A painful accounting of change wrought by traumatic events

March 08, 1992|By Diane Scharper


Diane Cole.

Summit Books.

208 pages. $20. With her perfectly coiffed brown hair and sunken, jaundiced cheeks, the woman strains to sit up straight beside the steel frame of the wheelchair. The woman's face with its expression "of somber gauntness, . . . of dignity despite pain looks familiar yet strangely alien."

It was this face that Diane Cole would see again 15 years later, when she returned to her girlhood home in Baltimore. She would see it, though, on a home movie screen. The screen would show Ms. Cole's brother, Jeffrey, looking more serious than celebratory on the occasion of his graduation from medical school.

And it would show a woman who seems to be a stranger. As her daughter explains it in her first and sensitively written book, "After Great Pain, A New Life Emerges": "I recoil. It is my mother, but it is not my mother. It is Mom's body wasted by cancer."

Ms. Cole's account of her mother's death from cancer is the most painful experience in this book that explores the place of pain in our lives. Looking at several traumatic events -- her fiancee's serious illness, her mother's cancer, her own experience in which she was taken hostage for three days, and her inability to bear children -- Ms. Cole tries to figure out how such situations change us.

As she sees it, we cannot "get over" these events: We must let them become part of us. It is from events of this magnitude, moreover, that artists create art.

Montaigne's "Essays," Ms. Cole writes, were prompted by the death of his friend. "I needed what I once had, a certain relationship to lead me on, sustain me, and, raise me up," Montaigne said in explanation of his writing. If his friend had lived, he went on, he would have had no reason to make his thoughts public, but would have written private letters instead.

Ms. Cole's book also was prompted by loss. It is deeply moving, thought-provoking -- yet somewhat out of balance. And the author puts too much material -- some psychology, some literary history, some personal history -- into too few pages.

Saying this, I add that much of the book is gut-wrenching -- the part dealing with her mother's illness is an example. Since my father recently died from cancer, I found this section riveting. It was painful to read. Ms. Cole, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, makes her readers feel what she writes.

If you've lost anyone to cancer, you may find certain passages hard going. They will certainly bring back memories. I couldn't help but remember my dad, for example, and how he fought his illness, just as Ms. Cole's mother did.

Like her, he made it for a couple of years. Then, despite our love, despite his best efforts, despite the best efforts of his doctor, who was both compassionate and brilliant, my dad succumbed. So when I read about Ms. Cole's mother, a line from Shakespeare -- the same line that occurred to me when my dad was sick -- came to mind: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

Just days before death came, Ms. Cole explains, her mother could not lift her hand to eat. She could barely grasp her daughter's hand. Her face had been stripped bare of everything but determination. This last face was so filled with the gritty ache of determination and the anguish of ending that it came to supersede all the other faces.

It was to this face that Ms. Cole would say goodbye. She would say that goodbye not through words spoken to a dying woman,

but through the words of this book.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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