But his parents continued to wonder. His mother, Angilee, told me of one episode that really left an impression. It was in 1993, and one of Terry’s nurses called to say he was somehow not right. Now, vegetative patients are not right or wrong, they just are. But these nurses hadn’t read the textbooks and didn’t know that vegetative patients couldn’t possibly have an emotional repertoire. They were mothers and intuited that something was wrong and that Terry needed Angilee.
Angilee arrived to find Terry with eyes wide open, looking scared. What had happened? An elderly man with advanced dementia, with whom Terry shared a room, had become confused; he’d asphyxiated himself in his sheets, and died. Terry witnessed the event, but still mute and presumed to be vegetative, could not tell anyone of his pain or distress.
Only when he began to speak a decade later would it begin to make sense. At some level, Terry had likely been capable of appreciating what happened that night, but he was isolated inside himself, and 10 years ahead of medical science.
Of all the turf wars that have complicated the landscape of grammar over the past few hundred years, the most complicated and frustrating may be that of the singular they.
It may be the most controversial word use in the English language—because it highlights a hole where a better-fitting word should go.
There are few living novelists with a stronger point of view than Donald Ray Pollock. After working 32 years in a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, Pollock got his MFA in his 50s and in 2008 published “Knockemstiff,” a harrowing collection of short stories named for his hometown in southern Ohio. His first novel, “The Devil All the Time,” was a masterful follow-up, mining the same dark depths with a sharper eye for narrative arc. With these two books, Pollock established himself as one of the leading scribes of a new generation of American Gothic literature, full of rugged prose, desperation and decadent violence.
His latest, “The Heavenly Table,” takes place in 1917 from the border dividing Georgia and Alabama to Pollock’s own Ross County in southern Ohio. It revolves primarily around the three Jewett brothers, who leave their lives of abject poverty and subordination to go on a crime spree, influenced by a fictional “crumbling, water-stained dime novel” called “The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket.” Cane Jewett is the eldest at 23, the leader and only literate one, as well as the only one who possesses both intelligence and a mostly functional moral compass. The middle brother, Cob, is slow-witted and childish — “there weren’t enough brains in his head to fill a teaspoon” — while Chimney, the youngest, is rash and unpredictable, with a chilling tendency toward cruelty.
The thing about surviving an experience that by all rights should have killed you is that people tend to think you have returned from the brink with the secret to life. They ask you, full of hope and curiosity, what you’ve learned and what you can impart. And because of a nearly 10-year-old Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman movie, they kind of expect you to jump out of airplanes.
Well, all right. You want the lesson of getting a diagnosis that historically only grants a handful of months to live? Here it is: don’t jump out of airplanes unless you really, really want to. More importantly, though, get rid of that lamp you never liked. Try the chow fun, even though you always get the lo mein. Buy the shoes in red instead of black. Because let’s be real: whether we’ve experienced a serious brush with death or led a thoroughly charmed, healthy, injury-free existence, living every day as if it’s the last just sounds really exhausting.