Capturing the anguish and agony within those who suffer from illness is an exceedingly difficult task, but essayists Kate Butler and Rachel Riederer have harnessed their unique literary abilities in vastly different ways to achieve the same ambitious objective. Butler’s haunting elegy What Broke My Father’s Heart portrays the father’s pain through the daughter’s eyes since the father has almost lost consciousness while Riederer’s Patient is a visceral portrayal of her own injurious accident. The different perspectives offered by both writers result in What Broke My Father’s Heart reading as a clinical reflection on illness with an emphasis on choices and consequences, while the power of Patient is derived from its ability to describe illness in a more direct way, conveying both the current physical and emotional pain with vivid descriptions.
The different tense Butler and Riederer use in these two essays can be suggestive of how the story is structured and sometimes gives readers different feelings. Butler mainly uses past tense throughout What Broke My Father’s Heart.The essay is opened by tracing back to a certain time in some earlier years, “ONE OCTOBER AFTERNOON three years ago”(Butler 12), and then it jumps into “November 13, 2001”(Butler 14) then “shortly after New Year’s 2003”(Butler 17) then “In the summer of 2006”(Butler 18) then “By the summer of 2007”(Butler 20) then “In mid-April 2008” (Butler 22) and finally the time stops at “Last August”(Butler 24).It is like memoirs that records how everything is going on (especially the father’s illness) along a long time, making the reader feel somewhat distant. While Riederer uses present tense for the whole passage. The beginning of the essay “THE BUS WILL HAVE TO MOVE”(Riederer 165) takes readers to the time when the car accident just happens. It is such a short time from Riederer being hit by a bus to being carried to the hospital that even herself thinks “this isn’t a real event”(Riederer 166). The present progressive used in the passage, such as “my stretcher is being thrust into wide” (Riederer 166) gives us a stronger sense of time. We would feel we are so much closer to Riederer that we can imagine the situation at that time. The time span is smaller compared to that in What Broke My Father’s Heart.Everything is going on in the same year, and Riederer separates the time period into small pieces, “A few days have passed” (Riederer 169) “I have been in the hospital for six days”(Riederer 171)”I have been in the hospital for more than two weeks”(Riederer 172) So we can directly see what happens in each short time period without looking back. We keep forward on Riederer’s progress of recovering which is more continuous.
Besides, by seeing the illness from different people’s eyes, the focus in these two essays also differs. As bystanders of the father’s inexorable invasion of dementia and physical deterioration, the daughter and mother can only decide what actions they can take to save the father at his last gasp. So much of the emphasis in What Broke My Father’s Heart is putting on how the mother and daughter decide and its subsequent consequences while giving little space to how the father actually feels. When the rhythm of the father’s heart beating slows down, the mother is struggling whether to put a pacemaker into her father’s heart, as evidenced by “anxious to relieve my father’s pain, exhausted with caregiving, deferential to doctors, and no expert on high-tech medicine. She said yes.”(Butler 15) She does hope an intact family with her husband still alive. Meanwhile she fears that pacemaker would extend her husband’s life too much because every minute for her to take care of her husband can be torturous. She once wrote in the journal “My life is in ruins” (Butler 18). She cannot stand such kind of life anymore, that she even asks her daughter “Please help me get Jeff’s pacemaker turned off”. (Butler 12) She is regretful about her original...
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