I wasn't going to write about this. It's not my usual kind of post. But then I spent about 5 hours waiting at Costco for a car tire to be fixed. And while I was there, I was reading this book called The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
It was a random pick. I do that sometimes. Walk along the shelves in a library and grab something that sticks out to me. (It's been awhile since I've read something good that didn't seem like it was written by a high school student.)
A.J. Fikry says books have to come to us at the right time. And this one did.
And so I sat at the tables at Costco, eating my wilting chicken caesar salad and freezing my butt off, engrossed in my story.
The previous Sunday, a former classmate I met in 5th grade, Joe, passed away from cancer. And as I kept reading, I suddenly realized that main character, A.J., was also going to get cancer and die. And there in the middle of Costco, I got a little teary-eyed. I almost stopped reading.
I was mad. I got tricked into reading this book. I was tricked into caring about these characters and the author just ripped them away. I mourned for A.J.'s daughter. For his wife who couldn't imagine what life was going to be like without him. I didn't want to read about this story that reminded me of a very real people who was going through this same exact thing. I didn't want to think about it.
I've never met Joe's wife, Amanda, but when you read her blog, you can't help but feel attached to her and her family. And my heart hurts for them.
There are all sorts of ways that people become (or stay) single. I really connected with some of the words from A.J., a man who starts out the book as a widower and finishes it married, leaving behind a widow and a daughter.
When I first started reading it, I thought it would be great to include on my blog. A.J. starts out grieving for his wife, who was killed in a car accident. He is a bookstore owner who just found out suddenly, startlingly, that one of the reps who came to sell him books died. And no one told him. And no one understands why it is so hard for him to accept the new rep. So he throws his dinner against the wall in anger.
A.J. says, "The difficulty of living alone is that any mess he makes he is forced to clean up himself. (me here - this is true. But at least you don't have to clean up other people's messes. Perfect stuff for my blog.)
No, the real difficulty of living alone is that no one cares if you are upset. No one cares why a thirty-nine-year-old man has thrown a plastic tub of vindaloo across a room like a toddler." (My thoughts again. This isn't true, but it can feel true. People do care. They may not know about it, but they do care.)
Later on in the book, people decide it's time for A.J. to start dating again, so they start setting him up. He resists. "I'm forty-three, and in these years I've learned that it's better to have loved and lost and blah blah blah and that it's better to be alone than be with someone you don't really fancy," he says.
(So true. I wish more people realized this and maybe at a younger age.)
A.J. ends up adopting a young girl who is left in his bookstore (it's too complicated to explain, read the book already) and marrying the new book rep, Amelia. And life goes on.
But then A.J. gets a brain tumor. Even with surgery, he's given 1-2 years to live. He doesn't want to spend the money when it could be used for his daughter's education. They convince him to do it anyway.
At this point, I thought the book was going to become about A.J.'s cancer. Oh great. Super depressing. A cancer book. The very thing I don't want to think about.
But it doesn't. The cancer isn't the main character of the book. A.J. is. A.J. and his relationships. And you don't want him to die. But that's not what you take away from the book - that A.J. died. That's not it. It's not that he died, because everyone does. It's how he got there.
His wife Amelia is with him in the hospital. She says, "'I'm not crying for you. I'm crying for me. Do you know how long it took me to find you? Do you know how many awful dates I've been on? I can't' - she is breathless now - 'I can't join Match.com again. I just can't.'"
At the end, A.J. loses most of his ability to speak. He wants to tell his daughter ONE thing.
"There is only one word that matters.
Maya, we are what we love. We are that we love. WE aren't the things we collect, acquire, read. WE are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.
It is so simple, he thinks. Maya, he wants to say, I have figured it all out. But his brain won't let him.
We read to know we're not alone. WE read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. WE are not alone."
The author, Gabrielle Zevin, writes, "We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end, we are collected works.
He has read enough to know there are no collections where each story is perfect."
And that's how I feel about Joe and Amanda's blog. They shared their "collected works." The story isn't perfect. But it's theirs. I know some people have said some cruel things about why Amanda wrote what she did. I think she was brave to share their story.
In the fifth grade, Joe drew this picture of me in class. I'm pretty sure that was not what he supposed to be doing at the time. Later, he gave it to me and said I could keep it. I (obviously) still have it. I don't know if I ever showed it to anyone else. But today, I wanted to post it.
Amanda - thank you for sharing your story. Because it's not just about the ending. And this isn't the end, the story goes on.