In Voices from the Moon, a young boy tells his priest how his father is marrying his ex-daughter-in-law. The priest urges the boy toward compassion and forgiveness. Dubus was Catholic, a devout believer in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and his religion figures heavily in his stories. I did not grow up with God (my mother is a quiet but firm atheist; my father speaks of a Force or Energy more akin to Star Wars than anything to do with the Bible), but the beau who introduced me to Dubus did — and how. My first attempts at trying to understand his background were aided by these stories. Dubus articulates some of the mystery of faith, particularly the profundity of the Eucharist and the importance, within the church and without, of sacrament and ritual. So began a process of undoing the stereotypes and preconceptions I had about church and God and those who believe in the power of both.
In Rose, a man throws his son across a room, then sets the apartment on fire, his two daughters still inside. We are not meant to forgive him. We are not meant to feel compassionate. But we are meant to forgive what his wife, Rose, does in response. She tells her story to a man at a bar, years later. “What had she been sharing with me?” the narrator asks himself after her story’s done. “I believe it was the unexpected: chance, and its indiscriminate testings of our bodies, our wills, our spirits.”
And just so, chance did test Dubus. It was his instinct to aid, to protect, that drew him to pull over on I-93, heading north from Boston to Haverhill, on a July night in 1986, to help two people stuck on the side of the road. While he was helping them, a car swerved on the otherwise empty highway. Dubus pushed the woman out of the way. The man was struck and killed. And Dubus lost one of his legs above the knee, and most of the use of the other one, and was wheelchair-bound until his death in 1999.
The accident changed Dubus’s work. He published two books of essays and one more collection of short stories. The sorrow and anger are more explicit, and the pieces are filled “with the demons that always come on a bad wind; loneliness, mortality, legs.” But they are no less filled with moments of grace. Sacraments pervade these pieces. He writes of making sandwiches for his daughters, the sanctity of bread and meat and mustard, of bringing “our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn’t need words.”
A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday in early September that pushed over 90 degrees, my beau arrived, sweating from the 20-minute walk from Harvard Square. He tossed a book on my bed: Dubus’s final collection of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. With that volume, I now had all of Dubus's works. Before I could say thank you, he pulled off his shirt and headed toward the shower. I don’t know God, but this gesture, this gift, felt like one of Dubus’s wordless moments of grace.
The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus, directed by Edward Delaney, screens as part of the New England Film and Video Festival in Brookline, October 4–8. Visit nefvf.com for schedules and information.
Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.