Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Lily Trilogy

......I’m the envy of this whole place to have someone come visit every day. Most residents have children like my Terry and Jimmy. They’re not selfish or ungrateful kids. They’re just busy. Busy with their children and their jobs. I see them once or twice a year when they fly in to Seattle....My leg begins to tremble and I lift it onto the bed. I stare up at the shelf on the wall opposite my bed where I keep everything that Lily brings me. A cereal box promoting the re-release of Finding Nemo, because that’s a movie we’ve watched together more than three hundred times. A bunch of dried wildflowers she picked from a vacant lot on the way here. A take-out menu from a restaurant where she went on a date, because she wished I could have been there. ... On the wall under the shelf, I hang all of Lily’s pencil drawings. Her style has evolved through the years from typical stick figures and circles forming two-dimensional flowers to a primitive folk art depicting wild, running animals....I think Lily’s style is quite irresistible, and I’ve been trying to get her to consider selling her drawings on e-bay, but she insists on giving them away. I think just about every nurse has received an antelope pursued by a lion, signed in the lower right-hand corner with a heart and a lily.....

Slightly over twelve years ago I gave birth to my sixth child, Aidan. It soon became clear that he was very ill, and within a few weeks he was transferred to a hospital in San Francisco where we got into the second stretch of what the doctor called a "marathon". So indeed, it turned out to be, as complications escalated. I remember wanting my child to survive above all, but if I had another request, it was "please don't let him be brain damaged.... let him keep his intelligence." But by the time Aidan had his stroke, shortly after his transplant, that was no longer my prayer.  By that time, I was seeing that what makes a child lovable and valuable is not a function of intellectual capacity but of something else that could speak silently even through profound physical and cognitive handicap. 

Because of the post-transplant stroke, Aidan is moderately delayed, about the level of many Down Syndrome children of his age. He can read a little. He is a great help around the house. He problem-solves with a lot of energy and always has some creative, if idiosyncratic, project going on. Above all, he loves wholeheartedly. Last Sunday at mass, after we had picked Kevin up at the Amtrak station after a parting of two week, Aidan never stopped clinging to his Daddy, except to kneel to pray. He gazed up at him as if he would never stop. His face reminded me of the face of one of my other sons when he was a small baby at Mass and a nun whispered to me, "Jesus must have looked at Mary that way." Only Aidan is 12, and I think, I hope, he will never stop looking at us that way.

Perhaps Aidan is one reason that I loved reading the Lily Trilogy so much.  In fact, when the review copies of the trilogy arrived earlier in the summer, I read the whole lot in just a few days.  When I had finished, I felt like I knew the people in the books, and in fact, I still am sometimes reminded of them while meeting people or doing things in real life, which is probably an indicator that a book and its characters have lived in one's mind. 

The first book, Until Lily, tells about Bev, an old lady in a nursing home. We find out through flashbacks that she was a career woman who chose to be childless, but had motherhood thrust upon her when her sister dies of cancer, leaving her with her own three children. The youngest, still a preschooler, is Lily, who has Down Syndrome. Bev does not want Lily, but reluctantly, like Simon of Cyrene, shoulders the cross because it was her sister's dying plea.

Because of the way the story unfolds, we see how in her later life, the very burden she often resented has become a great blessing to her. Lily is a faithful visitor to the nursing home, a friend to many of the other occupants, one of the last solaces in her aunt's life. Bev fully realizes the irony, that the child she wanted her sister to abort has become the great comfort of her life, and she tells about her dependence on Lily with wry, unsentimental terseness.

In the two subsequent books of the trilogy, Wherever Lily Goes and Life Entwined with Lily's, we become part of the lives of Lily's older sister Terry, who like Lily was adopted by Bev in childhood after the death of her mother, and then of Terry's daughter, Beth. Terry is feeling trapped and bored by a stagnant marriage, but indirectly through Lily her faith and love for her husband take on a new lease of life, literally. Beth is battling some difficult issues from her past. Through the intertwining of their lives with Lily's, we are able to see the small, subtle touches of grace that end up having decisive impacts on their lives.

Lily is somewhat of a symbol, of the ordinariness and humbleness of grace in the lives of her aunt, sister and niece, but she is also a strong, funny, and unique character in her own right.  

The books are told in first person, present tense, which seems well suited to this particular trio of stories.    Present events recall moments from the past, which allows for a flexibility that adds significance to everything that happens. Again, this seems to work well in this group of stories, since it brings out the impact of little things, epiphanies that would otherwise slide by, and often do in our real lives.

Perhaps because of her own experience mothering a Down Syndrome child, Sherry Boas manages to be realistic in an understated, vivid way about the small but piercing aggravations as well as the small, ordinary graces. She also manages, by showing the influence of Lily's life across three generations of women, to show the big picture that is not always evident when you are chasing down a toilet-resistant six year old, or worrying about a mentally disabled adult who is late arriving and never remembers to bring her cell phone on the bus with her.

The big picture, of course, the continuous thread that unifies the details, is life and love, as exemplified in the hearts and lilies with which Lily signs the drawings she gives away to everyone she meets.

I am very glad I got the chance to read these books; beyond my identification with the circumstances and themes of the trilogy, I found them to be a well-written take on some of the issues and difficulties of our modern times. The books deal with situations from adoption to single motherhood to abortion to troubled marriages; not with a view to pat answers, but with an eye for realistic detail and grace in the little things.

You can find out more about the Lily Trilogy and author Sherry Boas here .


  1. Wow, these books sound fascinating!!

  2. Willa, thank you for sharing Aidan's story. "Above all, he loves wholeheartedly." I wish I could meet you both!

    I enjoyed your review and can't wait to read the books. Perhaps I'll get time when we are on holiday next week. 'd better go and follow the link!

    God bless.


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