Reading Michael Hainey’s memoir After Visiting Friends, about his search for answers about the death of his father when Hainey was 6 years old, it occurred to me that possibly stories about father and sons are a straight man thing. Or maybe they just hold no power for me. But what captivated me about the book was not Hainey’s quest for closure to his father’s abrupt death; it was his mother, a woman who walked into the house after her second husband died and, without removing her coat, picked out the clothes she’d take to the funeral home for him to be buried in.
Hainey’s style—staccato, present tense—takes a few pages to sink into, but the story is so propulsive, with so many strange turns (his father’s obituaries raise more questions than answers) that you find yourself speed reading for the answers it took him years to unearth. He has a tendency to be a completist about things, traveling across the country to stand outside of buildings that he’s never been to before because they feature in his narrative, and there’s a glass wall between him and readers who haven’t suffered the loss of a parent and can’t identify with what that does to a person, especially when the loss left him fatherless at such a young age.
His mother, however, has the kind of steel thin courage that Margaret Mitchell gave to Melanie Wilkes. An unsentimental survivor, she picks up the pieces and carries on with her eyes firmly focused on the future, while Hainey keeps staring behind him at the past. The book ends when Hainey realizes that he started out looking for his father and found his mother; by the time you close the book, you’re glad you found her, too.