Hagar wakes up in her new room, feeling that the world has grown even smaller. Aloud, she remarks that the “next room” she visits will be “the smallest of the lot.” Her nurse, horrified, urges Hagar not to talk about such things. Hagar looks around her light, airy room—though there is another bed on the other side, it is empty, and Hagar is all alone.
Hagar is learning to be practical about her own death, and talking about it with her nurses in her signature coarse way betrays the ways in which she’s renounced her illusions about herself.
Another nurse comes in, and Hagar remarks on how slim the young woman is. The nurse says that Hagar was probably slim when she was young, too, and Hagar agrees that when she was a girl “some people thought [her] quite pretty [though] you’d never think so to look at [her] now.” The nurse, though, replies that Hagar is still handsome, if not quite pretty, with strong features and good bones. Hagar tells the nurse she’s lucky to be young, but the nurse says Hagar is the lucky one—she’s had so many years, and nothing can “take them away.” Hagar grunts and responds that the fact is “a mixed blessing, surely.”
This passage shows that Hagar’s “handsome” features, a metaphor for her staunch, stubborn personality, have endured throughout the years. Even so, Hagar is not sure that the years of her life and the cruel lessons they’ve contained are a blessing—she believes them to be more of a curse, one which has warped her beyond recognition.
Hagar sleeps through most of the night, astounded by the quiet. As she wakes in the middle of the night, though, and swings her legs over the edge of the bed, she is confused as to where she is, and believes she is home with Marvin and Doris. As she stands to walk to the bathroom, a nurse stops her and puts her back into bed—strapping her down with a contraption she refers to as “little bed-jacket.” Hagar struggles and howls, but the nurse insists she’s just trying to keep Hagar from hurting herself.
Hagar’s worst nightmare is being controlled so closely, and yet here in the hospital she no longer has any agency over even seemingly small, personal choices.
When Hagar wakes up in the morning, there is a teenaged girl in the other bed. Seeing Hagar awake, the girl introduces herself as Sandra Wong, and says that she’s going to have her appendix out. The girl is nervous, and asks Hagar if she’s had hers out. Hagar, lying, replies that she has, and that the “routine” procedure will hardly hurt. A nurse soon comes to wheel the nervous, antsy Sandra off to surgery, leaving Hagar alone again.
Hagar lies blatantly to her new roommate, unaware of how her lies could impact both of them. She is perhaps envious of the girl’s youth, and of how much life she still has ahead of her.
Hagar wakes from a nap to find Doris and Mr. Troy at her bedside. Doris leaves the two of them to talk while she goes to speak to one of the nurses. When Mr. Troy asks Hagar if she’d like to pray, she rebuffs his offer. After a moment, though, she asks him to sing her a hymn from her childhood. As Mr. Troy sings, Hagar begins crying. Mr. Troy stops singing, worried he’s upset her, but Hagar assures him that she’s fine. Mr. Troy goes out to the hall, and Doris comes in to fluff Hagar’s pillows. She asks how the visit went. Hagar responds that she and Mr. Troy didn’t have “a single solitary thing to say” to each other. Doris is visibly pained, and Hagar regrets her lie. Angry at herself for being “unchangeable [and] unregenerate,” she admits that Mr. Troy’s visit did her much good.
Hagar is at last opening up and casting aside the old thought patterns and automatic decisions that have kept her angry and isolated for years and years. She finds herself surprisingly moved by Mr. Troy’s kind gesture, and even more shockingly allows herself a moment of real connection with Doris.
Several hours after Doris and Mr. Troy have left, Hagar has another visitor, a young man whom she doesn’t immediately recognize. The young man reminds Hagar of his name, Steven—he is her grandson. Hagar is surprised to see him. Though she knows Steven was sent to visit by his parents, she’s grateful for his company. They discuss Tina’s impending marriage, but when the wedding itself comes up, it becomes clear that the whole family is waiting to see what will happen to Hagar before planning anything.
Steven’s visit is both pleasant and awkward. Hagar knows that the end of her life is nearing, and that people are behaving differently towards her because of it—all she can do, though, is smile through the discomfort of the situation and make the others around her feel at ease.
Steven lights a cigarette for Hagar, and she remarks how very much he looks like his grandfather. Steven says his mother always tells him that he looks like one of her own brothers, but Hagar dismisses this as nonsense—she tells the boy he’s “a Shipley through and through.” Steven reminisces with Hagar about his youth, and as he tells stories of how she used to buy him candies when he was little, she realizes that the young man before her doesn’t really know her at all—she wants to tell him about her life and all “the incommunicable years,” but doesn’t know where she’d begin.
Though Hagar was once embarrassed by everything about Bram, she now declares proudly that her grandson looks like him and has inherited the best of him. Though she feels a moment of kinship with Steven, she is aware that to him she is just an old woman, a sweet granny—she can never communicate to him the vast tragedies and small pains of her life.
After a few more pleasantries, Steven gives Hagar a quick kiss and bids her goodbye. Soon, Hagar is overcome with pain and nausea, and she calls for the nurse, who gives her some medication with a needle. Just as the medicine goes to work, Hagar sees the curtains around Sandra’s bed being pulled aside. Her mother is leaving after a visit, and Sandra, in bed, looks miserable and puffy. When Hagar asks how she’s feeling, the girl replies that she feels awful, and chastises Hagar for lying and telling her the pain wouldn’t be so bad. Hagar amusedly tells her that if this is the worst pain Sandra ever experiences, she’ll be lucky. Sandra looks outraged, but won’t speak another word.
Hagar, as an old woman, knows that Sandra will certainly face greater challenges and pain in her life than an appendectomy. To Sandra, though, what she’s feeling now is the worst pain imaginable, and she’s angry with Hagar for failing to warn her about it. Women, though, cannot prepare one another for the traumas they’ll face in their lives.
In the middle of the night, Hagar is awoken by the sound of Sandra crying. Hagar calls out and asks Sandra to put her light on for her and summon the nurse—she needs the bathroom. Sandra kindly does so, and says that she has to go, too. As the minutes pass, though, no nurse comes through the room, and Sandra’s pain intensifies. Hagar stands up to get her a bedpan from the bathroom, and though it’s only a few steps, every moment is agony. Nevertheless, Hagar fetches the bedpan for Sandra—when a nurse at last comes in and sees Hagar up out of bed, she is shocked, and reprimands Hagar before putting her back to bed. After the nurse leaves, Sandra giggles, remarking upon the stunned look on the nurse’s face when she saw Hagar up and about. The two women laugh together through their pain, then fall asleep.
Sandra and Hagar bond as they face a common enemy—the nurses who want to impose rules and structure upon them. They have been adversaries up to this point, but as this incident brings them together, they both find their spirits at least temporarily bolstered and renewed.
One afternoon, in the midst of a terrible pain, Hagar receives a visitor—Marvin. At the sight of her son, she tells him how frightened she is, but immediately feels ashamed when she sees how sad Marvin is. He apologizes for being “crabby” towards her over the years, and then reaches for Hagar’s hand. She sees that Marvin is Jacob—the one who has always been wrestling with the angel. Hagar sees that the only way to release herself is “by releasing him.” Hagar attempts to placate Marvin by telling him that he’s always been “a better son than John.”
In the hall, Hagar overhears Marvin speaking to one of the nurses. When the nurse remarks that Hagar has an “amazing constitution,” Marvin replies that she is a “holy terror.” Hagar is relieved and moved to hear her son speak of her “with such anger and such tenderness.”
Hagar recalls the last time she ever went to Manawaka. She visited alongside Marvin and Doris, and was shocked to see the changes in the town. The old Shipley place had been torn down and replaced with a brand-new, beautiful green house, and the yard had been cleared of weeds.
The Shipley home, once in terrible disrepair, was cleaned up and bulldozed to make way for newer things, symbolizing the ongoing march of time.
The three of them drove out to the cemetery, and though Doris stayed in the car, Marvin and Hagar walked out to the family plot. The stone angel still stood, but had been “altered” by harsh winters and lack of care. Hagar knew that one day, the angel would “topple entirely, and no one [would] bother to set her upright again.”
Hagar knows that just as the stone angel will one day no longer be able to weather the elements and remain standing, she, too, will one day “topple entirely.”
At the sight of Marvin and Hagar, a young caretaker came up and spoke to them. Taking them for tourists, he began telling them all about the cemetery and the town—and the odd but interesting Currie-Shipley stone, marking the place where two families “connected by marriage” had been laid to rest. Relieved that the two families were “both the same” now, Hagar took her leave and began walking back to the car, while Marvin stayed behind and talked with the caretaker.
Hagar’s life was consumed by issues of class, social standing, pride, and prejudice—now that everyone she loves is dead, they are all equals. This cruel irony still satisfies Hagar, and she is able to turn and walk away from her family’s resting place in peace.
Hagar is awash in a sea of pain and discomfort when Sandra approaches her to tell her some good news: Sandra is soon going to be released from the hospital. Hagar congratulates her, and Sandra replies that she hopes Hagar is “outa here soon, too.” Sandra realizes she’s misspoken and starts backpedaling, but Hagar simply thanks the girl for her kind words. As she lies prone on her bed, she tries to think of “something truly free” she’s done in her ninety years, and can think only of two—one being her recent lie to Marvin.
Hagar knows that the end of her life is approaching, and she doesn’t correct Sandra when the girl expresses hope she’ll soon be “outa here.” As she tries to assess whether her life, lived in pursuit of freedom, has actually contained any, she takes only a small amount of pride in the few but meaningful “free” acts she’s undertaken.
Hagar is overcome by pain as her thoughts drift and meld together. She imagines herself as an “angel,” and begins praying to God to bless her. She is disgusted by her own feelings of bloatedness, and calls for a nurse. Hagar’s whole “world” has become nothing but a needle. Confused and agitated, Hagar calls for Doris, desperate to get back to her “sleek cocoon.” The nurse comes to her side and administers the medicine, but Hagar still feels no relief, and asks “Doris” for a glass of water. The nurse starts to hand it to her, but asks if Hagar can hold it herself. Hagar snaps that she can, even though privately she’s not sure whether she’ll drink from the glass or spill it. Whatever she does with it, though, she is determined to have it be her choice. Hagar pulls the glass from the nurse’s hand and holds it.
In this final scene, Hagar’s mind is leaving her. The pain medication has become both a balm and a poison. Even in the “cocoon” of her thoughts, however, Hagar retains the spirit she has always had. She is fiercely independent, wanting help or pity from no one, and determined to be the master of her own destiny. The novel ends midsentence, on something of a cliffhanger—it is unclear whether Hagar will hold onto the glass or drop it; whether she will live through this very moment or die.