REFERENTIAL struck a chord in me. It made me teary-eyed and brought to light my worst fears and anxieties.
In this story, a mother is visiting her teenage son who is confined in a mental institution. She is with Pete, with whom she is hoping to have a serious relationship after her husband died years ago. But it seems that Pete has withdrawn himself from their lives because he isn’t sure if he wants to have something to do with a boy who cuts himself and who believes that the earth revolves only for him. Who will she choose? How can she cope?
The first word immediately drew me in. It must be difficult to deal with a family member who is mentally ill. Everything in your life will turn upside down, as you will have to watch your actions, whether it is therapeutic for the patient or not, and how much more if you are the mother? I can only imagine how hard it was for the narrator, who is unnamed (or did I simply miss it?), battling the loneliness of widowhood and coping with the pain in seeing her son like that, listening to his senseless soliloquy, where he strongly believes that the moon has a message for him.
There would be clues in the words on pages with numbers that added up to his age: 97, 88, 466. There were other veiled references to his existence. There always were.
Lorrie Moore wrote this story as a tribute to Vladimir Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols, which I haven’t read yet. Still, despite the lack of reference, I greatly appreciate Referential for its strong message and poignant portrayal of a mother’s love. As a mother myself, I can easily connect with the narrator. Hers is a story of courage and strength brought about by unfavorable circumstances. She has experienced the harsh reality of life, that no matter how she wants for things to be different, she has to learn to accept that sometimes life throws rocks at you, and you just have to learn to catch them or else you find yourself stoned to death.
Although I don’t care so much about Pete, I agree that he is not inconsequential to the story. He adds to the conflict of emotions that the mother, the story’s heroine, at least for me, has to overcome, and I believe she does, at the end. And I salute her, this mother who knows her priorities, who chooses what is more important, who knows that love is — and should be — unconditional, even though it is not reciprocated.
All this had to be accepted. Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game.
The ending is a mystery, and I am still at a loss about the connection of that phone call to the story. Maybe it is not important? Maybe, it is only there to drive the point that there is nothing left to hope for in terms of her future with another man? Whatever it is, I liked this story for its simplicity and the emotions it evoked from me.
Rating: 4/5 stars.