Local author Kate Hancock captures the minute details of the unfolding family drama in “The Baggage Car: A Journey of Remembrance.” The “baggage” is metaphorical in nature; the resentments between mothers and daughters over two generations — grandmother Kathleen and one of her daughters, Laura, and Laura and her daughter Maxi. Hancock will give a book talk at the Oak Bluffs library on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 6 pm.
The story is set out at the very beginning. Maxi is rushing home from college to her beloved grandmother’s side — she’s just had a grave stroke, and landed in the hospital. Even though her mother, Laura, and her Aunt Rose are traveling in from Europe, it is Maxi who is Kathleen’s healthcare proxy, putting her in a difficult position of deciding whether or not she will have to pull the plug.
Kathleen and Maxi may have a strong, loving relationship, but high-powered attorney Laura has a good relationship with neither her daughter nor her mother. The cause of the family strain remains a mystery until close to the end of the novel, but Maxi and Laura’s sparring starts from the very beginning. They snipe at each other throughout, despite all Aunt Rose’s efforts to broker peace. Maxi rightly feels abandoned by Laura, who left her with Kathleen to raise as she pursued her ever-more-important law career, seemingly caring more for her clients than her own daughter. At one point she explains to the nurse who has befriended her, “Mom never wanted to be a mother. I was an ‘oops’ baby. Her last year in law school, she was dating my dad and — you know. Suddenly she was preggers. Nobody knew until after she’d gotten her law degree … She always thought they would have expelled her if they’d found out.” Laura became a workaholic civil rights attorney, traveling constantly and leaving her daughter with Kathleen, which Maxi insists was the best thing that ever happened to her.
Maxi, who is first to learn about Kathleen’s stroke, finally reaches her mother, who is in Europe on business, by phone. This very first conversation between them foreshadows the dynamic of what’s to come in the following days by Kathleen’s bedside.
“Mom — God you’re hard to find.”
“Gran — she’s had a stroke. They’re taking her to Lenox Hill [hospital] …”
“Well typical — your grandmother could not have worse timing.”
Maxi gritted her teeth.
“Can you come?”
“Of course, I’ll come. I’m sure there are important decisions to be made.”
“Mom, you know Gran wants me to make them.”
“We’ll see about that, young lady.”
Hancock paints Kathleen as a spunky grandmother who believes that sometimes ice cream and cupcakes make a perfectly fine dinner. Yet she doesn’t spoil Maxi, and disciplines her when necessary, but always kindly. Hancock writes that although “Baggage Car” is a work of fiction, some characters are based on “people I love and wished to honor. Most notably among these is my paternal grandmother, a feisty little Irish lady who taught me one of life’s most important lessons: Eat dessert first.” In the book, Hancock has Maxi describe Kathleen as “amazing! She’s 78, a breast cancer survivor, and the strongest woman I’ve ever met. She’s a devout Catholic, but not the pushy kind, if you know what I mean. Gran just lives her faith, and she doesn’t think everybody else has to believe what she believes.”
The central dilemma is what Maxi will do about Kathleen’s care. When she first arrives at the hospital, and her mom and aunt haven’t yet arrived, she’s updated on her condition by the nurse, who plays her own part in the family reconciliation and helping Maxi come to terms with her impending loss: “Maxi, Kathleen is in a coma. She has had a severed stroke with bleeding in her brain … The EEGs indicate a progressive loss of brain activity. I am fairly certain that at some point it will become difficult for your grandmother to breathe on her own, and you will need to decide if you wish to put her on a ventilator to breathe for her.”
Maxi clings to the hope that she could get better. She’s counseled to let her go, to which Maxi responds, “She’s the most important person in my life. The one who has always truly loved me, cared about me, cared for me. How can I let her go?”
The family is told to sit by Kathleen and talk to her, because coma patients who have woken up have reported hearing their loved ones speak. Hancock uses Maxi and Laura’s reminiscences to fill in the backstory, thus explaining the rest of the book’s title, “A Journey of Remembrance.” As the story unfolds, the collective memories lead us to an understanding of the history behind their motivations and attitudes.
Navigating the end of life, one’s own or that of others, whether witnessing or being involved in decisionmaking, is never easy. Hancock explores the journey it takes in one particular family that we get to know very well.
“The Baggage Car: A Journey of Remembrance” by Kate Hancock. Archway Publishing, 219 pages. Available online.