Eggers revisits Lake Forest for a friend’s wedding. He’s not thrilled about attending a wedding, and hopes it’ll be a traditional affair—at Beth’s wedding, which happened recently, almost nothing was conventional, and Eggers felt embarrassed by the entire thing (Beth walked down the aisle to a KISS song). With Toph staying in LA with Bill, Eggers will remain in Illinois for a few extra days to excavate his past. He plans to visit the funeral home that at one point held his parents before they were cremated. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to track down their remains, though he does have a slight hope that something like this might happen. He also plans to revisit his childhood home and talk to people he hasn’t seen for years. “This trip is about the fact that things have been much too calm in San Francisco,” he writes.
Eggers’s life in San Francisco has lost its excitement. It’s clear he’s no longer thrilled by the idea of being part of the city’s youth culture. Rather, he has grown tired of working at Might, so he goes searching for more information about his parents and his past. In other words, his boredom inspires him to dig up information he might have previously avoided. Having largely ignored the whereabouts of his parents’ remains for years, he suddenly decides to look into the matter. There’s also a self-conscious element to this endeavor, since the research he plans to do in Lake Forest will clearly fuel the autobiographical project that is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Staying with two high school friends who are now roommates, Eggers sets out on his first day with a list, upon which he has written the places and people he wants to visit: the funeral home, his old house, his father’s friend, Sarah, and several others. “The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge,” he admits, “the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.” He wonders if he should spend the majority of his time drunk out of his mind, thinking that this might add something valuable to the experience, though he realizes it would also make it hard for him to drive.
By comparing his trip to Illinois as a “drug binge,” Eggers frames his desire to “dredge up” his family history as something that is both compulsive and shameful, as if he’s guilty about what he’s doing but can’t keep himself from doing it. This feeling most likely arises from the fact that he plans to use whatever information he finds to write about his parents and their deaths, “exploit[ing]” their experiences for the purpose of writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Outside his childhood home, Eggers writes a note and puts it in the mailbox. The note explains that he used to live here and that he’d love to come inside. If, he writes, the current residents are amenable to this idea, they should feel free to call him. To his surprise, seeing his house makes him feel absolutely nothing. Afterwards, he finds a pay phone and calls Sarah, asking her if she’d like to have lunch or coffee in the coming days. “She says any night is fine,” he writes.
Eggers returns to Lake Forest expecting to have profound experiences that are so intense that they feel like a “drug binge.” When he actually sees his house, though, he feels nothing, indicating that merely visiting the place where he grew up won’t necessarily instantly evoke the pain he experienced when his parents died.
At the wedding—which is, to his great relief, exceedingly normal—people ask Eggers about Toph and about Might, which he says probably won’t be going for much longer. “We’re all exhausted,” he notes, explaining that everyone is “tired of having other jobs” and will either need to get significant funding or else move the entire operation to New York. Most of the editors are thinking of moving anyway. As Eggers stands around talking to his friends, he watches older wedding guests dance and feels an acute dislike for them, since he thinks they have taken over “this wedding of two young people.”
Because his parents died when he was still young, Eggers isn’t used to being around middle-aged adults. As a result, he finds himself unable to connect with them, and even resents them for encroaching upon what he sees as his and his friends’ party. Interestingly enough, though, he himself has aged and changed in a way that he might not have foreseen several years ago. Indeed, he no longer feels the idealistic sense of infinite possibility that he experienced when he first started Might.
The next day, Eggers returns to his childhood home, which the current residents have invited him to tour. Inside, he’s shocked to see that they’ve completely changed the house’s layout. They refer to what he thinks of as the family room as the living room, and they’ve even taken down the wallpaper in his room, which he picked out with his mother. As he walks from room to room, he finds himself asking pointed technical questions, like, “Is this new molding? Is this drywall?” Before entering the house, he had felt as if the family made a mistake letting him in, since he sees his interest as no more than a morbid curiosity. As he surveys the house, though, he merely feels like “a friendly neighbor with an interest in decorating.”
Eggers expect to feel a rush of emotion when he enters his childhood home. Instead, he feels nothing, and all he can think to do is comment on the remodeling the current residents have done. In a way, this is part of his self-conscious narration, since he’s aware of the ways in which real life isn’t conforming to the narrative he expects to tell.
Eggers goes to Lake Michigan despite the cold and uses the payphone to call Beth. “You know about those ashes?” he says, asking if the cremation service ever called her. “Yeah they did,” she says, revealing that they called a year ago saying they had their parents’ ashes. When Eggers asks how she responded, she tells him she said they didn’t want the remains. “What do we want with some stupid ashes?” she adds. Eggers can’t believe she would do this without consulting him or Bill, and this makes Beth so angry that she hangs up. “This is just too—I had loved how vague it was before,” Eggers writes. “But now, knowing that Beth knew, and that they’re really gone, discarded, that we had a chance—” He never finishes this sentence. “Oh,” he writes, “we are monsters.”
Eggers liked the fact that he and his siblings didn’t know what happened to their parents remains, because this “vague[ness]” allowed for the possibility that they still might track down the ashes. As such, finding out that “they’re really gone” is a devastating emotional blow, one that makes him feel like he’s a “monster” for not caring enough about his parents.
Eggers calls his father’s friend and speaks to his wife, who tells him that her husband is in the hospital with an infection. However, she insists that it’s not serious and urges Eggers to go visit him. As such, Eggers makes its way to the same hospital his mother stayed in periodically throughout her final months. When he arrives, he’s shocked to see that his father’s friend is in much worse shape than his wife indicated, but he still asks the man questions about his father.
Eggers’s trip to the hospital is another part of his mission to excavate his past. Hoping to gain clarity about the man his father was, he wants to speak to his friend. The fact that this man is in the same hospital in which his mother often stayed only adds to the “archaeological bender” of this trip to Lake Forest.
This conversation throws Eggers into the memory of his father’s hospitalization. Apparently, it was quite unexpected, since he’d just recently been diagnosed. Nonetheless, the doctors told Eggers’s mother that his situation was worse than expected and that he could die at any time. She then rushed to visit him and found him smoking in his room. “He’s not going to go today,” she said, driving home and adding that it wouldn’t happen anytime soon. An hour later, though, he was dead. Now, his friend lies in the hospital and tells Eggers how good his father was at driving. Eggers asks him if he thinks his father “felt alone when he died.” Unfortunately, the phone rings, and when his father’s friend finishes the call, he pretends to have forgotten the question.
The fact that Eggers’s father died so suddenly—despite his mother’s assessment—once again reminds Eggers that death is not only unavoidable, it is also unpredictable. Hoping to get a better sense of his dad’s emotional life, he wonders if his friend can shed any light on what Mr. Eggers must have been feeling before he passed away. This is a difficult and unanswerable question, though, so it makes sense that he doesn’t receive a response.
The following day, Eggers visits the funeral home and asks the young man working there if he has any paperwork documenting where his parents’ bodies were sent. When the employee produces a file, Eggers asks if he can have a copy of it, so the man goes downstairs to the photocopier. Coming back upstairs, he gives Eggers a cardboard box marked Heidi Eggers. “You mean this is…” Eggers says, and the employee confirms that the box holds his mother’s remains. Not knowing what to do, Eggers leaves and puts the box on the passenger’s seat, knowing that his mother would be furious if he put her in the trunk. “The box is my mother, only smaller,” he writes. “The box is not my mother. Is the box my mother? No.” He then imagines her face on the box and feels like a “monster” for “looking for bad things.”
Yet again, Eggers feels guilty about the fact that he’s “looking for bad things.” Of course, it isn’t necessarily the case that he’s doing a “bad” thing by trying to investigate his past, but because this involves telling his parents’ stories, he feels like a “monster” who is overstepping his rights. These feelings are only exacerbated when he actually finds his mother’s remains, a reminder that he has allowed them to languish in this funeral home for years.
At his friends’ apartment that night, Eggers receives a call from Meredith, who tells him that John is “threatening” suicide again. Distracted by the fact that his mother’s remains are sitting outside in the car, Eggers calls John and says, “What’s the problem?” After listening to John complain about being a burden, Eggers changes the subject by telling John about finding his mother’s ashes. He also talks about how he “spent the night driving around the frozen, broken South Side of Chicago” after visiting the funeral home. He was, he tells John, “looking for something to happen” as he drove around speaking into a tape recorder. He says that he imagined a “black man in an army jacket” breaking his car window and forcing him to drive at gunpoint until they reached Lake Michigan, where the man would shoot him.
Eggers is able to distract John from his suicidal thoughts by telling him about his own troubles. This ultimately suggests that what John needs most is someone to commiserate with—after all, he and Eggers both know what it’s like to have lost parents at an early age. On another note, the twisted story Eggers imagines about a “black man in an army jacket” murdering him not only circles back to his tendency to think about death and the worst-case scenario, but also his habit of prescribing to negative stereotypes. In this case, he assumes his killer would be a black man, yet another indication that he has unexamined racial prejudices.
John loves hearing Eggers talk about his morbid fears. Eggers continues, saying, “The thing I was most worried about when I was down there, in the South Side, driving around and talking into the tape recorder? I was worried that after I was shot near the lake, that the murderer, who really only wanted the car, would for some reason find and play the tape, the one where I’m describing my imagining someone like him killing me, and all this stuff about finding the box, and that this murderer would think I’m this racist weirdo.” Enthralled, John has completely forgotten about his own problems. “By now he’s more worried about me than himself,” Eggers reflects. Before hanging up, he tells John he’s planning on seeing Sarah the next day. “Oh man,” John says. “You have to tell me how it goes.”
What’s odd about the situation Eggers imagines is that it acknowledges his own racial prejudices. He recognizes that if this imaginary black man killed him and listened to his tape recorder, he would discover that Eggers is a “racist weirdo.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t stop himself from including this section in his memoir, suggesting that he wants to publicly scrutinize his implicit biases, even if this is uncomfortable and unflattering.
Eggers and Sarah enjoy an evening of drinking and talking about what it was like to grow up in Lake Forest. At one point, they go out to a bar, but they feel uncomfortable seeing people they both know, so they leave and go back to her apartment, where they start kissing on her couch. As things progress, Eggers finds himself “unsettled” by the fact that Sarah’s eyes are open. “She knows I have my mother’s box in the rental car,” he thinks, wondering if she can sense it.
Eggers again feels guilty about his desire to mine the past. In this moment, his guilt about the way he has handled his parents’ deaths makes its way into his relationship with Sarah, and he imagines that she must know about his mother’s ashes—a ridiculous suspicion that only illustrates the extent to which he can’t stop thinking about his decision to investigate his own painful history.
Eggers’s thoughts about his mother lead to a whirlwind of worries, including that Sarah can sense that he heard Sari Locker on the radio earlier that day. He also wonders if she knows—somehow—that he visited the medical school where his parents’ bodies were examined, and that when he finally found the doctor’s name who studied them, he opened the door, saw him sitting there, said “Oop, sorry!” and turned around. Despite these distractions, he and Sarah make their way into the bedroom. The next morning, Eggers feels wonderful in her bed. He even sleeps late as she moves around the apartment, but then it becomes clear she wants him to wake up. He suggests they go out to breakfast, but she makes up an excuse and then, suddenly, he’s putting on his shoes and she’s saying “Happy New Year!” and sending him out the door.
For Eggers, visiting Sarah is a way of returning to a time just after his father died, when they first had sex. For Sarah, though, seeing Eggers is just a pleasant occurrence, one that has very little to do with painful memories or complicated ideas about personal history. As a result, their experiences don’t sync up, which is why Eggers is so surprised when Sarah rushes him out of her house as if it’s no big deal.
The next day, which is New Year’s Day, Eggers goes to Lake Michigan. He’s returning to California that evening, but before he leaves he plans to spread his mother’s ashes. He opens the box and finds a small golden container—like a cookie tin—inside. When he opens that, he’s surprised to see that the ashes look more like multi-colored pebbles than he expected, and he wonders what each color is. For instance, are the white pieces bone? Scared of accidentally inhaling the remains, he walks over to the water and imagines his mother watching him, suddenly feeling “stupid.” This gesture, he realizes, is “ridiculous, small, [and] tacky.” He decides that he should spread his mother’s ashes in the actual ocean, thinking that maybe he should travel to Cape Cod, though this would require asking Bill to keep Toph longer, and then he’d have to tell the family what he’s doing.
Eggers’s decision to spread his mother’s ashes in Lake Michigan effectively helps him gain closure. And although it’s evident that he feels guilty about not telling Bill or Beth what he’s doing, it’s worth remembering that Beth also didn’t consult him before she told the cremation company that they didn’t want their parents’ ashes. Judging by this, it seems she simply wanted to be finished with the entire ordeal, so bringing this matter up with her would most likely only cause her stress.
Deciding that spreading his mother’s ashes in Cape Cod is unrealistic, Eggers realizes that today is also his mother’s birthday. This, he thinks, is a sign that he’s doing the right thing by releasing her into Lake Michigan, a place she loved. He takes a handful of ashes and scatters them, surprised at how light they are. He hates that they keep falling on the ground, so he kicks at them, though he then feels uncomfortable about kicking his mother’s ashes. “Oh this is so plain, disgraceful, pathetic,” he thinks. “Or beautiful and loving and glorious! Yes, beautiful and loving and glorious!” He finally decides that this is a good act, something she’d love.
Unsurprisingly, Eggers immediately second-guesses his decision to scatter his mother’s ashes. This is characteristic of him, since he often wonders if what he’s doing is right, asking himself if he’s behaving how he should behave. When he eventually decides that spreading his mother’s ashes in Lake Michigan is the right thing to do, he finally manages to let go of his doubts and any sense of guilt that might come along with this otherwise emotionally healthy act.