The Undiscovered Country, Backstory

When my mother passed away at age eighty-eight, my siblings and I followed all the established rituals. We gathered at her bedside, we comforted her as she struggled for her last breath. We witnessed the death spasms.  Immediately, we made arrangements for funeral and burial. At her memorial service we received all the usual sympathies from well-wishers:

“She had a long, good life.”

“She’s in a better place.”

“She lives on through your memories of her.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“She was so fortunate to have her family with her at the end.”

After the funeral we divided what remained of her mortal life.

I realized over time that everything we had done we had done for ourselves, not for our mother. I thought of the title of the Hemingway novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls. I realized that the bell tolls not for the dead, but for the living. Our rituals are designed to provide comfort for those left behind, for those whose lives now have a hole where our loved ones once lived. We think of ourselves more than we think of the needs and desires of the departed.

In reality, what my mother wanted was to live another day. If she had to go, she wanted to die to with dignity. She was horrified and embarrassed by the scene in her hospital room. Horrified by the struggle to draw one more breath. Embarrassed that we all watched her misery. She didn’t want the horrific scene to be our last memory of her; she wanted to face the unknown hereafter alone. More than that, she wanted the comfort of knowing that we’d be ok without her.

The experience of my mother’s passing inspired me to write The Undiscovered Country. The title is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and refers to the unknown afterlife. I wanted to tell the story of the conflicts that arise when a loved one passes. The protagonist, Randle, is conflicted about how to deal with his mother’s imminent passing. Should he let her go or fight for her life? Should he honor her wishes or find the truth about her life and his as well? Should he reconcile with his siblings, as she’d have wished, or succumb to the compulsion to gain revenge?

At the same time, I wanted to highlight our coarse attitudes toward the aged and the ill. After his mother passes, Randle has the following thought:

Many young people believe that an eighty-year-old person has breathed all the air, has consumed all the government benefits, has experienced all the goodness of life in America that they are due or have a right to expect, so the eighty-year-old carcass should be thrown onto the scrap heap.

An editor to whom I submitted this manuscript advised me to reduce the age of the mother who would die in the story because an eighty year old woman doesn’t inspire sympathy. She’s lived long enough. A younger character would inspire more sympathy, the editor said, because a younger person had more to lose. As a result, I found an editor with better human instincts.