The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Immortality and Its Costs Theme Analysis

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Ordinarily, when we think of immortality, we think of a single person living forever. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, however, she has not found the secret to eternal life—but her cells have. Yet as in every fairy tale and myth, immortality comes at a cost. The first price to be paid, of course, was Henrietta herself, who died because of the very same aggression that made her tumor cells such ideal candidates for immortality. Henrietta’s death, and the way that her tissues were treated after death, then had huge and costly implications for her family. Her children missed their mother, of course, but they were also shocked, horrified, and confused by the idea that their mother was in some way “immortal.” Their mental health, particularly that of Zakariyya and Deborah, was a quick victim of their mother’s immortality, leading to mental issues like paranoia and anger over the way that the scientific establishment had (they felt) taken their mother away from them.

The mention of Henrietta’s descendants, of course, brings up the question of the financial cost of Henrietta’s immortality. Although the original creator of the HeLa cell line, George Gey, made little money off of his innovation, drug and research companies have since made billions of dollars off of research and inventions that began with experiments on HeLa. Henrietta’s various descendants express their outrage within the book that they are not compensated for their mother’s contributions to society; they believe that they are owed something by the medical establishment, for having essentially given away their mother in exchange for scientific innovation.

The question of cost is a complicated one, because of the question of who really owns a tissue. The fact remains, however, that Henrietta’s cells have cured the world of countless diseases while her family members don’t even have health insurance to buy the drugs that their genetic material helped to create. The Lacks family has paid the cost of Henrietta’s immortality, but has not truly reaped its rewards.

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Immortality and Its Costs Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Below you will find the important quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks related to the theme of Immortality and Its Costs .
Prologue Quotes

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As she begins her story, the narrator--journalist Rebecca Skloot--reflects on its significance, and its personal effect on her. She emphasizes to her readers that this narrative is not simply about HeLa, the cells that revolutionized cellular biology, but about the human beings behind those cells.

Making clear that this will be a story of faith and family as well as science, Rebecca takes care to credit Henrietta's relatives--the very people who feel forgotten by history and by the medical establishment that profited off of her immortal cancer cells.

In so doing, Rebecca firmly states that her allegiance is to the descendants and their narrative, and that she means to harshly critique the medical establishment for the way it treated them. Although she by no means diminishes the scientific wonders achieved with Henrietta's cells, nor does she let doctors, researchers, and institutions off the hook for the bigoted and arrogant way that they treated both Henrietta and her relatives. 


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Chapter 4 Quotes

Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity...They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling the numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

With doctors having taken a sample of Henrietta's tissue, these cells now become a different entity from her entirely. While Henrietta is dying, her cancerous cells are thriving; in fact, they are "growing like nothing anyone had ever seen."

In this passage, Rebecca sounds almost hyperbolic, stating that Henrietta's cells seem to grow "with mythological intensity." She is not exaggerating, however. Instead, she is emphasizing for readers just how unprecedented this phenomenon was, and how awestruck researchers were when it occurred. In this way, Rebecca makes clear just how groundbreaking the discovery of HeLa was, foreshadowing the truly world-changing effect that it would have on multiple scientific fields. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Everything always just about the cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person…You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don’t know anything, not even little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord, I’d like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Reflecting on her mother's legacy, Deborah expresses anger and confusion, still incredulous that people can benefit from her mother's cells without even knowing her name. She emphasizes that Henrietta was a person, and should be remembered for her human qualities rather than for her (unknowing) scientific contribution.

What also comes through in this passage is Deborah's continuing feelings of loss and grief, despite the many decades since Henrietta's death. She longs to know how her mother smelled, her favorite color, and if she liked to dance. In short, she still yearns for a childhood, and a mother, whom she never had.

Without ever saying it, Rebecca makes clear how damaging the continuing controversy around HeLa has been to Deborah. Having lost her mother many years ago, the wound is constantly reopened by insensitive researchers and journalists who think of Henrietta as a resource rather than a human, and who fail to understand Deborah's  longing for her mother. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

Each day, Henrietta’s doctors increased her dose of radiation, hoping it would shrink the tumors and ease the pain until her death. Each day the skin on her abdomen burned blacker and blacker, and the pain grew worse.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

As Henrietta grows sicker, her doctors turn the only treatment for cancer they know, radiation, in an effort to "ease [her] pain." This procedure, however, burns Henrietta's stomach skin black, and only makes her agony worse. 

In addition to being a story of faith, family, and legacy, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also a narrative of cancer treatments, and their slow advance into the twenty-first century. While radiation was a huge step, as often as not it only increased patients' pain and heralded their demise.

Although it is comforting to tell ourselves that doctors know what they are doing, too often treatments are found to be as harmful as they are helpful. This was definitely true in the case of radiation, which in fact added to the agony and indignity of Henrietta's final days. Ironically, it was her cells that would later help researchers find more effective (and less damaging) cancer treatments that would help generations of patients after her death. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it…but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.

Related Characters: Hector Henry (Cootie) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Commenting on the immortality of HeLa, Henrietta's cousin, Cootie, states his relative must have been tampered with, either by a doctor or "a spirit." He believes that HeLa's longevity proves this fact, since "regular cancer" would not continue to live even after its host had passed on.

Although Rebecca comes from a background of science, logic, and medicine, she never derides the more religious or superstitious views of Henrietta's family. Instead, she gives them their due, trying to understand their origins, and allowing various relatives to voice their views within the pages of her book. 

Further, as Rebecca will make clear, Cootie's suspicion that a doctor may have altered Henrietta in some way is not entirely unfounded. The American medical establishment of the mid-twentieth century was incredibly cavalier when it came to the bodies of black patients and women, often performing procedures or conducting experiments on them without informing them, let alone obtaining informed consent. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Mary Kubicek (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa, Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

A research assistant at the time of Henrietta's death, Mary Kubicek recounts her patient's autopsy, recalling distinctly her shock and dismay at seeing Henrietta's "chipped bright red [nail]polish." It was only at this point, she recalls, that she realized how HeLa had come "from a live woman."

Mary's account shines a bright light on how easy it is for doctors and researchers to dehumanize their patients. Although Mary is a decent and moral person, she has only been working with Henrietta's cancer cells--which of course feel far removed from an actual person.

Henrietta's toenails, however, deliver a sharp rebuke to the young researcher. In that moment, she sees Henrietta not as a test subject, but as a human woman who--not too long ago--engaged in activities as relatable as painting her toenails.

The vast majority of researchers who work with HeLa, of course, have never had such an experience. To them, HeLa is merely a useful tool, rather than the final remnant of a now-dead woman. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies…

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Tuskegee Institute
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in her narrative, Rebecca broadens out, moving from Henrietta's personal story to HeLa's initial effects on modern medicine. Even as she does so, however, she makes sure to stay focused on one of her main themes: race and science in America. 

In this passage, Rebecca spotlights the effort to discover a polio vaccine. In order to do so, researchers needed to mass-produce large amounts of HeLa, a task that fell to the black, largely female "scientists and technicians" of the Tuskegee Institute.

On one hand, this moment is an uplifting and optimistic one, as black women use "cells from a black woman" to help end the plague of polio which had been afflicting "millions of Americans." Yet there is a terrible irony in this effort's location: the Tuskegee Institute is also infamous for its syphilis studies, which involved letting huge numbers of black men go untreated and die in an effort by white researchers to further understand the STD. Thus, on one campus and at the same time, racial progress and deadly racism co-existed. 

Chapter 15 Quotes

No one told Sonny, Deborah, or Joe what had happened to their mother, and they were afraid to ask…As far as the children knew, their mother was there one day, gone the next.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Sonny Lacks
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

As she will do throughout the narrative, Rebecca makes sure never to stray too far from the story of the Lacks family, and the effects that HeLa and its fame had on Henrietta's descendants. At this point, Henrietta's children know nothing at all about HeLa--in fact, they do not even know how or why their mother died.

Although keeping children in the dark was a common practice at the time, the sudden and mysterious loss of their mother proved hugely traumatic for all three of the Lacks children. To find out decades later that researchers and doctors had benefited (both intellectually, practically, and financially) from their mother's death would only add insult to injury. 

As the book continues, Rebecca always takes care to trace the different ways that Henrietta's children were affected by her death--from the stoic Sonny to the troubled Joe (later Zakariyya) to the bereft but ever-determined Deborah. At no point does she allow her readers to forget that her characters are real people who mourn their mother's death (no matter how much the rest of the world profited from it).

Chapter 16 Quotes

It sound strange…but her cells done lived longer than her memory.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Hector Henry (Cootie) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca returns to Cootie, who reflects on how "strange" it is that Henrietta's "cells" have lived longer than her "memory." In essence, he is saying, a part of Henrietta's body has survived despite the fact that almost everybody (including the people working with it every day) have forgotten who she was, or that she even existed. 

In short, the uneducated yet eloquent Cootie has just articulated the ultimate goal of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A deeply humane journalist and scientist, Rebecca simply cannot bear the thought that Henrietta Lacks, a woman who made inarticulable contributions to medical and technological process, has become lost to history. With her book, she intends to resurrect Henrietta's "memory," ensuring that it will forever be paired with her immortal cells. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.

Related Characters: Lawrence Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (the author)
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

While being interviewed by Rebecca, Lawrence Lacks turns the tables, asking the reporter to tell him what Henrietta's cells "really did." While he knows that they were "important" in some way, he complains that "nobody tells us nothing." 

This short, plain passage vividly illustrates just how in-the-dark Henrietta's children were about her effects on the world. While they knew that HeLa was famous in some way, they had no real concept of what it had done, and of the huge benefits that their mother had provided for millions (if not billions) of people.

While the Lackses acutely feel that they have been cheated financially from profiting off of Henrietta's cells, this passage points to another loss: that this woman's own children do not understand how truly revolutionary HeLa was, and how many people Henrietta had helped. Instead of being proud of their mother, the Lackses are simply confused and indignant. Far from being their fault, this ignorance stems from the fact that no one had ever bothered to explain HeLa's--and Henrietta's--legacy to them. 

John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Sonny Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca interviews Sonny, another one of the Lacks children. Here he expresses anger at what he views as Johns Hopkins' cover-up of HeLa, and their continued quest to keep the profits from the cell from the Lacks children.

Although Sonny's view is an overly simplified one, his indignation is absolutely justified. At the time of Rebecca's research, most of the Lackses still struggled to get by, often living from paycheck to paycheck. Most ironically of all, many members of the family had spotty insurance at best, meaning that they could not benefit from the very medical advances that originated from their mother's cells. 

At the same time, Sonny's anger also reflects a suspicion widespread in the African-American community towards the medical establishment. In many ways, Sonny does not trust doctors anymore than Henrietta did. He believes them to be deceitful, racist, and greedy--and although such a view is an exaggerated one, it is undoubtedly true that the medical establishment treated the Lacks family in an immensely unfair and prejudiced manner. 

You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Bobbette Cooper (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca goes on to interview Bobbette, Lawrence's wife. Here Bobbette articulates another complaint within the Lacks family: that doctors didn't ask Henrietta for the cells, but rather stole them. To the Lackses, this makes the massive profits that the medical establishment has made off of HeLa even more illegitimate and unfair. 

In her anger, Bobbette also happens to be correct. Although it was customary at the time for doctors not to ask patients' consent before removing their tissue, such a practice would be unthinkable today. Further, physicians treated Henrietta with even less respect (and gave her less agency) because she was a black woman.

As a member of not one but two disenfranchised groups, Henrietta was particularly likely to be used and victimized by those in positions of authority. Although the doctors and researchers who discovered HeLa meant well and did not understand the harm in what they were doing, they nevertheless acted in immensely racist and sexist ways in their treatment of Henrietta, and their harvesting of HeLa. 

Chapter 30 Quotes

Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca and Deborah go to visit Zakariyya, Henrietta's disturbed youngest son, still fuming decades later over his mother's death, and the medical establishment's profit off of her cells.

Zakariyya articulates an attitude of rage, suspicion, and jealousy. He believes that the world is ot to cheat him, and that the researchers and patients who benefited from Henrietta's tissue "didn't deserve her help."

Yet although Zakariyya might seem unreasonable and even unhinged, he in fact has every reason to be angry. Destitute and mentally ill, Zakariyya's never recovered from his mother's death, undergoing years of abuse and neglect as a result. Yet while he suffered from Henrietta's demise, doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies thrived, using her cells to make both medical advances and profits. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand Zakariyya's rage, and his belief that the world has cheated him out of both money and a mother. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nothing bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Deborah reflects on her mother's death, stating that she can't be "mad at science," because of how much it has benefited people in the twenty-first century, herself included. At the same time, though, Deborah wishes that she could have "health insurance" so that she could afford the drugs that Henrietta's cells "probably helped make." 

Although Deborah is uneducated and speaks plainly, she has here highlighted a tragic irony in the Lacks family's lives: that although their mother's cells helped to catapult modern medicine forward, they are too poor to benefit from many of those same advances.

At the same time, though, Deborah articulates an astounding amount of forgiveness and understanding. While Zakariyya and Sonny hate the medical establishment for supposedly cheating them out of HeLa profits, Deborah refuses to be "mad." She sees the bigger picture, realizing how much better off the world is due to HeLa. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.
[Deborah] raised the vial and touched it to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered, “Just nobody knows it.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks, Joe Lacks (Zakariyya)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Within Christoph Lengauer's lab, Deborah and Zakariyya are able to look at a living sample of HeLa under a microscope. Rebecca reflects that they haven't come so close to "seeing their mother alive" in decades. 

In this passage, Rebecca perfectly marries the blend of personal and scientific that defines her narrative. Together, she and Lengauer have used the science of microscopes and cell replication to bring two adult children close to what they consider the spirit of their mother. By acknowledging the humanity of Zakariyya and Deborah, the reporter and the scientist have used science for a moment of emotional healing and connection.

Equally poignant and moving is Deborah's decision to tell her mother--through a vial of HeLa--that she is famous, although "nobody knows it." Clearly, Deborah believes that she is in the presence of her mother. Her first impulse, in this deeply profound moment, is to tell her mother about all the good she has done, and how she has changed the world. Unselfish and limitlessly giving, Deborah wishes above all that her mother--a poor, uneducated, black woman--could realize her staggering importance. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

Take one of me and my sister by her and my mother grave…It’ll be the only picture in the world with the three of us almost together.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Related Symbols: Clover and Lacks Town, Crownsville State Hospital
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of a road trip with Rebecca (and having found a photograph of her long lost sister), Deborah requests that the reporter take a picture of herself, the photo, and Henrietta's grave. 

In this moment, it becomes clear to both the reader and to Rebecca just how much Deborah has lost. Although she barely knew her mother or her sister, the adult woman still longs for them, yearning for a childhood of which she was robbed.

It is a mark of the humane nature of Rebecca's storytelling that this quiet moment of grief is treated with as much importance and significance as the famous scientific discoveries that she recounts. This passage, and others like it, make clear that Rebecca considers the story of Henrietta to be one of people, not of research subjects. 


Related Characters: Gary (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

In a small house with a Lacks cousin named Gary, along with Deborah, Rebecca has an unsettling experience, as Gary fervently prays (along with Deborah) for God to give the "burden" of HeLa to Rebecca, removing it from the Lacks family. 

Although Rebecca is a woman of science rather than faith, she is deeply moved by this experience, feeling that the responsibility of Henrietta's legacy has indeed been transferred to her in some way. Always respectful of others' beliefs, Rebecca here finds herself thrown into a world about which she knows and understands very little--yet despite her distance from religion, the prayer affects her deeply.

It is also important to remember how "heavy" the burden of HeLa has been on the Lacks family. It has made them victims of an unfeeling medical establishment and a rapacious news media; it has exposed their genetic material for the world to see; and it has never allowed them to truly mourn or move on from their mother's death. 

Chapter 36 Quotes

In that moment…I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 339
Explanation and Analysis:

After having spent many months with the Lackses, Rebecca has often felt conflicted between her own scientific mindset and the deeply religious beliefs of those around her. In this moment, however, she has a revelation, realizing that the immortality of HeLa fits perfectly with the Christian idea that the Lord's chosen angels become "immortal being[s]." To many of the Lackses, the existence of HeLa proves the existence of the divine, as well as proving Henrietta's saintliness when she was on Earth.

This moment is a deeply personal one, filled with empathy and understanding. Although educated and well-informed, Rebecca never pretends to be omniscient, nor does she consider herself to be better in any way than the Lackses. Instead, she approaches their beliefs with openness and curiosity, qualities that allow her to have this deep and moving realization about the connection between HeLa and the Lackses' religious beliefs. 

Chapter 37 Quotes

This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!...So will that child…and that child…and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too.

Related Characters: James Pullum (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Davon, JaBrea
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

At the baptism of a Lacks grandchild, Reverend James Pullum (Deborah's husband) calls Rebecca up onstage, urging her to tell the congregation about her book. Rebecca does so, and Pullum marvels that, thanks to Rebecca, Henrietta's descendants will always know that their "great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world."

Once again, this passage encapsulates what Rebecca hopes to do with her book. Rather than seeking fame for herself, she instead wants to ensure that Henrietta's descendants understand and celebrate the contribution of their foremother to science and to the "world." It is vital to her that these children know that this is not her story but "their[s]," and that they too can make a difference in the world, just as Henrietta did. 

Chapter 38 Quotes

Heaven looks just like Clover, Virginia. My mother and I always loved it down there more than anywhere else in the world.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Clover and Lacks Town
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

Always nostalgic for her childhood, Deborah wonders what Heaven looks like, deciding that it must resemble "Clover, Virginia" where her family grew up. Even when imagining the afterlife, Deborah still clings fiercely to what she has lost, identifying herself closely with her mother, and yearning for an idyllic childhood that never actually occurred.

By the book's end, Deborah has died, and has not seen the publication of Rebecca's book. Yet rather than express regret or sadness over Deborah's death, Rebecca instead chooses to share Deborah's simple, generous, innocent vision of what Heaven must be like. At once lovely and deeply sad, this picture of Heaven as a quiet country town is the perfect illustration of Deborah's openness and optimism.

Although she lived an immensely difficult life, Deborah never lost her capacity for wonder, or her belief in better times to come. It is clear that Rebecca deeply admires this quality, and so chooses to celebrate it as she brings her narrative to a close.