Colleen Payton is delighted when her brother, Stephen MacLaughlin, shows up out of the blue for their mother's birthday. Her twin has been estranged from his family for years over his alternative lifestyle, and after a disagreement at the party, he storms out. Colleen, determined not to lose him again, drives from her small town in Oregon to his Seattle home --- and finds out a truth she wasn't prepared for: Stephen is very ill with the AIDS virus.
After dealing with the emergency at hand (Bette Nordberg is a former registered nurse and therapist --- not only are her scenes of caregiving accurate, they're also fast-paced and interesting), Colleen decides to bring Stephen back to her own home. But there are so many problems: Colleen doesn't consult her husband Kevin, nor does she talk to their two teenaged children. She also ignores the fact that her brother neither shares her Christian faith nor wants to do so. Most of all, Colleen has spent a lifetime pushing away her family members --- and a personal secret that is tearing her up inside.
Few authors, Christian or not, are willing to confront terminal illness honestly and lovingly. Yes, lovingly: for although Colleen faces all manner of criticism, from her husband to her son to her fellow parishioners, her care for Stephen takes over every aspect of her being. Whether she is waiting patiently in a doctor's office for him or trying to decide what he'll want for lunch, Colleen is the very model of a modern caregiver.
Nordberg does not let this dwindle into a heartwarming tale of footrubs and hospital vigils. There's a much bigger issue at stake. For some authors, that issue would be Stephen's sexual preference. Nordberg does deal with this, deftly weaving in details from Stephen's life (his companion's earlier death from the same illness, his childhood feelings about being different, etc.) along with reminders that modern Christians have fundamental disagreements with homosexuality. There is never a question in the novel that Colleen or anyone in her community believes Stephen's lifestyle is the best choice.
However, Nordberg is also too sensitive a storyteller not to realize that the biggest issue --- of faith --- needs to be tackled, and Colleen would never have to confront her own demons if she were simply allowed to change bedding and shed tears. Her controversial decision to bring Stephen to her home forces her to own up to why having him there is so important to her. The truth, once revealed, frees up her energies to remember that God is present even in the midst of this grief and pain. And if He is present, what does that mean? What does it offer?
Surprise, surprise: there are no easy answers. But there are easier and more meaningful communications once Colleen, Kevin, and their family have come to recognize that faith lived out in the smallest ways can have an impact. All too often, stories of conversion and of fatal illness can be tedious. This book is neither; it's engaging, intelligent and compassionate.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on March 1, 2004