A Letter from the Author: The Beginner's Goodbye

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Dear Readers,

I used to have a friend who earned her living cleaning houses. She didn't enjoy her job, though, and she often said she felt bad about wasting her education.

One day she mentioned that she had run into a man she'd known in high school. He asked her where she worked, but she hadn't wanted to get into all that. She just told him she was employed by some people in Roland Park. He hoped it involved art, he said, since she had always been such a good artist. Yes, she said...or at least, well, in a way it did, she said. At least, the job did call for her, let's say, organizational skills...

I don't know why I felt so sure of this, but it struck me as I was listening to her that at some point during their conversation, the man had come to realize her true circumstances. He didn't say so, and certainly she didn't think so herself, because she told me quite happily that she'd succeeded in dodging all his questions and that he had finally, to her relief, moved on to reminisce about their Latin teacher. But I could read between the lines.

My friend was telling me a story she didn't know she was telling. She thought she was describing how she'd concealed the facts from this man, but any listener could sense that the man had seen right through her. It was kindness alone that led him to bring up that Latin teacher.

Aaron Woolcott is the narrator of The Beginner's Goodbye, but I suggest you take what he says with a grain of salt. Oh, I don't mean he's lying. He thinks he's telling the truth. But he doesn't always know the truth. He is the least self-aware person I've ever written about.

Just listen to what he said when I first began inventing him. (For he did seem to talk to me from time to time, speaking up at the back of my mind in a friendly, informative voice.) "I have a couple of handicaps," he announced out of nowhere one day. "I may not have mentioned that." Oh, come on! He "may" not have mentioned that? Surely he would know if he had mentioned that or not! Your antennae have to go up, when you hear someone talking this way.

"Oh," he added a little bit later, "and also a kind of speech hesitation, but only intermittently."

Now the man was beginning to make me feel sad for him, in that wincing, embarrassed way that you feel sad for people who are deluding themselves.

I felt sad for him throughout the book, in fact. He loves his wife devotedly, but he doesn't have an inkling of the ways he's let her down, and he misses the clues that could have told him how much she loves him. He shrugs off all caregivers even while he longs to be cared for. He sees people in general as intrusive, officious; he imagines that what he wants most is cool, aloof independence.

Almost the only statement of his that I do believe is that he sees his wife after she's died. Other people don't see her. In point of fact, she's not there. But I believe without question that Aaron sees her. And it's my opinion that he's summoned her up so he can work through all that went wrong the first time -- settle the unfinished business, if you want to use his friend Gil's term. Once he's done that, he has begun to own his own story. And from that moment on, you can take everything he says as gospel truth.

Anne Tyler

 

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