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The Collected Regrets of Clover: A Novel
by Mikki Brammer

Published: 2023-05-09T00:0
Hardcover : 320 pages
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"A beautiful tale of a vulnerable, compassionate woman who finds that, in order to care for others, she must also let herself be cared for." â??â??Kirkus (starred review)

Whatâ??s the point of giving someone a beautiful death if you canâ??t give yourself a beautiful life?

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Introduction

"A beautiful tale of a vulnerable, compassionate woman who finds that, in order to care for others, she must also let herself be cared for." â??â??Kirkus (starred review)

Whatâ??s the point of giving someone a beautiful death if you canâ??t give yourself a beautiful life?

From the day she watched her kindergarten teacher drop dead during a dramatic telling of Peter Rabbit, Clover Brooks has felt a stronger connection with the dying than she has with the living. After the beloved grandfather who raised her dies alone while she is traveling, Clover becomes a death doula in New York City, dedicating her life to ushering people peacefully through their end-of-life process.

Clover spends so much time with the dying that she has no life of her own, until the final wishes of a feisty old woman send Clover on a trip across the country to uncover a forgotten love storyâ??â??and perhaps, her own happy ending. As she finds herself struggling to navigate the uncharted roads of romance and friendship, Clover is forced to examine what she really wants, and whether sheâ??ll have the courage to go after it.

Probing, clever, and hopeful, The Collected Regrets of Clover is perfect for readers of The Midnight Library and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine as it turns the normally taboo subject of death into a reason to celebrate life.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

1

The first time I watched someone die, I was five.

Mr. Hyland, my kindergarten teacher, was a cheerful, tubby man whose shiny scalp and perfectly round face reminded me of the moon. One afternoon, my classmates and I sat cross-legged on the scratchy carpet in front of him, enthralled by his theatrical telling of Peter Rabbit. I remember how his meaty thighs spilled over the edges of the child-sized wooden chair he sat on. His cheeks were rosier than usual, but who could blame him for getting excited over a good Beatrix Potter plot?

As the story reached its climaxâ??when Peter Rabbit lost his jacket fleeing the evil Mr. McGregorâ??Mr. Hyland stopped, as if pausing for emphasis. We stared up at him, hearts thumping with anticipation. But instead of resuming his narration, he made a sound similar to a hiccup, eyes bulging.

Then, like a felled redwood tree, he toppled to the ground.

We all sat motionless, wide-eyed, unsure if our beloved teacher was just upping the ante on his usual dramatic storytelling. When he hadnâ??t moved after several minutesâ??not even to blink his open eyesâ??the room erupted with squeals of panic from everyone.

Everyone except for me, that is.

I moved close enough to Mr. Hyland to hear the final push of air from his lungs. As the pandemonium echoed down the hall and other teachers rushed into the classroom, I sat beside him, holding his hand calmly as the last blush of red disappeared from his face.

The school recommended I get counseling following the â??incident.â? But my parents, who were more than a little self-absorbed, noted no significant change in my behavior. They bought me an ice cream, patted me on the head, andâ??reasoning that Iâ??d always been slightly oddâ??judged me to be fine.

Mostly, I was fine. But Iâ??ve wondered ever since what Mr. Hyland would have liked his last words to be if they hadnâ??t been about the antics of a particularly naughty rabbit.

2

I didnâ??t mean to keep count of how many people Iâ??d watched die since Mr. Hyland thirty-one years ago, but my subconscious was a diligent accountant. Especially since I was nearing a pretty impressive milestoneâ??today the tally nudged up to ninety-seven.

I stood on Canal Street watching the taillights of the mortuary van merge into traffic. Like a runner whoâ??d just passed the baton, my job was done.

Amid the exhaust fumes and pungent blend of dried fish and tamarind, the scent of death still lingered in my nostrils. I donâ??t mean the odor of a body decomposingâ??I never really had to deal with that, since I only ever sat with the dying as they hovered on the threshold between this world and the next. Iâ??m talking about that other scent, the distinct smell when death is imminent. Itâ??s hard to describe, but itâ??s like that imperceptible shift between summer and fall when somehow the air is different but you donâ??t know why. Iâ??d become attuned to that smell in my years as a death doula. Thatâ??s how I knew someone was ready to go. And if there were loved ones there, Iâ??d let them know that now was the moment to say their goodbyes. But today there were no loved ones. Youâ??d be surprised how often it happens. In fact, if it werenâ??t for me, at least half of those ninety-seven people wouldâ??ve died alone. There may be almost nine million people living here, but New York is a city of lonely people full of regrets. Itâ??s my job to make their final moments a little less lonesome.

A social worker had referred me to Guillermo a month ago.

â??Iâ??ve got to warn you,â? sheâ??d said on the phone. â??Heâ??s an angry and bitter old one.â?

I didnâ??t mindâ??usually that just means the person is feeling scared, unloved, and alone. So when Guillermo hardly even acknowledged me on the first few visits, I didnâ??t take it personally. Then, when I was late to the fourth visit because Iâ??d accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, he looked at me with tears in his eyes as I sat down beside his bed.

â??I thought you werenâ??t coming,â? he said with the quiet despair of a forgotten child.

â??I promise you that wonâ??t happen,â? I said, pressing his leathery hand between mine.

And I always keep my word. Shepherding a dying person through the last days of their life is a privilegeâ??especially when youâ??re the only thing they have to hold on to.

* * *

Snowflakes whirled erratically as I began my walk home from Guillermoâ??s cramped studio apartment in Chinatown. I couldâ??ve taken the bus, but it always felt disrespectful to slot right back into routine life when someone had just lost theirs. I liked to feel the icy breeze nibbling at my cheeks as I walked, to watch the cloud materialize then vanish with each of my breathsâ??confirmations that I was still here, still living.

For someone so accustomed to witnessing death, I always felt a little adrift afterward. A person was here on earth and now they were gone. Where, I didnâ??t knowâ??I was mostly agnostic when it came to spiritual matters, which helped me make room for my clientsâ?? chosen faiths. Wherever he was, I hoped Guillermo had been able to leave his bitterness behind. From what I could tell, he hadnâ??t been on very good terms with God. A small wooden crucifix hung adjacent to his single bed, the torn, yellowed wallpaper curling around its corners. But Guillermo never looked at it directly to seek comfort; he snuck darting glances, as if avoiding the scrutinizing gaze of an authority figure. Mostly, he positioned himself with his back to it.

In the three weeks I spent visiting Guillermo, Iâ??d learned the details of his living space by heart. The thick layer of grime on the outside of his only window that muted the daylight, rendering the space fittingly somber. The piercing shriek of metal against metal from his decrepit bed frame every time he adjusted his weight. The bone-chilling draft that came from everywhere and nowhere. The sparse occupants of his kitchen cabinetsâ??one cup, one bowl, one plateâ??that were testaments to a life of loneliness.

Guillermo and I probably only exchanged a total of ten sentences during those weeks. We didnâ??t need to say more than that. I always let the dying person take the lead, to decide if they want to fill their final days with conversation or to revel in silence. They donâ??t need to verbalize their decision; I can just tell. Itâ??s my job to stay calm and present, letting them take up space as they navigate those last precious moments of life.

The most important thing is never to look away from someoneâ??s pain. Not just the physical pain of their body shutting down, but the emotional pain of watching their life end while knowing they could have lived it better. Giving someone the chance to be seen at their most vulnerable is much more healing than any words. And it was my honor to do thatâ??to look them in the eye and acknowledge their hurt, to let it exist undilutedâ??even when the sadness was overwhelming.

Even when my heart was breaking for them.

* * *

The warmth of my apartment was almost stifling compared to Guillermoâ??s place. I shrugged off my coat and balanced it on top of the mass of winter attire on the rack by my front door. The rack protested, sending my wool peacoat into a crumpled heap on the floor. I left it be, telling myselfâ??as I did with most of the accumulating clutter in my apartmentâ??that Iâ??d deal with it later.

To be fair, not all of the clutter belonged to me. Iâ??d inherited the enviably located two-bedroom from my grandfather after he died. Well, technically, Iâ??d been on the lease since I was a kid. It was a shrewd move on his part to ensure that no amount of New York City real estate bureaucracy could cheat me out of my rightful claim to his rent-controlled legacy. For seventeen years, weâ??d shared the third-floor apartment in a brownstone that looked comparatively unloved next to its manicured West Village neighbors. Grandpa had been gone for more than thirteen years now, but I still couldnâ??t bring myself to sort through his belongings. Instead, Iâ??d gradually slotted my own possessions in the limited spaces between his. Even though I spent my days looking death in the face, I still couldnâ??t seem to accept that his absence from my life was permanent.

Grief plays tricks on you that wayâ??a familiar whiff of cologne or a potential sighting of your person in a crowd, and all the knots youâ??ve tied inside yourself to manage the pain of losing them suddenly unravel.

Warming my hands around a steaming cup of Earl Grey, I stood in front of my bookshelves, which were packed tightly with Grandpaâ??s biology textbooks, musty atlases, and sea-faring novels. Wedged in between them, three dilapidated notebooks stood out, not so much for their appearance, but for the single word inscribed on the spine of each. On the first, REGRETS; the second, ADVICE; the third, CONFESSIONS. Aside from my pets, these were the things Iâ??d save in a fire.

Ever since I started working as a death doula, Iâ??d had the same ritual, documenting each clientâ??s final words before the breath had left their body. Over the years, Iâ??d found that people often felt the need to say something as they were dying, something of significanceâ??as if they realized it was their last chance to leave a mark on the world. Usually those last messages fit into one of three categories: things theyâ??d wish theyâ??d done differently, things theyâ??d learned along the way, or secrets theyâ??d kept that they were finally ready to reveal. Collecting these words felt like my sacred duty, especially when I was the only other person in the room. And even when I wasnâ??t, family members were usually too consumed with grief to think about writing down such things. My emotions, on the other hand, were always neatly tucked away.

Setting my tea aside, I stretched on tiptoes to retrieve the book titled CONFESSIONS. Itâ??d been a while since Iâ??d been able to make an entry in this one. Lately, it seemed like everyone had reached the end of their lives with regrets.

I nestled into the sofa and flipped through the leather-bound notebook to a clean page. In my compact scrawl, I inscribed Guillermoâ??s name, address, the dayâ??s date, and his confession. I hadnâ??t expected it, to be honestâ??Iâ??d sensed him slipping away and thought he was already unconscious. But then his eyes opened and he put his hand on my arm. Not dramatically, but lightly, as if heâ??d been on his way out the door and had forgotten to tell me something.

â??I accidentally killed my little sisterâ??s hamster when I was eleven,â? he whispered. â??I left the door of its cage open to annoy her and then it went missing. We found it three days later wedged between the sofa cushions.â?

As soon as the words departed his lips, his body relaxed with serene weightlessness, like he was floating on his back in a swimming pool.

Then he was gone.

* * *

I couldnâ??t help thinking about that hamster as my own pets gathered around me on the sofa that evening. George, the chubby bulldog Iâ??d found six years ago burrowing through the trash cans downstairs, rested his wet chin on my knee. Lola and Lionel, the tabby siblings Iâ??d rescued as kittens from a box left outside the church on Carmine Street, took turns slinking figure eights around my ankles. The silkiness of their fur soothed me.

I tried not to imagine whether the hamster had suffered. They were pretty feeble creatures, so it probably hadnâ??t taken much. Poor Guillermo, carrying that guilt with him for fifty years.

I glanced at my phone, balanced on the faded sofa arm. The only time it ever rangâ??aside from robocalls about car insurance and fake IRS auditsâ??was when someone wanted to hire me. Socializing was a skill Iâ??d never really mastered. When youâ??re an only child raised by your introverted grandfather, you learn to appreciate your own company. It wasnâ??t that I was opposed to the idea of friendship; itâ??s just that if you donâ??t get close to anyone, you canâ??t lose them. And Iâ??d already lost enough people.

Still, sometimes I wondered how I got to this point: thirty-six years old and my whole life revolved around waiting for strangers to die.

Savoring the bergamot vapor from my tea, I closed my eyes and let my body relax for the first time in weeks. Holding in your emotions all the time is kind of exhausting, but itâ??s what makes me good at what I do. Itâ??s my responsibility to always remain placid and even-keeled for my clients, even when theyâ??re frightened and panicking and donâ??t know how to let go.

As my feelings began to thaw, I leaned back into the sofa cushions, allowing the weight of sadness to settle across my chest and a yearning to squeeze my heart.

Thereâ??s a reason I know this cityâ??s full of lonely people.

Iâ??m one of them.

3

Usually after a job ended, I spent the next day catching up on the mundane domestic duties Iâ??d neglected while working. Household chores and bill paying felt inconsequential when someone was dying. Three weeksâ?? worth of dirty laundry bulged in the basket I was lugging to the basement. Grandpa hadnâ??t just bequeathed me the rare treasure of a rent-controlled apartment, but also one with a laundry room in the building. Saving me from the New York City burden of trekking to the laundromat was one of the small but infinite ways heâ??d made my life easier, even in his absence.

On my way back upstairs, I stopped by the mailbox to unleash the flow of envelopes and catalogs that always awaited my sporadic visits. I rarely got anything worth reading.

A gravelly voice called from midway up the staircase. â??On vacation again, kid?â?

The shuffling gait that accompanied it was as familiar as the voice itself. Leo Drake was a sprightly fifty-seven when I moved in with Grandpa at age six, and the intervening decades had barely made their mark, except that his hair was now a little more salt than pepper, and his swagger a little slower.

He was also still my only friend.

â??I guess you could call it that,â? I said, waiting as he made his way down the last few steps. â??Though Iâ??d prefer the beach to the laundry room.â?

As a tall, slender man with high cheekbones, Leoâ??s age only advanced his elegance. It fascinated me how elderly peopleâ??s fashion preferences tended to stay frozen in a certain era, usually the years theyâ??d been in their thirties or forties. Often it was due to thriftâ??why buy new clothes when you already had plentyâ??but for most it seemed to be a nostalgia for what they considered to be their glory days. The time when more of their life was ahead than behind them.

Leoâ??s style was still firmly planted in the sharp tailoring of the 1960s: crisp spread collars, notched lapels, linen pocket squares, and, when the occasion called for it, a well-loved trilby. Iâ??d never once seen him look disheveled, even if he was just on his way to the corner bodega for milk. Itâ??d probably been that way ever since his days working on Madison Avenue. Though he was relegated to the mailroom at first, that didnâ??t stop his astute eye from documenting every sartorial flourish of the advertising executives to whom, as a Black man, he was mostly invisible. And when he eventually did have the financial means, he emulatedâ??and elevatedâ??that style to make it his signature.

All Leo was doing today was checking the mail and he still wore a pressed button-up shirt and pleated slacks. It was a conspicuous contrast to my sweatpants and baggy fisherman sweater. If my theory was correct, my style legacy didnâ??t seem promising.

Leo smiled slyly as he slid his key into the mailbox. â??And when is our rematch?â?

Grandpa had taught me to play mahjong as soon as Iâ??d come to live with him. It took me four years to finally beat himâ??he refused to let me win intentionally, insisting that it wouldnâ??t do me any favors. Over time, I memorized all the different mahjong hands and observed each of Grandpaâ??s moves closely, tracking the tiles he discarded. He had only one tell: lightly scratching his neck with his right pointer finger whenever he suspected he might be losing. Leo became his regular opponent after I went away to college, and then continued the tradition with me when I moved back after Grandpa died. Weâ??d enjoyed a heated rivalry for the past decade or so.

Copyright © 2023 by Mikki Brammer view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Clover believes that one of the reasons she has had trouble forging connections with others is because of her job as a death doula. Why do you think it’s socially unacceptable to discuss death as an inevitable experience we will all face? How is Western society different from others in this sense?

2. Sylvie is the first real friend her own age that Clover has as an adult. What does their friendship teach Clover about vulnerability? Discuss Clover’s evolution when it comes to opening herself up to human connection.

3. What effect do you think traveling and learning about various cultures’ perception of death has on Clover?

4. Sebastian mentions feeling “that Sunday school guilt,” worrying if he was “doing all the right things to get into heaven” (page 226). How has your upbringing, spirituality, or religion influenced the way you think about death?

5. “Someone told me once that [grief is] like a bag that you always carry—it starts out as a large suitcase, and as the years go by, it might reduce to the size of a purse, but you carry it forever . . . it helped me realize that I didn’t need to ever get over it completely” (page 254). How does it feel to consider grief as something you learn to deal with, rather than setting an end goal of ridding yourself of it? Has your perception of grief shifted at all after reading this novel?

6. “But the secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life. Putting your heart out there. Letting it get broken. Taking chances. Making mistakes.” How important do you think it is to be “cautiously reckless” with your life? How do you plan to do so moving forward, if at all?

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A notebook of regrets?

Were these regrets a way to live your life so you don't have any?

Clover was a death doula who was familiar with seeing people die.

Clover would write down





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