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And Give You Peace

"And Give You Peace is a rarity – a novel that is at once riveting, moving, insightful, and smart. I read this beautiful book on a day on my porch, oblivious to the phone and mail, unwilling to put it aside for anything." –Chris Bohjalian

"I know of few authors who can write with the intelligence, sensitivity, and grace of Jessica Treadway. I know of none who can write with such courage. And Give You Peace teaches us how – and why – to look at what we’re afraid to see. We emerge redeemed." –Elizabeth Berg

From And Give You Peace:

Being the oldest of three daughters is one of the first ways I think about myself, and it’s one of the first questions to come up in friendships, at least between women. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where do you fall in the line? The answer helps put the two new friends in some kind of balance, gives them a landmark to see where they’re starting from.

If I meet another oldest, I know she understands things about me already, as I understand them about her. If I meet a middle child, I assume she is like Justine, who always made sure to be noticed, not to get lost in the crowd.

And if I meet the youngest in a series of siblings, especially sisters, I must endure the short shock to my head and stomach that is all too familiar to me now. I know it’s coming and I know it will recede, but I expect it will never leave me entirely, and I wouldn’t want it to. Painful as it is, it’s something to count on. Justine feels it, too. I think we both imagine it is Meggy in that moment, reaching through this other family’s youngest to touch us where we live.

It depends on the person who’s asking, what my own answer will be. If I sense sympathy – not necessarily pity, although there are times when I want that, too – if it seems that he or she will understand what I am surviving without, I might tell the truth. In the old days, when early death was more common, people were accustomed to giving a qualified count. A mother would say she had “eleven children, six living.” Remembering this, I might tell someone, “I had two sisters, but one died,” so that I don’t have to feel that I am betraying Meggy, the way I do when I give the other answer, which is that I have one sister, Justine, who is three years younger than me.

Another choice is to try to be like the little girl in the poem by Wordsworth. When a stranger asks how many children are in her family, she tells him seven, including a brother and sister who lie in graves in the churchyard. “Then ye are only five,” the stranger tries to convince her, but the child insists, “Nay, we are seven!” So sometimes I try to get away with responding that I have two sisters, but then there are the follow-up questions that leave me stammering: Where do your sisters live? What do they do?

And even when I tell the truth, that one of my sisters is dead, it does not always end there. More people than not, when they hear this, will say they’re sorry and look distressed, and we agree in that moment, without saying anything, to talk about something else.

But there is the occasional new acquaintance who will, after the murmur and the wince, ask, “How did it happen?” There are two kinds of people who pursue the question like this, and I have come to understand how important it is to distinguish between them. One is the person who has learned that life is worth living only if you admit it all. That there is nothing that can’t be imagined, nothing you can’t say out loud. These are the people I can end up loving, who can be my friends, because what did happen I never imagined, and it feels good to have company there.

The other people who ask are the ones who hoard disasters, who collect sad stories like chits they can cash in against the misfortunes of their own lives. The more of these people you meet, the better you become at identifying them before you give too much of yourself away. They’re the ones who use the opportunity of a commotion in one room to check their teeth in the mirror of another. Anything could be causing the commotion – a dropped punch bowl, a heart attack – but the first thing they think, before going in to find out, is that they can check their teeth now, without anyone noticing.

To these people I say, “It was a long time ago,” as if that is an answer, as if that’s what they want to know. If they persist, I say, “She died young,” and usually those words, along with the look on my face, are enough to make them back off. The few times someone has pressed me beyond that, I said, “She was shot to death.” There must be something final in my tone when I say this, because no one has ever gone on to ask, By whom?

It’s different when you talk about a parent. It’s not so shocking to say your father’s dead. Hardly anyone ever wants to know the details; the fact alone is enough, that branch of your tree has fallen, you’re held up now by other things. It doesn’t leave you swinging in the air like the loss of a sister. I don’t think anything does.