"In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark

Yesterday, my lit class discussed my favorite story of the collection we use: "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark.  In this story, a man exactly my age has returned to his parents' home to die, presumably of AIDS.  First published in 1994 in The New Yorker, this story is a quiet, intimate companion to Susan Sontag's frantic and cacophonous "The Way We Live Now" (also published in The New Yorker, 1987), which we had just read the week before.  In the Sontag, the characters (and there are heaps of them) pass a dialogue around like a football, all circling one of the friends who has been diagnosed with AIDS.  This story, the Dark, also focuses on one man, but his voice and that of his mother are the only ones that matter.  In fact, many of my students (who admittedly don't read all that carefully) missed the subtle hints that indicated this was another AIDS story.  As cancer is a much bigger presence in their lives, many of them assumed he was dying of cancer.  But for those of us who grew up in the 80s, the reality of the AIDS crisis was something different, something foreign to these kids who have only ever known Magic Johnson to be healthily living HIV positive.  They don't know what a big deal it was, even for us small-town folks who had relatively little contact with the disease.

The other thing they don't know is how it feels to read this story as a mother.  I try to avoid the condescending "One day, you'll understand" kind of stuff because I remember how infuriating I found such comments as a youth.  However, it is something I am aware of - just how much they can't know about having a child and considering losing a child.  Close to the end, the mother (Janet) is talking to her husband about their loss.
"It's so wrong," she said angrily.  She hadn't felt angry until that moment; she had saved it up for him.  "A child shouldn't die before his parents.  A young man shouldn't spend his early thirties wasting away talking to his mother.  He should be out in the world.  He shouldn't be thinking about me, or what I care about, or my opinions.  He shouldn't have had to return my love to me - it was his to squander.  Now I have it all back and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it," she said.
This passage provides the expected response (a child shouldn't die before his parents) that reflects an understanding of the natural order of things.  But it goes beyond that expected answer into a truth I had never considered before I encountered this story.  A mother's job is often called thankless.  The work we do is often overlooked or disregarded, even by ourselves.  We invest so much in our children, and some of us become bitter at how little return we receive on that investment.  Thankfully, I am not often plagued by such a feeling, but I've never been able to put a finger on why.  I've always just said, "That's my job.  It's the most important work I do, and I don't expect to be thanked for just doing my job."  Now, I have a language to speak about it more fluently, a currency with which to complete this transaction.   I pour out what I can upon my children with the hope they will spend it wisely but with no expectation they will return what I gave.  It is theirs to squander.  What a beautiful gift we can give.  And what a tragedy to have that gift returned too soon.

Every semester, when we read this story, I swear that I should read more of Dark's work.  She is an author I know nothing more about beyond this amazing story.  So, I visited Amazon to find out more about her work and noted a few things I would like to get my hands on.  In the process, I found that HBO made a medium-length film version of this story starring Glenn Close and Robert Sean Leonard.  Reading the synopsis frustrates me and makes me feel it can't be as good as the story, but perhaps I will give it a try.  Anyone seen it?  Have an opinion?


  1. "In the Gloaming" is actually one of my favorite films. It was the first film produced by Christoher Reeve after his riding accident. I have it on VHS--I haven't been able to find it on DVD. They've changed it a little from the original story, but really only a little. First, they've changed Laird's name to Danny (presumably so it'll work better with the plot when the mother sings one of his favorite songs--"Danny Boy"--to him). Second, while, as in the story, they never say it's AIDS, they make it clear that it is--"Danny" is gay, which is not touched in the story. In fact, the sister has a much bigger role in the film than she does in the book. Her character's function, in the movie, seems to be to point out his homosexuality and societal fear of it. There's also talk of his T-cell count. I was disappointed about that, because I liked the fact that his illness was never identified, but in a way, it did give the story kind of a relevant cultural reference. The movie is beautifully acted by a small all-star cast, and I cry more and more every time I see it. (Which is a good thing.) What I like most about this film is that the ending really seems more uplifting than in the story, and I think it's largely because of Glenn Close's wonderful facial expression as she embraces and comforts Martin. They may have lost their son, but you really get the impression that in the end, they may at least have rediscovered each other.

  2. Thanks, Rebecca. Per your recommendation, I am adding the film to my netflix queue.