said, `at times like this, but there won't ever again be anybody like my father. The new doesn't cancel out the old.' `No,' Louellen agreed, `no, it doesn't.''') The stories are beyond description as ''upbeat'' or ''downbeat,'' though one patient is wheeled into the chapel to bear witness to the wedding of her favorite granddaughter, and another rides triumphantly out of the hospice in his wheelchair, ready for a hot night out on the town.

    But that happy ending, or happy postponement of the ending, is not the miracle of the specific story ''Spring Me'' or the miracle of the entire collection. Mojtabai has all the gifts of a great writer - the observant eye that misses no nuance of expressions; the ear that hears the music and the poetry behind the plain cadences of common speech; the willingness to confront her own primal fears. It isn't even the educated heart that can write. ''I [marvel] how strong families - mine is not - draw in at times like this. It's like the closing of an open wound, or the mending of a rip in a fabric, the threads drawing tighter around the tear, keeping the fabric whole.''

    The miracle is the willingness to accept what is unknowable, which is the only way to understand it. Hospice, Mojtabai reminds us in her preface, is ''as much a mode of practice as a place. ... Help comes through a mutual unfolding. And, happening to be present at a graced moment, sometimes I am startled to find - this side of death - the old barriers rolled away, stranger turning towards stranger with no other strangeness than the ease of turning.''


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