“Things Left Undone” by Christopher Tilghman

Best American Short Stories 1994“Things Left Undone”
Christopher Tilghman

The Best American Short Stories 1994

5 book marks

Denny and Susan McCready should be celebrating the birth of their son Charlie, but instead they are told that their baby has cystic fibrosis, “that he might not survive the week, and if he did he would probably not live long enough to enter kindergarten.”

How do you risk getting close to a baby you know will only be with you for a short while? What price do you pay if you do, and what if you don’t? This enormous personal conflict drives an immediate wedge between Denny and Susan. Denny stays away. Susan mothers. She takes care of Charlie, rapping his back to clear his lungs, loving him and tickling him. And Denny stumbles alone through his feelings of ineptitude. On Charlie’s last day with them, Denny desperately reaches out in a shocking way, trying to comfort his baby son.

The marriage suffers while Charlie is with them, but once he’s gone, immeasurable grief splits Denny and Susan in two. Separately they navigate through Charlie’s death and move to distant points. Susan leaves, Denny works the family farm with his father. Denny is lost and can’t think of how to connect with Susan. He tells his father, “You don’t manage a marriage like fences and Jonson grass, Dad. There’s nothing I can do.” “There is always something,” his father answers.

This may sound like an ordinary drama, but Christopher Tilghman’s characters are uncomfortably unfamiliar and they walk through the story in a disconnected state that is both depressing and compelling to read. I did not like Denny and Susan very much, yet I wanted them to get through their loss, to find each other, because I could feel it, too.

There are many painfully moving moments and descriptions in this story. Here’s the one that hit me the hardest and gives insight into Denny’s feelings.

Back when Charlie was still a newborn, when the first untroubled and unknowing smiles began to appear, Denny prayed that this could all happen quickly, before he gave too much of his love, before he surrendered too much of his hope. It took almost to the end of Charlie’s life for Denny to realize that this prayer was monstrous, that he had asked for an end of his own pain in the place of a cure for his son. Susan would make him pay for this. But by then Denny had also learned that of all the pain a human can endure, not allowing oneself to feel love is the worst; that denying love to oneself can destroy, from the inside.

I also liked Tilghman’s sleeper character, Denny’s father, because he just may be the quiet influence that brings the family back together. I was glad to see this force emerge.

My favorite part is at the end when Susan comes to see Denny and gazes at him as he returns on his boat. Tilghman writes, “He looked fine as a waterman, big-chested over the low sides of the boat. Suddenly, as she looked upon this graceful scene, from deep in her lungs came a wave of joy, a relief as if for the first time in years her whole body had relaxed.” These words lift the reader too, and give a hint of hope.

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