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Morning in This Broken World: A Novel
by Katrina Kittle

Published: 2023-09-01T00:0
Paperback : 283 pages
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From the bestselling author of The Kindness of Strangers comes a poignant and life-affirming novel about our connections to the past, and the promise for the future during the least promising of times.

Grieving but feisty widow Vivian Laurent is at a late-in-life crossroads. The man ...

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Introduction

From the bestselling author of The Kindness of Strangers comes a poignant and life-affirming novel about our connections to the past, and the promise for the future during the least promising of times.

Grieving but feisty widow Vivian Laurent is at a late-in-life crossroads. The man she loved is gone. Their only daughter is estranged and missing. And the assisted-living facility where her husband died is going into quarantine. Living in lockdown with only heartache and memories is something Vivian can’t bear. Then comes a saving grace.

Luna, a compassionate nursing assistant and newly separated mother, is facing eviction. Vivian has a plan that could turn their lives around: return to her old home and invite Luna and her two children to move in with her. With the exuberant eleven-year-old Wren in her hot-pink motorized wheelchair and Wren’s troubled older brother, Cooper, the new housemates make for an unlikely pandemic pack, weathering the coming storm together.

Now it’s time to heal old wounds, make peace with the past, find hope and joy, and discover that the strongest bonds can get anyone through the worst of times.

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Excerpt

MARCH 2020

CHAPTER ONE—VIVIAN

Vivian stared at the five amber pill bottles before her on the Formica kitchen counter. Well, what was she waiting for? She had enough pills, but did she have enough guts?

She’d been too afraid to do a computer search when she considered helping Jack die. Her handsome, smartass Jack. She’d stockpiled these painkillers from various procedures throughout the years—her hysterectomy, Jack’s rotator cuff surgery, her trigger thumb surgery. She’d known if she’d decided to crush them up in pudding to help ease him out of this life of indignity, she’d have to be careful. There could be no search history in case there was an autopsy. She hadn’t known: did they do autopsies on Alzheimer’s patients?

But Jack had passed. On his own. Her sharp sorrow had been mixed with relief that his confusion and pain were over.

And two days after he was gone, she’d finally researched: How much Oxycodone will kill a person?

She had enough.

These pills sang to her. For the month since he passed, through the blur of writing an obituary, planning his service, ordering death certificates, and making the thousand phone calls about life insurance, long term care insurance, and Social Security, the five pill bottles hummed a siren song to her. From their Ziploc bag inside the canister of corn meal she never used (there wasn’t even a working stove or oven in this Assisted Living apartment) their serenade rose, silvery, soothing, and full of promise. Sometimes the pills made her paranoid, when their harmony was so loud and others were in the apartment—aides checking on her although she didn’t need services, the cleaning lady, the head of social activities asking her to come to this concert or that trivia game, the Director herself wondering if Vivian might like to return to the Independent Living dining room rather than eating alone in her apartment again. Vivian would tilt her head and study their faces. Did they truly not hear it? Were they just pretending?

What was stopping her, really? The love of her life was gone. The home they’d created together, their castle, their oasis, now for sale. Their daughter, their only child . . . well.

Vivian picked up one bottle and turned it in her hands, hearing the reassuring rattle.

Ann-Marie was gone, too.

She set the bottle down, and that same hand went to the buttons of her blouse. Two fingers slipped between the buttons and found the chickpea-sized lump to the left of her sternum, at the top of her left breast. She rubbed her fingertips over it, as if it were a worry bead. There was this, too. Treatment and surgery? Alone? No, thank you.

She had friends. She had dear, dear friends. But nothing seemed to matter. Nothing seemed worth it. She’d just told this to her neighbors at the house, Steven and Drew, “the boys” as she called them. The boys had known and loved Jack long before his decline. They helped care for Vivian and Jack’s house once they’d had to move to Sycamore Place, this sprawling, multi-story facility chosen for its “continuum of care”—the ground floor full of luxury Independent Living apartments, the second and third floors for Assisted Living apartments, and the dreaded, locked-down top floor of Memory Care bedrooms, each floor with its own dining hall. When Jack passed, the boys were here that very day. But. But, it wasn’t enough. She felt like a burden.

How did people do this, for heaven’s sake? How was she supposed to get up and go on with this sorrow hanging on her, dragging her down? The grief pinned her to her bed, left her unable to move for days at a time.

No, leaving this life was better.

Truly better.

If only Jack would give her a sign. Long ago, they’d joked that whoever died first would haunt the other, but so far Jack had been a no show, and, frankly, that pissed Vivian off.

“I need a sign, Jack,” she whispered.

Nothing. It figured. He’d always been terrible at communication, at sharing his feelings.

She opened one bottle. She put a pill on her palm and tipped it into her mouth, swallowing it with the last of her coffee gone cold. Ugh. So, she’d started it, then. With a sudden rush of energy she turned to the fridge in the tiny galley kitchen and poured herself some ice water. There. Better. She’d need to take more than one at a time or this nonsense would last forever.

She poured a wee fistful into her palm, one skittering to the floor. She paused, wondering whether to pop the handful into her mouth before or after she searched for the one gone AWOL on the ugly tile floor—did she even need it?—when there was a knock on her door.

Shit. She shoved the handful of pills and all the bottles under the stack of newspapers and sympathy cards on her counter. She turned, heart racing, but when no one immediately entered, she knew it was Luna Ayala. Everyone else knocked once, then barged right in, the very thing that had rankled her most when they’d moved here.

The only nursing assistant who actually waited for a response was a lovely woman Vivian adored.

“Ms. Vivian? It’s Luna. I have someone who wants to see you.”

Vivian’s heart lifted. Not just Luna, but Luna and Wren. Wren. Lively Wren. This timing was terrible, but what was a half hour more? “Come on in!” Vivian called, then grabbed a dishtowel and pretended to be wiping her hands.

Luna would know. Luna would sense something. Vivian braced herself for it. Luna was the best of all the aides who had tended to Jack. Jack’s favorite as well as her own. Luna treated Jack like the man he’d been once, not the man Alzheimer’s had left behind. Vivian requested her and was always disappointed when someone else came in. But the poor woman couldn’t work all the damn time. She had her own life, after all, outside of this place. And her own daughter.

That daughter, Wren, came through the door first. Her mother followed the girl’s motorized, hot pink wheelchair. The eleven-year-old girl looked up at Vivian with gentle compassion. Oh, that face. Those round cheeks, bright eyes, and deep, long dimples. How much she looked like Ann-Marie as a child.

As Luna closed the door behind her, something other aides rarely did, leaving Vivian and Jack’s lives on display for everyone and anyone walking past, and, oh, did people gawk and stare here. Wren looked up at Vivian and said, “I’m so, so sorry about Mr. Jack.”

“Thank you, Wren, I am, too.”

Vivian bent to hug her, and the girl hung on, as she did, her hugs long and insistent. Vivian had the fleeting thought, What if Wren had been with her mother and found me dead? Good God, how horrifying.

After a moment, Luna rubbed her daughter’s back and said, “Okay, sweetie.”

But Wren only let go when she was damn good and ready. Vivian didn’t mind one bit. When Wren released her, Vivian breathed deep and felt better than she had for days.

“How are you, Vivian?” Luna asked.

Vivian looked into Luna’s deep brown eyes. She knew. Vivian could tell Luna knew something was up. “It’s been a hard day,” she admitted. “After many hard days.”

Luna reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “There will probably be more.” The way she said it was a comfort, really, an acknowledgment. Not that patronizing, insensitive chipper insistence that “things will get better!” or “each day gets easier!” that made Vivian want to kick people in the shins, the simple sons of bitches.

Maybe not, though, Vivian thought. Maybe there would be no more hardness if there were no more days? The pills still sang to her from under the newspaper. Her hand rose to find the lump. When she realized she was seeking it again, she snatched her hand away and turned back to Wren. “What is this, Take Your Daughter to Work Day?”

Luna touched her daughter’s shiny black hair with the gentlest of hands and said, “In our own sort of way, yes. Wren’s school was canceled today. Someone tested positive for the virus. Have you been following that?”

Vivian nodded. “It’s getting serious.” Then she teased Wren, “Oh, so you’re stuck with Mom today.”

Luna and Wren both laughed, but looked at each other with such adoration Vivian’s heart stuttered.

That song, though. That song was so insistent.

Luna joked, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to get any work done with this little troublemaker along.”

Vivian knew that was true. The apartments were already small, there were already so many wheelchairs and scooters around, poor Wren was bound to be in the way and very noticed. Vivian wondered if Luna might even get reprimanded for bringing her here.

“Well, would the troublemaker like to stay here with me instead while Mom works?”

Wren’s face lit up, but Luna said, “Oh, no, no, I can’t ask you to—”

“Please.”

Luna looked taken aback at Vivian’s insistence. No, it was more like desperation.

Vivian smiled, tried to soften that hard edge of pleading that had been in her word. That song, it was just too damn loud. “I would honestly love it. I could use the company.”

Luna regarded her a moment, assessing. She looked down at her daughter, who said, “Please, Mama? There’s some worksheets and assignments I can get online.”

“All right then.”

Wren made a little cheer and motored herself farther into the apartment.

Vivian and Luna stared at each other. “You’re doing me a great favor,” Luna said.

“And you’re doing one for me.”

Luna tilted her head. “You okay?”

“I will be now.”

Luna held Vivian’s gaze a moment longer, then reached past Vivian into the tiny kitchen and took a Post-It from the neon orange cube. She wrote a number. “Please call my cell if you need anything. Or if she needs anything. Or if you’re ready for her to go. Please call this number and not the nurse’s station, okay?”

Ah, so she was worried about having Wren here. “Of course. But it’s fine. We’ll have a lovely time.” She took a Post-It, too, and scribbled her own cell number. “This is mine.”

“Thank you.” Luna spoke with such sincerity. Just then, her radio squawked. “Luna? 310 is waiting for that wheelchair. How long do you think you’ll be?”

They always called residents by their room numbers here. Vivian never understood if that was for privacy?

“On my way.” Luna looked with great kindness at Vivian. “I stopped by to take Mr. Jack’s wheelchair.”

Ah, yes. So she hadn’t come by just to see how Vivian was doing. And she hadn’t come by just to try to find a place to stash her daughter for the day.

“Of course,” Vivian said.

Luna kissed Wren on the cheek and told her to be good for “Ms. Vivian.” Then she took Jack’s wheelchair from its spot next to Vivian’s blue reading chair, where Vivian had sat and held his hand as they watched TV, or looked out the window. He always wanted to hold her hand. Hot tears burned, but she willed them back.

That wheelchair had been in her damn way, and she’d been irritated that no one had thought to come take it before now, as Hospice had come to take the hospital bed and the walker right away . . . but now that it was leaving the apartment, Vivian wanted to dive for it, to beg Luna not to take, to say that she’d pay for it, that it comforted her.

But she didn’t. She turned away, as Luna wheeled it out into the hallway and then shut the door behind her.

Vivian wiped her eyes, and willed herself not to shout “Shut up!” at the pill bottles. A gauzy sensation floated through her, a slight dizziness she didn’t understand. Then she remembered: the one Oxycodone was wisping into her system. She’d always been a lightweight with meds. She turned to Wren. “Do you want to get that schoolwork? I can get you on our internet.” Our. Would she ever stop thinking of herself as a member of a couple, a team?

Wren scrunched up her face. “Not really.” She hunched her shoulders. “I got that email from my Language Arts teacher. I hate Language Arts.”

Vivian clutched a hand to her chest. “Oh, that breaks my heart. I would be the exact opposite!”

“I don’t hate the subject,” Wren said. “I only hate it because my teacher teaches it. She treats me like I’m stupid because I’m in a wheelchair.”

Vivian went still at the blunt truth. “You are not stupid,” she said, her tone fierce.

Wren smiled. “I know.”

She did. No ego. No audacity. Just the acknowledgment of the truth.

“So, what shall we do instead?” Vivian asked.

“I want to show you something,” Wren said. “Can you get my backpack off the back of my chair, please?”

Vivian liked the way the girl always asked for what she needed clearly and simply, no simpering apologies or “could I ask you a favor?”

“Of course.” There were actually two backpacks. One smaller and black, tattered and worn, and a bigger one, hot pink and sparkly. The smaller one was draped over the pink one, so Vivian extricated it first. “This one?” she asked as she handed it to Wren.

“Oh! That’s Mom’s. She forgot it.”

“Should I call her?”

“Nah, she’ll come back for it when she needs it.”

“Okay.” Vivian held the black one by one strap while she unhooked the pink one. One arm of the pink backpack was stuck, and as she tugged it, she jerked the black bag, and its zipper slid open and spilled its contents all over the floor. “Well, shit!”

Wren giggled.

“Sorry!”

“I’ve heard worse, Ms. Vivian.”

Vivian handed Wren the sparkling pink backpack and the girl dug into it, searching for whatever she was looking for, while Vivian knelt to gather Luna’s things she’d dropped.

Vivian’s knees popped as she crouched, that shimmery vertigo swimming in her head. She grabbed the table for balance. She gathered up a lip balm egg, two tampons, a granola bar, some apple slices in a Ziploc, and a wallet. There were receipts, coupons, and other papers. Vivian didn’t know if there was an order everything should in and she felt bad about just stuffing things back in. The backpack, now open like a clam shell, still contained some items, and Vivian was honestly only trying to figure out how to put the items back in with some kind of order, when she saw an envelope tucked into a small pocket.

The pocket was too shallow for the business envelope, so two thirds of it stuck out, visible. The envelope was bright yellow and stamped outside with NOTICE OF EVICTION. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. How was each of the four point of view characters already isolated and guarded before being forced into lockdown? In what ways do the various characters emerge as their more authentic selves by the novel’s end?

2. What are the different ways in which the characters help one another, both physically and emotionally? Luna says repeatedly that she is accepting Vivian’s charity, but Vivian disagrees. Do you?

3. Vivian invest a great deal of time and money on her garden. Why do you think it means so much to her? How does it parallel what she is growing and nurturing in other areas of her life?

4. Time with this new family changes how Cooper sees his potential future. What impact do Vivian and “the boys” have on him? How does he change his relationship with and awareness of his father’s shortcomings?

5. The Brood X cicadas are a strange, natural phenomenon, emerging every 17 years for a brief and very noisy life cycle. How do they play into the novel’s themes? How does the process of their metamorphosis compare and contrast that of the point of view characters?

6. Caretaking—for anyone—is important but exhausting. Both Vivian and Luna admit to neglecting their own health while they take care of others. You may have heard the expression, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” How does that saying apply to both of these women? In what ways have you perhaps had to make changes so that you, as a caretaker, were taking care of yourself as well?

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