The Faulkes Chronicle
David Huddle
(Tupelo Press)
Karen Seifert Faulkes has a stupendous job. She and husband Delmer have, between the two of them, produced a mountain of children who seem to be relatively normal, content, smart, self-realized. They don't smoke dope, they get along with each other without shouting and hitting, they take turns changing diapers on the youngest, they keep the peace. The whole thing works well on a managerial as well as the human level.

We are introduced to Karen Seifert Faulkes at the moment she is to announce that she has cancer and that she's going to die. Our author is quick to strangle any built-in sentimentality in the crib as it were. Karen says that her oncologist has told her that "continuing my life should be my constant choice." He told her that the children "should be aware of my choosing, [but] I think how I die and when I let it happen is my business,"

    You children will have to forgive me --- I really don't want to discuss it with you. My death is not up for debate or an argument. I'll listen --- believe me, I'll listen. I'll hear you. I might be able to find some things to say to you.

Thus it is a given, and we can forget the tear-ducts. They aren't any part of the game plan.

Karen comes off from the start as a tough cookie, but we also are drawn to her --- as everyone seems to be drawn to her --- by her single-mindedness, her no-nonsense, and too, her astonishing beauty. "In our immediate family," the narrator tells us, "we do not lightly use the word betrayal when we speak of our mother's evolution into prettiness and away from absolute Faulkesness. Disturbing as the mere fact of her coming death is to us, we're hurt more by the doubt we've inherited from her treachery."

    If our mother can reject so much of what she's taught us, so much of what she's represented to us as worthwhile, then was there any truth to her teaching in the first place? "We are talking about metaphysical uncertainty here," says our brother, Robert, who's recently taken a course in existential literature at Bard.

So we begin the Chronicle with a paradox. Cancer often turns one gray and drab but has, in Karen's case, made her gorgeous. Our anonymous narrator --- presumably one of the children --- reports that she "betrayed us by becoming pretty." When she starts treatment, "chemo rearranged her face, thinned her down, installed into her repertoire of facial expressions a grimace that had every appearance of a starlet's smile."

    Our mother's baldness made her look delicate and vulnerable.

§   §   §

In this first unlikely stroke in the book, Huddle defies the clichés of sickness, turns the Chronicle into a fairy tale, not with a woman who "had so many children she didn't know what to do," but a dying mother who becomes beautiful, and even more loving. She was already sensible, now she's a queen. The business of dying sensibly and well becomes the business of the whole family, even the reader) and there' s no nonsense about it at all.

Like most fairy tales, there are some puzzles that the author chooses not to address. What kind of cancer is it that makes it so that even your oncologist falls in love with you? And how can a father who has a lowly job of a high-school principal make enough to feed and clothe such a giant crew of a family. And how many of them are there, anyway? The accountant I carry around on my back couldn't figure it out, so I began to note down every time a new kid popped out of the woodwork.

There's Carlton, and Desiree also known as Desi and Isobel and Jessica. There's Delmer Junior, and Pruney and the oldest Peter (studying at Bard), and the second oldest Jane. Isn't that enough? No: Patricia appears, and Patrick and Susan and Jack and Leopold who still has to have his diapers changed. And John Milton! Creighton and Robert and Eli and . . . it's those clowns that keep popping out of the tiny car in the middle of the circus?

Finally, the author relents, near the end, by taking us on a magical mystery tour, on a bus with mother up front and all the family and various friends and nurses and doctors --- yes the oncologist goes along too --- bringing Karen to the three places she had been that left her with the most cherished memories . . . including the National Gallery on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D. C., where she can revisit, for one last time, Vermeer's "Girl in the Red Hat."

Say who? Because --- according to the author ---

    What's in this painted girl's face is an intensity of composure: in this moment she's perfectly herself. And the hat --- that extravagant angled whirligig of a hat --- takes it from the state of mind directly beneath it . . .

Herein burns a life! It's not unlike Karen and her cancer. It's big. She is too. And as her life burns out, she continues to burn with it.

    Three hundred years ago that girl was once powerfully alive. And though the girl's bones must by now have dissolved into nothingness, this painting is a living thing.

§   §   §

Karen wants to revisit those places at last to thank the people who had made her life whole, a treat (not just a treatment). Friend Sally ends up on the bus, talking with the children, one by one, beginning with Emily (who gets a goat every birthday), and Peter (who reads old love-letters between Karen and Delmer) --- and then there's Desi and Jane and Susan and Carlton; and finally Delmer Junior who "is the last of us to sit down with Sally.

Junior shows a touch of resistance to everything that's going on: "All this family had done for this whole year is try to help our mother die" (which --- -when you think about it --- may be a sensible goal for a family as large and comfortable as this one)

Me, I'm comfortable with it too. Because my CPA finally found a number to pin on the Faulkes family, excluding mom and dad: thirty-one.

One father; one mother . . . and thirty-one children.

The Faulkes Chronicle is a fairy tale, of sorts, and like fairy tales, there's a princess. And a witch. Our princess is named Karen. And the witch is named "Cancer." Unremitting, greedy, always taking, never giving.

Except . . . with yet another side . . . one that we often don't let ourselves learn about. It is called ownership.

There's a passage, one of the patches of gold that turns up as we go down this last road, the one where Karen's sweetest memories lie. At first. there is some doubt about Karen's ability to make it. After all, she's fragile, dying. But Jessica appears on the scene, spends an hour or so with Karen so they can decide what to do; and what Jessica learns is a refreshing view of the body; the body's place as our personal map, what we used to call the Gestalt.

Karen preaches ownership of everything. You have to claim all you have whether you wanted it or not when it came along. She says that her body must be "scary" to her many children because there's so little left of it. "But, you live in your body over time," she says, "and it begins to make sense to you."

During all this time you spend with it --- it's you, after all; you know it in and out, as it were: "You know why it got strong or weak, fat or thin, saggy or tight." And

    If it's your body, you get along with it. Even pain. If it's yours, you don't argue with it.

    Even if it makes you scream, the pain is yours . . . and you understand it.

--- Lolita Lark
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