Twenty years ago at a writers conference in California, I was lucky to make friends with an energetic, irreverent woman, Jane, and one of her teenaged daughters, Rose. This was around the same time my wife and I were deciding if and when to start a family, and Jane, having a big head start in that department, shared a lot of parenthood wisdom I was grateful for.
A few nights after I got home from the conference, Jane sent a funny email telling me to disregard anything positive she had said about having kids. Her daughters were driving her crazy; she couldn’t get any writing done. Her best parenting advice at the moment, she said, was don’t do it!
Twelve hours later, Jane emailed again to say she didn’t mean it. In fact, she wanted to take back every negative thing she had ever said about being a parent. That afternoon, she wrote, Rose had been driving with a friend when an oncoming truck crossed the center line and caused a collision. Both girls were killed.
Ever since then, I have struggled to get my head around what Rose’s death and its aftermath must have been like for Jane. If I’m being honest, the thought of it all was often too terrifying and too heartbreaking to even contemplate, especially after my wife and I had a daughter of our own two years later.
The shock and pain of Rose’s death came back to me as I read “The Crucible,” by Ian Bassingthwaighte. What opens as the story of conjoined twins Paige and Emma becomes the story of their parents, Alistair and Johanna, when, only three paragraphs in, the girls die of pneumonia at age 12. What follows is an exquisite meditation on grief and loss, limned by Bassingthwaighte’s distinctive, bittersweet humor. More than anything else I’ve read, the story made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Jane might have gone through in those awful first days after Rose died. What struck me most is the story’s intricate intertwining of love and loss. The strangely beautiful ending—which finds Alistair and Johanna breaking into the local mortuary—reminded me of how Jane ended that second email. “You and Deborah should make your family just as you want it,” Jane wrote. “No guts, no glory.”