Lawyer's Reviews > A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
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Jan 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 19th-century, historical-fiction, diptheria, epidemic, quarantine, courage, duty, responsibility, sacrifice, love, loss, death, faith, marriage, leadership, 2012
Recommended to Lawyer by: Jeffrey Keeten
Recommended for: Anyone

Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living

It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. Rarely have I read a novel that I am compelled to review immediately upon completing it. But this is one.

Much has gone on in my personal life since a killer tornado passed through our town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th. Shortly afterward, my mother developed a serious case of pneumonia. Although the pneumonia was cured, she was immediately diagnosed with emphysema. A spot on the lung in an x-ray, which might have been a mere shadow was cancer. Next she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. The diagnoses were numbing. However the prognosis was good. She was released from the hospital on a relatively small amount of oxygen, small enough to allow her to travel about with one of those portable units that you've perhaps seen people walking around with, nothing more than what you might see in a stylish shoulder bag.

In August, my mother had her second bout of pneumonia. She came home with an oxygen concentrator delivering nine liters of oxygen per minute. Our traveling days were over. I promised her that she would remain in her home as long as possible. My wife and I moved into my Mother's home. From August till now, I put my law practice on hold. I am an only child. The duty of being the primary caregiver was mine and mine alone.

The oncologist said that it appeared the radiation treatment had done its job. When she returned the end of this month, she expected to find nothing but a small amount of scar tissue. We were all optimistic.

Last week, something was obviously wrong. The shortest walk, even tethered to nine liters of oxygen wasn't enough to keep her from being physically exhausted. I got one of those small flyweight wheelchairs to get her from den to bath and bedroom.

On last Thursday evening, my mother began to choke. She was gasping for breath. Although she had stubbornly insisted that she would ride out this long journey at home, she told me to call 911. The front of the house was reflected in reds and blues from the emergency vehicles that parked alongside the front of the house and filled the driveway.

It was a trip by ambulance to our hospital. It was a long night in the emergency room. About 3:30 am. she was admitted to the acute stroke unit. It was not that she had a stroke, it was the only monitored bed available in the entire hospital.

On Saturday, she was moved to a regular respiratory floor monitored bed. I was glad. So was she. Visiting hours were limited to only thirty minutes every four hours on the stroke unit. On the floor, my wife and I, my aunt and two of her grandchildren were able to keep her company.

But, I couldn't help but notice that what had been 9 liters of oxygen was now 15, an incredibly significant increase. Yesterday, about 8:25 am, mother was admitted to intensive care. The fifteen liters were not holding her.

The irony of the situation is that I had begun reading O'Nan's "A Prayer for the Dying" that very morning. I carried it with me to the hospital during the long visiting hours.

I read sporadically through the day. A day of hospital visiting is not conducive to uninterrupted reading. Most of the day passed in conversation with my mother as her breathing allowed. But when I came home that night, I was immersed in O'Nan's novel about a small Wisconsin Township called Friendship.

It begins on a beautiful summer day. It is 1866. The American Civil War is still fresh on the minds of the citizens of Friendship. Jacob Hansen, himself, a veteran, who fought extensively in the Kentucky campaigns, has returned to Friendship where, seen as a natural leader, he is the town constable, undertaker and deacon of his church, where he frequently fills in as preacher.

Jacob carries out his duties with great satisfaction over a job well done. He has a happy home life, married to the beautiful Marta, and the proud father of their young daughter Amelia, who has just gotten her first tooth.

1866 is a year when it is still not unusual to see veterans of the war looking for their next meal, or next place to sleep. When Jacob is summoned to a nearby farm of a bee keeper, his attention is first diverted to the drone of the bees and the keepers industry in gathering honey from the hives, raking the sweet from the combs rich with the golden treat. It is a beautiful day, blue skies, bright sunshine, with dots of clouds scudding across the sky in the hot summer breeze.

The bee keeper calmly tells Jacob that there is a deadman behind the hives down in the woods. One of his sons will carry him to the body's location. Jacob immediately recognizes him as one of the many wandering veterans homeless,bivouacking wherever he can find a spot. Jacob notes that his pockets have been turned inside out. One of his few belongings, a tin cup, frequently issued to troops is readily recognized by Jacob.

The farmer and his children all deny having touched anything. But Jacob suspects that the bee keeper who has lost his wife recently would not be above picking the pockets of a dead soldier to search for anythng of value. Jacob notes the odd coloration of the dead soldier's skin and the presence of blood about his nose and lips. Doc Cox must take a look at the dead man. There's not a mark on his body.

Jacob enlists one of the bee keeper's sons to carry the body into the Doctor's Office. Jacob drops the soldier's tin cup. The youngest child "Bitsy" politely hands Jacob the cup. On the ride into town, Jacob spies the body of a woman in a pasture. Upon checking on her, she is alive, but mad. She is obviously a resident of the Colony outside of Friendship, run by the Reverend Grace. Rumors abound around Friendship concerning the possibility of lewd behavior of the women residents there, with the Reverend Grace as their satanic leader in all possible improprities.

Upon arriving in town, the dead man and the mad woman are placed into the care of the local Doctor. The Doc rapidly diagnoses the soldier's deat as being caused by diptheria. At that time, diptheria was a dreaded disease, highly contagious, that spread like wild fire. The Colony resident also shows signs of infection as well. The Doctor cautions Jacob not to drain the body for preservation, but to bury it, not exposing himself to any possibility of infection. Yet, Jacob, out of his respect for the dead, properly drains the soldier's body, filling him with formaldehyde to properly prepare the body for burial.

Jacob continues to enjoy his idyllic life with Marta and daughter Amelia. However, it is evident that Diptheria is spreading rapidly throughout Friendship, its source unknown. Marta begs Jacob to allow her to take Amelia and seek safety with relatives in a nearby town. But Jacob reassures her that all will be well and cautions her that it would serve as a poor example to the Township were he to allow his wife and child to seek safety elsewhere.

Soon, Jacob is dealing with a full blown epidemic of Diptheria, resulting in the quarantine of the town--no one leaves and no one comes in.

What begins as an idyllic summer day turns Friendship into Hell itself. Although Jacob's personal life may disintegrate around him, he will continue to perform his duties as constable, deacon and undertaker.

Interestingly, each of Jacob's honorable judgments lead to more dire circumstances for the people of Friendship. Jacob's effort to do the honorable thing lead him from being beloved of the town, to despised, as he enforces the quarantine. Tension mounts as a wild fire burns out of control towards Friendship. Jacob must save those untouched by the sickness and leave those infected to the flames. It is a decision that will tear him apart.

This afternoon, I presented my mother's living will to the nurse's station directing a do not resuscitate order on her chart. My mother's primary physician met with us to tell us that all that could be done had been done. Mother reiterated no ventilator, that she did not wish to prolong her illness. I shared a special friendship with my mother. She always rode shotgun on my rambling day trips no matter how boring it may have been for her. Those trips ended in May of 2011. I will miss them greatly.

Any work of an author is a living thing. It serves as an interaction between author and reader. O'Nan will never have any idea of how he spoke to me of bravery, duty, responsibility, love and sacrifice. Nor will he ever know how I have come to appreciate the growing loneliness of Jacob Hansen. I am thankful for the comfort of the company of my wife. But I owe Stewart O'Nan a debt of gratitude. It is in this interaction between reader and author that books continue to live long after they have gone into print. It is this connection between reader and writer that gives life to books and causes them to breathe.

For my Mother, Ann M. Sullivan, August 27, 1935 till time stops. Prl
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Reading Progress

January 15, 2012 – Started Reading
January 15, 2012 – Shelved
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: 19th-century
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: epidemic
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: courage
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: responsibility
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: diptheria
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: sacrifice
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: quarantine
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: love
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: duty
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: death
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: marriage
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: loss
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: leadership
January 16, 2012 – Shelved as: faith
January 16, 2012 – Finished Reading
March 16, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012

Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by S. (new)

S. My condolences, Mike.

Melki I went through this with my mother in 2008, and I have no real words of consolation.
Becoming an orphan is difficult at any age. You feel untethered and adrift. Your oldest friend and trusted advisor is no longer there for you.
Things will eventually get better, but nothing will ever be the same again.

message 3: by Tony (new)

Tony Any work of an author is a living thing.

As is the work of a Mum, Mike.

message 4: by Srinivas (new)

Srinivas Veeraraghavan Wonderful review Mike. Mum is irreplaceable. My heart felt condolences.

message 5: by s.p (new)

s.p Sorry to hear, my condolences. Powerful review however.

message 6: by Stephen (new) - added it

Stephen A truly singular review, Mike, and my sincere condolences on your loss.

Jeffrey Keeten Wonderful review, wonderful book, I'm glad it could offer some comfort in this difficult time for you. My thoughts are always with you friend.

Adam Your review and your reminiscences moved me. My condolences on your loss, Mike.

message 9: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Safe journey home, Ann Sullivan. You are missed. Come back soon.

Stephanie *Very Stable Genius* So sorry Mike.

message 11: by Leyoh (new)

Leyoh What a wonderful and insightful review. Thank you for sharing x

Lawyer Folks, this was an inadvertent repost of this review. I got a new phone and was using it to tell my neighbor about the book. While scrolling through the review, somehow I went into edit mode and "shared" it.

Mother remains in ICU. The days are very long. Forgive me, if I appear to have recycled a review. It was not my intent. I'm tired. And so is the Mum.

Cynthia Don't apologize. It is a review worth reposting. Best wishes to you and to your lovely mom.

Lawyer My mother died on February 1, 2012. It was a long journey and a very difficult one. If I appear chipper on the community, it is a veneer, and nothing more. Goodreads has been a lifesaver for me. I have immersed myself in reading and writing as I cope with my loss. Thank you for your kind words.

Although it would be easy to say I am on the verge of making a rash decision in reaction to my mother's death, I have considered leaving the practice of law to pursue teaching. And it will not be law. I have fought that fought for many years. But the thought of turning a young person on to the great books and the gift of writing is something I am seriously thinking of pursuing and have been considering it for many months. I believe it's time.

I am putting my app in for substitute teaching. I will pursue educational courses. I will be taking two hours towards graduate certification this summer at The University of Mississippi--the subject, Teaching Faulkner to High School Students. I'm eagerly anticipating the opportunity.

While I am nearing 60, I still feel I have a lot to offer. I have been an unofficial teacher and mentor to a large number of young people I consider my honorary sons and daughters through many years. It's time to make it official.

Although, at one time, I turned my back on teaching, I have decided that being Mr. Chips is not a role I will turn down any longer. Wish me luck and success.

What a gift that life is a long and winding road.


Cynthia Wow Mike, that is a terrific way to channel your grief and to honor your love for the written word. Best of luck to you.

message 16: by Melki (last edited Feb 13, 2012 09:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Melki What a great decision, Mike. Your students-to-be have no idea how lucky they are about to become.

message 17: by Cyndi (new)

Cyndi Wow Mike you certainly know how to honor your Mother.
Your students are blessed to have you...peace, love and soul on this journey.

message 18: by S. (new)

S. Good luck, Mike.

message 19: by Bill (new)

Bill I'm glad this review was shared again, otherwise I wouldn't have seen it.
My condolences Mike, and best of luck with the new career. Those kids are in for a treat if your teaching style is as engaging as your reviews.

Lawyer Bill wrote: "I'm glad this review was shared again, otherwise I wouldn't have seen it.
My condolences Mike, and best of luck with the new career. Those kids are in for a treat if your teaching style is as enga..."

Thanks much Bill. Yes, that would be my teaching style. I hope that I am able to pass on the love of literature as my favorite teachers did for me.

message 21: by Dawn (new) - added it

Dawn Copley-Lindsey Mike - I am so sorry to hear about your Mother.But her spirit has led you to us and for that, I am soooo grateful. Your goals are very genuine and to quote a dear professor and friend who has passed, " It is never to late to do anything you set your mind to do!" She had several degrees from the unversity and traveled the world. She started out very young as a missionary to Cuba before Castro and wrote a book about it. She didn't marry until she was in her early 60's to the Economic's Dept. chairman here. When he passed , she went to Seminary and became a Methodist preacher. She served three small churhes until she finally became ill. I found out too late that she was sick and missed her funeral, but i have visted her gravesite several times to pay tribute and to somehow pray to God that he will let her words still give me advice. It comforts me if anything, which I am sure you know. I think your goals you have set are MAGNIFICENT!!! It is now time to do something you will enjoy and I know you will be a success!!! You have all of the right qualities and any school would be crazy to turn you away. If you need any advice or just want to talk, I will always have an open ear. I loved teaching. I always felt like a preacher, it was a job I was called to do. Now God wants me to do something different in able to teach. That is why I am trying at such a late date to continue my schooling. I wish you all the best and my thoughts and prayers are with you during this sad time. But, I also wish you HOPE>>>Dawn

message 22: by knig (new)

knig What a beautiful review: my condolences. I wish you all the best.

message 23: by Claudia (last edited Aug 05, 2012 10:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Claudia Mosey Wow. I just finished "A Prayer......... the book was fantastic,I Had to finish it.I got on here to add it to my list and post on Face Book.I came across your review and was so taken with all you said;and of the book review I agree. The story of your Mom was so moving,words fail me. I can say "Thank You" for this wonderful review.I do wish you the very best on your future endeavors.

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