Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Lore Segal's "The Ice Worm"

Originally published in Harper's, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 81.

A small story, no doubt, but far from a slight one. If Segal had written merely of Maggie's "small ice-worm of panic" upon finding that her elderly mother has been lost in the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the hospital's emergency admissions center, this would have been nothing new to the genre. Instead, however, Segal spends the first third of the story having the grandmother, Ilka, telling Maggie's son, David, a biblical story: she gets us invested in Ilka through the open love of the grandson, and sets a benchmark for Ilka's lucidity -- the way she carefully skirts around the violent confrontations between King David and Ishbi-benob of the Philistines -- that gives her growing senility more of a bite. This opening is such a heartwarming and simple expression of family that it's really only a matter of time before this storyline winds up on Parenthood, though Segal goes the extra mile to throw in a few observations about saintly Maggie's self-worth: "Good people don't think they are being good when they like doing the good thing. If they did it with gritted teeth, then they would think that it was good!"

The second third of the story covers Maggie's attempts to cope with the Kastel Street Social Service office (which indicates heavily how problematic eldercare is in this country, and how awful it may become if social services are cut); it notes, too, that for all our growing intimacy and affection for her mother, Ilka, we cannot justify giving her special treatment, for she is not the only suffering old person, nor is Maggie the only daughter struggling to provide for an aging relative (and Maggie has the calming help of her husband, Jeff, a man who, despite being "married to [his] own priorities," makes his wife's problems one of those priorities):

Maggie's idea was to place Ilka's face where Ms. Haze's eyes, as she seated herself in her chair, could not help meeting Ilka's eyes. And here Maggie's eyes met the eyes in the faces stapled, glued, and paper-clipped to all the notes and letters, and correctly attached in the upper-right corner of the applications waiting for Claudia Haze's perusal, determination, and appropriate action.

So it is, then, that the final third of the story does not simply set us on Maggie's ice-worm-driven side: we understand the terrible triages of the hospital, the impossible -- and thereby impersonal -- choices of the bureaucrats, and the awful truths that nostalgia forms because time has moved on -- things are no longer as they were, because they simply, bitterly are the way they are now. Well told, Segal, well told.

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