Imagine waiting patiently in an examination room for a diagnosis. Minutes pass, your heart rate increases, and sweat begins to cover the palms of your hands. The doctor opens the door, stands in front of you deadpanned before muttering, “I'm afraid I don't have very good news for you.” Singly, each word may not carry weight, but now, words strewn together, you have met the end of the line.
Thus begins Kent Haruf's novel, “Benediction,” the story of Dad Lewis, a charitable septuagenarian, family man, and now, terminal cancer patient. Regardless of the diagnosis, Dad is intent on moving forward with his life, spending his final days counting every blessing.
Opting for hospice care over hospitalization, his wife, Mary, attempts to make Dad's last days memorable. Once their middle-aged daughter, Lorraine, is made aware of the situation, she immediately leaves her residence of Denver to return to her family home in Holt, Colo.
Lorraine's quick departure establishes the fortification of the family as well as the dire situation. Set in pastoral vast high plains of buffalo grass and pure blue skies, readers follow a family who deals with death gracefully. On his journey to resolution, Dad seeks to reconnect with his estranged son, Frank. Along the way, he has help from his devoted family members, close friends, and community members.
Even considering the heavy undertone throughout much of the novel, the work, like the following passage, demonstrates a hope restored by compassion. Readers envision Dad and Mary, his wife of more than a century, in the most tender of scenes: “They still always slept together as they had since the first night so long ago, in the old soft double bed in the downstairs bedroom, even though he was sick and dying now and moved restlessly in the bed in the night. She insisted on being there close beside him, she wouldn't have it otherwise.”
As the main story unfolds, two other families deal with issues of their own. In cycles, each family attempts to resolve their familial dilemma. The intertwining of the stories is done with great accuracy, reaching a conclusion that is emotional and bold. The characters in the novel are sincere, realistic, and conflicted. The weight of their burden may be heavy, but their actions as a whole are generous and uplifting.
Dad, in preparing for his final days, reveals his benediction that allows him to embrace whatever afterlife may exist. As readers come to the end of the work, they recognize that even through heartbreak, we can always count our blessings.
Kent Haruf 'Benediction' Rating: W W W W W