I’ve read enough books to know that literary tastes change over time and sometimes a book you hate can become a book you love depending on your current life circumstances.
I bought Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune first of all because I was attracted to the spray-painted edges and the beautiful jacket of the Waterstones hardcover edition. I was also on somewhat of an LGBTQ reading streak after finishing the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Explore the Secrets of The Universe.
I like TJ Klune just fine. I think his characters are quirky and cute, if a bit too saccharine for my tastes. However, I do think his books are overly long and suffer from pacing issues.
The premise of this book is interesting enough: a man dies and is taken by the Grim Reaper to some kind of coffee shop called Charon’s Crossing (lol) where a ferryman named Hugo is waiting to guide him to the afterlife.
The middle meandered a bit, and this was where I started to slowly lose interest. And that’s saying a lot, as I was under mandatory hotel quarantine whilst reading this book and literally had nothing else to do apart from sleep, eat, and worry about an upcoming job interview.
I personally thought the story went in a completely different direction from what I was expecting based on the premise, so I put it away and thought, hmph, maybe this needs to go on the DNF pile because life is too short to waste it reading a book you don’t like.
Then my grandmother took a turn for the worse.
My family and I then entered a purgatory of waiting where, especially for those of us who were in the health care business, we knew that all we were doing was delaying the inevitable.
Acute kidney injury and pneumonia at her age, especially with the abysmal health care services in the most rural areas of this country, is not something that patients can easily come back from. I knew her life was measured in weeks, if not days, and on top of everything that already happened this year it all got a little bit too much.
So I picked this book up again, and my situation being what it was, it took on a completely different meaning. I somehow just got what TJ was trying to do with it. Like me, he was processing his grief in the only way he knew how, in the medium that was available to him.
The book, to me, is wish fulfillment at its best. Death is the big unknown. One of life’s unsanswerable questions. Those who are in the position to tell us what happens after we die are the same ones who are unable to do so because you know, they’re dead.
So TJ Klune, like so many before him, attempts to paint a picture of what he thinks it might be like for those who have left us.
But this book is so much more than that. In writing about death, TJ Klune somehow managed to write a book celebrating life. I think that’s what really struck me about this book. Its meant to bring some measure of comfort to those left behind, but its also an urge, a plea to the living to make the best of the time they have left to think about what’s really important.
So much about life and death is a mystery. I think there are parts of it that we’re not meant to understand, and that’s where faith comes in I guess. My faith isn’t as strong as it was. I’m not the type who believes in mysticism and signs, not like I used to anyway. The older we get, the harder it is to believe in the intangible, in the things that are can’t be explained by reason or supported by facts.
But consider this: For the whole of last week my cousin had been doing all he can to keep my grandmother comfortable. She had days and nights where she couldn’t breath and we were nebulising her so frequently we feared her heart would give out.
There was one evening where I asked my cousin to gather everyone together and started a group Messenger call because a part of me really thought that was it. When she made it through that night, my only remaining prayer was that she lived long enough to allow mum to say her goodbyes. That might be selfish, and it might mean prolonging grandma’s suffering, but I’d like to think it was what she would have wanted too.
My mum and my sister finally arrived at my grandmother’s bedside Saturday evening. She was barely lucid, she sort of vaguely recognised them and followed them around with her eyes, but she wasn’t responsive enough at that point to even respond to a ‘hello’. Arlene, my sister, said goodbye and promised she would be back to see her at 8am the following day with mama.
My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at 5am the next day. She held on long enough so my mother was able to say goodbye, long enough to answer my prayers.
When my cousin rang me about her death, I reached for Under The Whispering Door, and found immeasurable comfort in the touching story of Wallace, Hugo, Nelson, Mei and Apollo the Dog. I think I’m a different person now to the person I was when I first started reading this. I know a little bit more and I know a little bit less about life and death than I did now.
Here are some of the things I’m certain of though. For a long time, I’ve been living a life so shallow that I’ve cared more about material things and my self-image than the relationships I have with other people. It’s funny how little those things matter when shit really hits the fan. The other thing I do know is that life really is short. At this point, some of us have more years behind us than we do ahead of us.
The last thing I know is that it really doesn’t matter that we don’t know what comes after the end. The idea is to believe that its going to be amazing, and to die with that belief is to die peacefully. There is a version of events where we are all reunited with those we’ve lost, sipping tea and playing mahjong somewhere up in heaven. This is the version that I will choose to believe.
I’ve said this a lot, I’ve thought this a lot, and many thanks to TJ Klune for this beautiful book and for this wonderful message that I am able to give my grandmother, in spirit, as I was unable to do in person:
Goodbye Nanay, I hope you woke up somewhere beautiful.