The Florist’s Daughter
Patricia Hampl
Harcourt, $24, 240 pp.

Swimming in a Sea of Death
A Son’s Memoir
David Rieff

Simon & Schuster, $21, 192 pp.


Two deaths, two mothers, two books: two noted authors write of their mothers’ deaths. The contrast between the authors, as between the mothers, could hardly be sharper.

Patricia Hampl—poet, memoirist, and the florist’s daughter—forever resident in her native St. Paul, Minnesota, tells the story of Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl, wife, mother, librarian.

David Rieff—journalist, social critic, world traveler, and son of two intellectuals—tells the story of Susan Sontag, literary star, advocate, provocateur, lesbian, and mother. One author is a believer, the other an atheist. One story is embedded in a community, one in solitary struggle. One death is a part of life, one an affront to life.

The Florist’s Daughter has its beginnings in a familiar Catholic story, the mixed marriage. Her parents’ Czech-Irish union brought with it the ethnic and class stereotypes that Patricia Hampl heard as a child from her Irish-American mother. Married in August 1940 in the fabulous St. Paul cathedral, Mary Marum and Stan Hampl left St. Paul’s lowland immigrant community behind and moved up the hill; from there the bride could and did look down on his Czech relatives and their peasant customs. This set the scene for the chatter, stories, anecdotes, and catty remarks that constitute the mother-monologue at the family breakfast table. As her mother looked down on the Czech relatives, so young Patricia looks down on her chain-smoking, self-dramatizing mother, while adoring her handsome father. Stan Hampl ran the best nursery and flower shop in St. Paul; his artistry shaped the galas, weddings, and fund-raisers of the city’s Catholic upper class (and provided his wife with ever more material for her “vivacious chatter”).

Late in the book and in the life of her mother, Hampl recognizes in her mother’s running commentary the incubator of her own writing life. (This is Hampl’s fifth memoir and she well knows “nothing is harder to grasp than a relentlessly modest life.”) This epiphany elicits a loving attention to Mary, now addled from strokes and seizures even while she goes on smoking and drinking. Patricia’s daily visits to the nursing home arise not from Catholic guilt, as her friends charge; no, she is drawn, she says, by her mother’s new and “cosmic smile of vast dimension and knowing.” The fantasies born of dementia turn out to be mesmerizing—a return to the monologues of the long-ago breakfast table. One of these unrolls before a picture window. Mother and daughter looking out on an ordinary cityscape, Mary imagines them at sea: “Tell you think we’ll be nearing land soon?” In this reverie, Patricia calls a halt to her own anxieties: “We have all the time in the world-world without end, amen.”

We settled back in our deck chairs. Just sat there, side by side, taking in the bracing salt air, and faced without dismay the gauzy hinge between sea and sky, the limitless horizon dividing the elements, the disappearing point where we were headed.

Not long after, Mary Hampl slipped away.

In contrast to this gentle departure, Susan Sontag adamantly refused to acknowledge death’s dominion. This denial still haunts her son, David Rieff. Swimming in a Sea of Death is as much about what he ought (perhaps) to have said and done, what the doctors said and did (and in the margins, how the medical system deals with death) as it is about Sontag’s actual death. From her cancer diagnosis in March 2004—her third bout-—at the age of seventy-one to her death at the end of that year, she pursued treatments and remedies that took her from New York to Seattle and back. The treatments, some of them extreme, were essentially ineffective, as Rieff recognized even as he joined in her search for a cure. He became knowledgeable about the disease (MLD, a fatal form of leukemia) and its course, pursuing with her every avenue of information and treatment. The treatments were useless; even so, the doctors were ready to accommodate her passion to live. Hadn’t she survived two previous cancers?

After Sontag’s death, Jerome Groopman, oncologist and friend, wrote to Rieff about her first cancer at age forty-two: “The statistics only get you so far. There are always people on the tail end of the curve. They survive miraculously, like your mother did.... She was at the tail end of that curve.” She beat the odds twice. Why not again? Rieff meditates on this medical conundrum of progress and probabilities. “How to reconcile the reality of human mortality with the reigning assumption in the rich world that every disease must have a cure, if not now then sometime in the future? The logic of the former is the acceptance of death. But the logic of the latter is that death is somehow a mistake, and that someday that mistake will be rectified.” Susan Sontag believed that death was a mistake that she did not have to make.

The pursuit of a cure may have sustained her, as Rieff suggests, but it was also an impenetrable barrier to mother and son confronting the inevitable. “Almost until the moment she died, we talked of her survival, of her struggle with cancer, never about her dying. I was not going to raise the subject unless she did. It was her death, not mine. And she did not raise it.” Their relationship was thorny. Her passion was writing and thinking, not family and child. Her persona was guarded and seemingly opaque even to him. Accomplished and celebrated, she believed at seventy-one that her best work lay before her. For that she had to survive. But she did not. There is an ineffable sadness then in Rieff’s summing up: “As she died, we swam alongside her, in the sea of her own death, watching her die. Then she did die. And speaking for myself, I find that I am still swimming in that sea.”

All deaths are alike in their certainty, yet each has its distinctive reality—so too, Mary Hampl’s and Susan Sontag’s. Each died as she lived, embedded in a world she had made familiar, had made her own. The author-children tell very different stories about death, but both are faithful to the lives they accompanied to death’s door.


Read more: Letters, April 11, 2008

Related: A. G. Harmon reviews Patricia Hampl's Blue Arabesque

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: View Contents
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