Sunday, March 15, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 11: "Things Left Undone" by Christopher Tilghman


It's the Jack of diamonds this week, and along with it came a very moving and thought-provoking story by Christopher Tilghman, first published in The Southern Review and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1994. The title of the story comes from the general confession of sin that is probably as old as the Anglican Church, at least:

Almighty and most merciful Father,
We have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things that we ought to have done;
And we have done those things that we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.

The story is about a young couple, Denny and Susan McCready, and it begins on the day that their son Charlie is born. Denny walks out and stands on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay to watch the sun coming up, but he doesn't feel the sense of majesty and awe that he thought he would feel at such a moment. This, unfortunately, becomes a foreshadowing of the overall tone of the events he and his family are about to experience. Before the day is out, Denny learns that his son has cystic fibrosis. And in just a few years, and within the first couple of pages of the story, Charlie succumbs to the disease. At this point the stage is set for the rest of the story:

Back when Charlie was still a newborn, when the first untroubled and unknowing smiles began to appear, Denny prayed that this could all happen quickly, before he gave too much of his love, before he surrendered too much of his hope. It took almost to the end of Charlie's life for Denny to realize that this prayer was monstrous, that he had asked for an end of his own pain in the place of a cure for his son. Susan would make him pay for this. But by then Denny had also learned that of all the pain a human can endure, not allowing oneself to feel love is the worst; that denying love to oneself can destroy, from the inside.

Charlie's death devastates not only Denny and Susan, but their marriage as well. They drift apart, both of them becoming absorbed in their work, and Susan begins seeing someone else. She moves out, and Denny keeps working away on his farm.

One day, however, he has an idea to buy a boat, a pretty radical move for someone who has been a landlubber all his life and is somewhat distrustful of the water. He buys a fixer-upper and gets it back in shape. He's glad to have something to occupy his hands and mind, and after several weeks of working on the boat, Susan suddenly shows back up. They're timid with each other and unsure of where they stand, but they gradually relearn how to talk to each other and be a couple. And throughout, the language of faith and love and transformation and redemption flows through the story and gives a kind of benediction over the events in Denny and Susan's lives:

"I sometimes think all of us out here just gave up a little early," she said.

"Speak for yourself," he said, but it wasn't said harshly. It was more of an absolution than a retort.

Even though this was quite a long short story, I enjoyed it immensely and it gave me a lot to think about.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. I've never even heard of this author before but this one sound like an emotional powerhouse of a story. A great review and I might just have to check out this story, thanks.

  2. Great post! I had not heard of this author, either, but he sounds worth looking in to.

  3. It's been a while since I drew a couple of cards, myself. I hope to have a Deal Me In post up later this week.