Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to go back to a book you’ve already read? Some of it is already knowing the plot, already relishing your favorite parts, already surrendered to the ending whether it’s the one you wanted or the one you didn’t. I was surprised that I felt this way about going back to review, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.I think it was such a tender story that I wanted to keep those virgin feelings, not analyze them post-read.
But I also see what I missed now that I’m going back through the chapters. The book is loosely organized around three letters. Both this book and it’s companion (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), begin with the letter that Queenie writes to her former co-worker, telling him that she has cancer and there is nothing left to be done. She thanks him for his friendship and assures him she is at peace. But for both of them, there is a part of their story that has no peace. The book recounts all that has been left unsaid and untold in their relationship and all the regrets that still linger.
This is the substance of most of the book, contained in the form of a second letter to Harold. In this second letter, she writes to make a full confession of how she feels she has wronged him. She has to write as the cancer surgery has taken her tongue and the ability to speak. She is intent in this endeavor as she waits for Harold to arrive on his pilgrimage to her, always wondering if he will make it before she goes. Assisting her in completing this second letter is the enigmatic French Sister Inconnu, one of the nurses at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Whenever she wants to give up, Sister Inconnu is there to give her strength and wisdom. The following is a passage from the book as Queenie is entering her last days and has been taken out to sit under the shade of a tree.
Suddenly Sister Mary inconnu let out a hiccup. She slapped her hand to her mouth but another one followed and another. I realized that what she was doing was laughing. ‘
“What is it?” I asked. Something like that.
A further laugh erupted from her with a gigantic splutter. She had to grip her stomach and lift her feet. Rocking this way and that, she pointed upwards. HOO HOO HOO, she went, while still pointing up at the tree. That was all she could manage in the way of communication. “Look at the branches, Look at the leaves. When you really look, you see how fantastic it is. It’s so perfect you have to laugh!” She guffawed.
Now that she’d said it, I couldn’t see how I hadn’t noticed before. The tree above us was a canopy of bright lime leaves, each one shaped like an eye with perfect crinkle-cut edges. Where the sun caught them they shone luminous, while those in shade hung a deeper green. I took in the solid torso of the trunk, the curls and brindles in the gray bark, the milky covering of moss where the sun could not reach. I gazed at the exuberant bow of the five central branches, like sturdy shoulders, and then I moved my eye to the entanglement twigs and leaves….It was the most marvelous thing, that tree, now that we sat and took notice. It was hilarious.
We sat, weeping with laughter. Ha, Ha went the tree, look at those funny ladies. One with a wimple. One in a wheelchair. Look at the beauty of them.
This particular passage at first puzzled me; I thought the first response to recognizing the beauty of nature is awe, not laughter. In fact, laughing seemed to discount this moment of recognition when we realize we are not separate from creation. But then I began to appreciate this response, if not from the viewpoint that it is hilarious that we think we are! (Especially trees—see my prior post on the Overstory.) Yet also in my experience, that One-ness does take on pure joy and laughter. Particularly when I remember having a gray whale come up beside the small boat I was in so that it’s eye was just below the surface of the water and we stared at each other for a timeless time. Afterwards I laughed and laughed and laughed at the beauty and joy and surprise of it all. It was so natural to laugh, so compelling to laugh, so precise to respond in exactly this way. I think this passage is poignant simply because Queenie is going to die in a day or so. That here at the end of her life, when there are so many choices, she “sees” the beauty that was there–and laughs.
With each vignette of the different hospice patients, with each struggle to survive another day, with each small way the Sisters take to make each day comfortable and enjoyable for the hospice patients, an overall story of love is told, as well as Queenie’s love story. Even the grand story of the pilgrimage and all the attention it draws, fades in the more telling story of how life is lived in the moment, what is noticed, how our souls respond. Queenie comes to see that what she thought was lost in her love of Harold, was always there.
I don’t want to spoil the ending as there is a surprise, or two. All that is contained in the Third Letter that Sister Philomena writes to Harold after Queenie dies.
It is possible to go on a long and transforming pilgrimage without ever leaving the place you are.