Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

Life After LifeLife After Life
Jill McCorkle
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
First Edition: March 26, 2013
ISBN 978-1-56512-255-0

Joanna has returned to her childhood home of Fulton, North Carolina, to be with her father in his last days; something she was not able to do for her mother.  Afterwards, she ended up staying, taking over the running of the family business, a hole-in-the-wall fast food joint named Hot Dog which, appropriately, serves only hot dogs but has a dazzling array of condiments.

Joanna also volunteers as a hospice worker at the Pine Haven retirement center, easing transitions between this life and the next for residents and their families.  She keeps two journals during her sessions:  an official one that is given to the nursing supervisor, and a personal one of which we get to glimpse; a memorial, and a devotional for all who have passed:  Keep us close, keep us alive, don’t let us disappear.

It is Pine Haven that unites many of the characters in the book, and its rooms provide a touchstone for much of what transpires.  Some of these characters we meet only in passing, others never leave the retirement home in anything other than a memory (or a hearse).  Some seek Pine Haven out, some come to it on a whim, and some retreat into it.  Some work there, some visit, many reside, but once there, there is little concern about leaving.

Yet this book is not about death.  Quite the opposite – it is about life, and how we handle what is dealt us, whether sweet or hard.  Had the characters in the book been high school students, then who was doing what with whom and varying levels of popularity would be the constants, or had they been lawyers then it would have been all about office politics and the bottom line.  As it is, the book is about people in and associated with an old folks’ home, and therefore death is always present – but not omnipresent.

And it’s not just old people.  Yes, there are puritanical Marge, irreverent Toby, profane Stanley, and sassy Rachel, all giving us their various points of view.  And there is the gracious peace-maker, Sadie, the oldest resident at age 85, who taught 3rd grade in Fulton for forty years and believes everyone is 8 years old in their hearts.  But there is also C.J., the tattooed and heavily pierced young (unwed) mother who rooms with Joanna above the Hot Dog and works at the retirement center washing hair and giving out manicures, pedicures and foot massages.  And Abby, 12 years old, who lives across the cemetery from Pine Haven and has made the residents there her safe haven from a caustic home and bitter hearth.

These characters and more, and their relatives and others from their pasts and their memories and their reactions to daily life and each other, all weave in and around to tell a story of a place and a time that is sometimes charming, but at other times is alarming, uncomfortable, heart wrenching and occasionally affirming.  By telling so many stories in so many voices, author Jill McCorkle paints a very real and compelling picture of how all our lives are in some ways lost and that we all are ultimately alone, and yet we all have ways to not only cope, but occasionally find happiness, or at least contentment.

The longest and most expensive journey is the one to yourself.  Luke liked to add that some people never even purchase a ticket, some only get halfway, some stand like Moses glimpsing the Promised Land, which he maintained was, for all practical purposes, about as good as getting there.

Written with a light, lyrical hand, author McCorkle treats aging, life and death honestly, respectfully, and often in a way that can only be called wickedly amusing.  Her characters are larger than life and yet so very ordinary; there is no apology for the strong personalities that constantly rub elbows (and bump wheelchairs) in Pine Haven’s hallways, and no excuses for the insensitivity and callousness that can exist outside of them.  And in amongst all the here and nows, the pains of the moment and the hopes for the future, for others if not for themselves, are the memories and the reminiscences and that which will always live on.

Her last words were to Kathryn, spoken two days before she died.   “Honey, do you have homework?”  She had asked that question hundreds of times over the years and if Kathryn did not have homework, the two of them went shopping.  Lois Flowers loved her daughter and she loved to shop.  Kathryn said that all of their important conversations took place during those little shopping trips.  What to expect when you start your period.  Why you got that bad grade.  Why a sassy mouth is not a good thing.  How your reputation is your most prized possession.  Why you should always do your best.  Why good hygiene is a must.  What boys do and do not have good sense about or control over.  Those topics were often whispered over the lunch counter at Wood’s Dimestore where Kathryn got a cherry Coke or a milkshake and Lois got a cup of black coffee, her red lipstick staining the fat lip of the heavy white mug.

Yet there is a story here, too, and a dynamic one.  There is drama, and suspense and heartbreak that has nothing to do with aging.  Parts of it are devastating, and there are no guarantees that every ending will be happy.  But at its heart, this story reflects life, with its triumphs, disappointments, injustices, and always, inexplicably, regardless, and enduringly, with its love, no matter how that love is expressed, and no matter how much time is left to share it.

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