It is December, and Eggers’s mother is dying on the couch in their home in Lake Forest, Illinois. She has stomach cancer and can no longer walk, so she spends her time watching TV and spitting green fluid into a small “plastic receptacle,” which Eggers and his sister Beth take turns emptying. The green fluid smells foul, but Eggers never comments on it. Six months ago, doctors removed his mother’s stomach, though by then there “wasn’t a lot left to removed.” Eggers notes that he would list what they had already taken out, but he doesn’t know the medical terms.
Compared to the preface and acknowledgements sections, the first chapter of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is relatively straightforward. Eggers suddenly drops almost all of his self-conscious meta-narrative techniques in order to set the scene: his mother is about to die. However, as he establishes this, he subtly reminds readers of his limitations as a writer who must rely on memory, saying that he doesn’t know the medical terms the doctors used when operating on his mother.
Eggers describes the progression of his mother’s illness, including the brief period after she did chemotherapy when it seemed like everything might be all right. Unfortunately, her health quickly deteriorated after this brief reprieve, and now Eggers pictures black coils of cancer cells teeming in her stomach like some “unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever.” As Eggers and his mother watch a show on TV about bodybuilders competing in athletic competitions against amateur athletes, she gets a nosebleed. Because she can’t pinch her nose tightly enough, Eggers reaches over and tries to stop the bleeding with his own hand, but it doesn’t work.
It quickly becomes clear that Eggers is one of his mother’s primary caretakers. This is a reversal of sorts, since parents are usually the ones who take care of their children. As such, Eggers shows readers the extent to which illness and tragedy can alter personal relationships, forcing responsibility on people who aren’t necessarily prepared to take on such serious duties.
A month earlier, Beth woke up early and went downstairs, where she found the front door open. It was late autumn in Illinois, and cold air was coming through the open doorframe. As she got closer, she saw the shape of her father outside. He was, for some reason, kneeling at the end of the driveway.
For those who have read the acknowledgements section—in which Eggers reveals that his parents died within 32 days of one another—this moment is charged with significance, since it seems obvious that Beth is witnessing some ominous precursor to her father’s death. Eggers, it seems, is dramatizing Beth’s experience of finding her father after he’s been struck down by his illness.
Eggers takes a moment to describe their house, explaining that his family’s taste is “inconsistent.” In the family room, for instance, there is a recessed part of the chimney. One day, Eggers writes, his father decided to fill this space with a fish tank. Not caring to measure the area, he miraculously bought a tank that was a perfect fit. “Hey hey!” he said as he slid it in, a phrase he liked to use after accomplishing small, strange feats. “Loser,” his family would often respond, and he’d say, “Aw, screw you,” and go make himself a large Bloody Mary.
Eggers takes a moment to give readers a better idea of what his father was like. Many sections of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius contain small asides like this one, which don’t necessarily advance the plot as much as they help Eggers create a portrait of his life and the people around him. In this moment, he provides readers with a visual detail about the room in which his mother is dying, and he also offers up a snapshot of his father, indicating that he was a quirky man who liked to drink.
Eggers is home from college for winter break. His older brother, Bill, has just returned to D.C., where he works for something Eggers says has to do with “eastern European economics, privatization, conversion.” Beth, for her part, has been home all year because she deferred her first year of law school. Since she rarely gets the opportunity to go out, she likes it when Eggers is home. Now, while holding his mother’s nose, Eggers gazes at the fishless fish tank, which is still full of gauzy water. “Would you check it?” his mother says, talking about her nose. When he lets go to look up her nostril, nothing happens for a moment, but then the blood comes. This is dangerous, because her white blood cell count is so low that her blood won’t clot.
As Eggers sits with his mother and watches TV, he still acts out the habits of ordinary life even though his mother’s situation is potentially quite serious. Since her blood won’t clot, any kind of bleeding could be fatal. Still, though, she and Eggers simply sit there and act normal. This, Eggers suggests, is what it looks like to confront the possibility of death—rather than instantly getting worked up about all the morbid possibilities, he and his mother simply wait. After all, if they always worried right away, they would never be able to live their lives.
When his mother’s oncologist told them that “any bleeding could be the end,” Eggers wasn’t worried. “There seemed to be precious few opportunities to draw blood,” he writes, since she spent all her time on the couch. “I’ll keep sharp objects out of proximity,” he joked, but the doctor didn’t laugh. Wondering if he heard him, Eggers contemplated adding, “No more knife fights. No more knife throwing.” However, he refrained from saying this, since this doctor doesn’t often joke. “It is our job to joke with the doctors and nurses,” he says. “It is our job to listen to the doctors, and after listening to the doctors, Beth usually asks the doctors specific questions,” he notes. He points out that he “know[s]” he “should joke in the face of adversity,” since there’s “always humor,” but recently he’s been unable to find anything funny about his mother’s situation.
Eggers frames humor as something that helps people face “adversity,” something that can help them maintain their strength in the midst of hardship. This is why his memoir is so full of sarcasm and scathing jokes. As he previously mentioned, turning difficult things into “caricatures” helps him confront them. However, certain things—like death and serious illness—seem to resist humor altogether, though it’s worth noting that Eggers keeps trying to make jokes even when doing so proves difficult.
As Eggers holds his mother’s nose again, Toph comes upstairs from the basement, where he has been playing video games. “I can’t get the Sega to work,” he says. Asking him if it’s turned on, Eggers tells him to turn it off and on again, and Toph retreats once more into the basement. Eggers then shifts gears again, narrating the moment that Beth saw their father kneeling outside. As she watched him, she noticed how slight he looked in his work suit. “He had lost so much weight,” Eggers writes. “A car went by, a gray blur. She waited for him to get up.”
When Toph emerges from the basement, readers witness the difficult position Eggers has found himself in as a result of his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Although he’s only a college student, he suddenly has to take on certain parental responsibilities, both in terms of how he cares for his mother and in terms of how he cares for Toph.
It has been ten minutes, and Egger’s mother’s nose has not stopped bleeding. She had another nosebleed two weeks ago, and when Beth was unable to stop the flow, she took her to the emergency room, where the doctors kept her for two days. Even though her oncologist insisted that she stay longer, she demanded to be taken home because she is “terrified” of hospitals and fed up of having to spend time in them. Now that she’s home again, she has determined to never go back, and has even made Beth and Eggers promise they won’t force her to return.
The urgency of Eggers’s mother’s situation becomes all the more apparent as her nosebleed shows no signs of slowing down. Worse, Eggers and Beth have promised they won’t take her to the hospital, meaning that if her nose doesn’t stop bleeding on its own, she could die. By spotlighting this dilemma, Eggers shows readers the tricky balance of taking care of someone’s medical needs while also respecting their personal wishes.
“We are both distantly worried about the bleeding nose, my mother and I, but are for the time being working under the assumption that the nose will stop bleeding,” Eggers writes. As he continues to hold her nose while she watches TV and spits green fluid into the small plastic receptacle, he encourages her to “talk funny, the way people talk when their nose is being held,” but she refuses, telling him to “cut it out.” Changing the subject, she asks him how school is going, and he lies, saying things are fine even though he has actually been dropping classes. “How’s Kirsten?” she asks, referring to his girlfriend. “She’s good,” he says, and even though he’s engaged in conversation, he feels a creeping sense of dread, sensing that “it’s coming.” “We know it is coming,” he writes, “but are not sure when—weeks? Months?”
Once again, Eggers tries to use humor to lighten the mood. By doing so, he hopes to make it easier to deal with this difficult situation. In this case, though, he seems to seek out humor for his own sake, not his mother’s. As such, she moves past his joke by asking him about his life, but this does nothing to help him take his mind off the sinister feeling that her death is “coming.”
Half an hour later, Eggers stops holding his mother’s nose, and for a moment it seems the bleeding has stopped, but then it flows again with a vengeance. He grasps her nose, squeezing so hard he hurts her. Meanwhile, Toph comes upstairs and announces that he’s hungry, but Eggers tells him he can’t feed him at the moment. “Have something from the fridge,” he says. When Toph asks what they have, Eggers says, “Why don’t you look? You’re seven, you’re perfectly capable of looking.” After a moment of going back and forth like this, their mother interjects, urging Toph to come to her, but Toph goes downstairs instead, waiting until Eggers orders a pizza. “He’s scared of me,” their mother says.
Again readers see the difficult position Eggers is in as caretaker for both his mother and Toph. What’s notable, though, is that he calls upon Toph to be independent. He doesn’t pamper his little brother, but instead urges him to figure out dinner for himself. This is not a very parental move, but rather the kind of thing an older brother would do. This makes sense, of course, since Eggers is Toph’s older brother. Nonetheless, this method of caretaking is worth keeping in mind, as it foreshadows the relationship that Eggers eventually builds with Toph when they are on their own.
Eggers asks his mother what she wants to do about her nose, which won’t stop bleeding. “I think we should do something,” he says, but she says she just wants to wait. Eventually, she lets him call the nurse, who tells them to apply ice. While doing this, Eggers decides to lie lengthwise on the top edge of the couch—above his mother—so that he can hold the pack to her nose while still seeing the TV. Soon, the plastic receptacle fills to the brim, and Eggers notices that the liquid has blood and bile and blots of blackness in it. At this point, Beth comes home and asks what’s going on, and they tell her about the nosebleed. “Shit,” she says. She and Eggers talk about the situation for a moment, and when they turn back to their mother, she says, “I’m not going back in.”
Yet again, Eggers—and now Beth—are in a difficult position. On the one hand, they want to do whatever is necessary to keep their mother alive, even if this means taking her to the hospital. On the other hand, they want to respect her wishes, and they’ve promised they won’t make her go back to the emergency room. Nonetheless, promises like this are easier to make than they are to keep, and Eggers and Beth find themselves disconcerted by the idea that honoring their word might cost their mother her life.
Six months before this episode with the bloody nose, Eggers’s father called him and Beth into the living room. He sat there smoking as they came into the room, and before they had a chance to get settled in, he said, “Your mother’s going to die.” In retrospect, Eggers calls his father “a man of minor miracles” and thinks that his courage in this moment was “pretty incredible.”
It seems clear that Eggers’s father dies before his mother, based on the way Eggers has chosen to narrate their respective stories. However, readers learn in this moment that Eggers’s mother seems to have been diagnosed with cancer before he or Beth knew anything about their father’s illness. As such, it’s logical to assume that his sickness progressed considerably faster.
Beth takes Eggers’s place holding the ice to their mother’s nose, and Eggers goes downstairs to tell Toph that he’ll order pizza soon. When he comes back upstairs, he takes the plastic receptacle from his mother and goes to empty it, but the fluid spills down the leg of his pants, and he finds himself wondering if it will burn through the denim. Beth meets him in the kitchen, where they whisper about what they’re going to do. It has been an hour since their mother’s nose started bleeding, and there are no signs indicating that it’ll stop anytime soon. “It could be it,” they say to each other. “She wants it to be it.” They then debate whether or not this is true, deciding that—like them—she’s probably “scared” and not “ready” for the end.
While contemplating whether or not to take his mother into the hospital, Eggers executes several smaller, more mundane tasks, like emptying his mother’s receptacle and visiting Toph in the basement, making sure that the boy is taken care of. As such, Eggers shows readers that life doesn’t stop just because something terrible is happening. When he returns to the kitchen and speaks with Beth, the two siblings think about the worst-case scenario, unable to avoid the possibility that their mother might die that very night.
When Beth goes back into the living room, Eggers contemplates how long it would take for his mother to bleed to death. He wonders if there are enough towels in the house to clean up the blood she’ll spill if her nose bleeds for an entire day. He thinks about calling the emergency room, posing as a high school student doing a report on “slow blood leakage,” but immediately disregards this idea. He then realizes that if his mother is about to die, he and Beth will have to call people before she does. They’ll have to call Bill and their mother’s former volleyball teammates and her coworkers. How, he wonders, will they have enough time to do this? He will have to do it as a conference call, he decides, but then realizes he doesn’t have the necessary equipment, so considers visiting Kmart to get the supplies.
Eggers demonstrates that the mind—and especially his mind—often wanders in moments of stress. Faced with the difficult possibility of his mother’s death, he can’t help but imagine gory scenarios involving “slow blood leakage” and ruined towels. To a certain extent, these thoughts are morbid and disturbing, but in another way, they’re actually quite funny. His thoughts about going to Kmart, for instance, throw his bloodier worries into sharp relief, contrasting the grotesque with the mundane in a way that invites readers to see the twisted humor inherent to these kinds of situations.
Eggers decides against calling multiple people at once. Instead, he and his family can simply spend this time together, can “hang out, just sit there.” It’ll be nice, he thinks, then cuts himself off, reasoning, “Jesus, it’s not going to be nice, not with the blood everywhere.” He hears Beth’s voice from the living room saying, “Mom, we should go in.” Joining the conversation, he too urges their mother to visit the hospital, and she eventually says, “Look at you two, Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” When they look at her in confusion, she adds, “You want to go out tonight, that’s what it is.” They refute this, but she says, “It’s New Year’s Eve. You two have plans!” After more arguing, they finally convince her to let them take her to the emergency room.
In addition to telling a story about his mother’s health and the final days of her life, Eggers takes this opportunity to develop her as a character. Even in this moment of hardship, she has a cynical sense of humor, calling Eggers and Beth “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” What’s more, she is suspicious of her children, thinking they just want to have fun without her. In this way, Eggers shows readers that his mother has a cutting, bitter sense of humor and a strong personality.
Eggers once again describes Beth’s experience of watching their father as he knelt in the driveway. Recently, he had been falling in the kitchen and shower. When Beth realizes what she’s looking at, she dashes out the door and runs to him.
By jumping back and forth between his mother’s story and his father’s story, Eggers reminds readers of the staggering misfortune that has befallen their family—namely, that both parents have succumbed to illness within five weeks of one another.
Back in the family room, Eggers picks up his mother and carries her to the car, promising not to let her head hit the doorframe—a promise he fails to keep. Once he loads her into the backseat, Beth comes into the garage with Toph, who sits in the station wagon’s rear seat. When they’re all in the car, Beth turns around, looks at her family, and says, “Road trip!”
When Beth turns around and says, “Road trip!” it’s unclear who she’s trying to make feel better. One might think that she’s putting on an air of lightheartedness for Toph’s sake, since he’s only seven. However, her fake cheerfulness also might be something she’s using to make herself feel better. Since she and Eggers are now responsible for both their dying mother and Toph, it’s quite likely that she needs to maintain a positive attitude in order to keep herself going.
Eggers describes his father’s funeral service, which took place in the third week of November. He remembers feeling “embarrassed,” thinking that it was “all so gaudy, so gruesome,” especially since the family was smiling so much and shaking hands and inviting people to watch them “in the middle of [their] disintegration.” He recalls listening to the minister, who hadn’t known his father because his father was a staunch atheist. Then Bill gave a eulogy, and though he was good in front of crowds, he was perhaps too good, too lighthearted. Afterwards, people crowded into their house and played Trivial Pursuit in the family room, though this was no fun without any alcohol (Eggers tried to hint to his friends that they should go get a case of beer, but none of them did).
It’s not hard to see that Eggers doesn’t like the attention that comes along with having a loved one die. Indeed, it’s as if he feels like people expect him to act a certain way, but nothing he or his family does meets these expectations. For instance, Bill’s eulogy is too happy and light. What’s more, Eggers finds the ceremonious aspect of funerals tiresome and boring, wanting to have an actual party instead of simply going through the motions that people expect him and his family to go through. Even his friends seem to treat him differently, suddenly too timid and respectful to bring beer into his house.
At the house after the funeral, Eggers and Beth talked to their father’s friend, a lawyer who carpooled with him every day. “He was the best driver I’ve ever seen,” he says. “So smooth, so in control. He was incredible. He would see three, four moves ahead.” Beth and Eggers savor these anecdotes because they’ve “never heard anything about [their] father” and feel like they don’t know anything about him beyond what he was like at home. “I did not know that the last time I saw my father would be the last time I would see my father,” Eggers says, explaining that he was put in intensive care shortly after his diagnosis, and when Eggers himself went to visit, he found him smoking a cigarette right there in the hospital, looking casual and content.
The interest that Eggers and Beth take in their father’s friend’s small anecdotes suggests that they weren’t very close to their father. However, it also serves as a reminder that even the smallest of stories—about driving, for instance—can become meaningful in retrospect, especially after a person has died.
Eggers’s mother spends the night in the emergency room, followed by a day in intensive care. She’s then put in a spacious room with large windows, which Beth calls the “death room” because there’s enough space for visitors. As their mother sleeps, Beth and Eggers lie on an adjacent hospital bed with Toph and talk about how disconcerting it is to hear the pauses in their mother’s breathing. They also talk about how strange it is that this room doesn’t have a TV.
At home, Eggers and his mother were able to forge a sense of normality by paying attention the TV even as her health rapidly deteriorated. Now, in this sterile hospital room with its large white walls and spaciousness, there’s nothing to distract the family from the brutal reality of death.
After the guests left Eggers’s house in the aftermath of his father’s funeral, he and Kirsten snuck off to his parents’ bathroom to have sex. The house was full of people, so this was the only place they where could find any privacy. “This is weird,” Kirsten said as Eggers spread out a blanket. He and Kirsten met in college and dated for several months before things became serious. At first, neither of them thought the relationship would last very long, but then Eggers told her that his mother had cancer, and she revealed to him that her mother had a brain tumor. “From then on,” he writes, “we were more serious.”
Eggers’s relationship with Kirsten is intertwined with what’s happening in his family. His experience of watching his mother die and his experience of dating Kirsten are inseparable, especially since she herself knows what it’s like to have a sick parent. By drawing attention to the development of his first adult relationship, Eggers reminds readers that, despite his elevated sense of responsibility, he is still growing up and coming of age.
While sitting with Eggers and Toph in the hospital, Beth remembers with a start that the next day is their mother’s birthday. She reminds Eggers, and they decide to go to the gift shop to buy flowers and a card.
Eggers shows readers that life goes on like normal even in the sterile confines of a hospital. In this case, this means that he and Beth have to find a way to mark their mother’s birthday—just because she’s sick doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to celebrate.
Telling the story of his mother’s final days, Eggers switches to the future tense, saying, “We’ll get her out in a few days.” He explains that he and Beth will take her home and install her in a hospital bed in the living room. They’ll also have a full-time nurse come to take care of her. Just before it’s too late, they will pay for her sister—their aunt—to fly out, and her appearance will make their mother smile and sit up for the first time in days. There will be “an endless stream of visitors” and a priest who delivers mass in the living room while Eggers cooks a frozen pizza in the kitchen and listens. He and Beth will stay up late with their mother, doing anything they can to make her comfortable, but she’ll eventually begin speaking “incomprehensibly,” filled with a strange paranoia.
Eggers’s use of the future tense in this section helps readers understand the dread that he and his family surely felt when his mother was on the cusp of death. By saying that all of these things “will” happen, he instills in his readers a sense of inevitability, ultimately enabling them to better understand what it’s like to watch a parent slowly succumb to illness.
“There will be morphine,” Eggers writes. Soon enough, the doses won’t be enough to soothe his mother, so he and Beth will order more and they will obtain permission to choose the dosage amount. They’ll give her a steady flow of the drug “every time she moans,” and this will stop the moaning. “We will leave while they take her away and when we come back the bed will be gone, too,” Eggers writes. Not long after she’s gone, he will take Toph to watch the Chicago Bulls practice, and they will sign his baseball cards. Eggers and Beth will randomly take him out of school sometimes just to make him happy. Beth will take care of all the legal worries, but everyone knows that Eggers will be the one to take Toph.
The buildup to Eggers’s mother’s death is fairly lengthy, but his actual narration of her death is vague. In fact, he essentially skips over the specifics of her last moments, using the future tense to speed ahead. Indeed, he informs readers that his mother has died by saying, “We will leave while they take her away and when we come back the bed will be gone, too.” In turn, his focus on what’s still to come emphasizes his feeling of possibility and change—although he’s sad that his mother has died, he is perhaps also relieved that she’s no longer suffering. What’s more, he can now forge ahead in his life.
Still using the future tense, Eggers explains that he and Beth will sell the family house a week after their mother dies. Toph will finish third grade while he himself drops classes. Eggers won’t earn his college diploma, but he will walk at graduation, and then he, Beth, and Toph will move to Berkeley, California, “where Beth will start law school.” For now, though, Eggers sits by his mother in the hospital and watches her sleep. He stands to whisper “Happy birthday” into her ear, and when she doesn’t stir, he sits in a chair and looks at Toph, who wakes up under his gaze. “He gets up and comes to me as I am sitting in the chair,” he writes, “and I take his hand and we go through the window and fly up and over the quickly sketched trees and then to California.”
Having rushed past his mother’s death using the future tense, Eggers momentarily loops back to the night that he, Beth, and Toph spent together in the hospital. However, he quickly returns to his forward-looking outlook by turning to Toph and flying out the window to California, an act of imagination that represents his eagerness to leave behind all his woe and hardships. In this moment, readers watch as Eggers embraces the idea of youthful possibility; without having to care for his parents anymore, he feels as if the world has opened for him.