April 19, 2012
The Rules of Inheritance begins with a mother dying. It is 1996 and Claire Bidwell Smith is eighteen years old. By this time, both of her parents have been diagnosed with cancer, and though her father’s was discovered first, her mother’s was farther along once finally found, too late, for some terrible reason, for many terrible reasons, none of which Claire will know for years, and some never. She receives the call in an unfamiliar bed under the same roof as a boy with whom she yearns to be familiar, but will never be, and not for lack of trying. This moment, many before it, and even many after it, solidify the circumstances that control Claire’s life for years. She is young and wild, uninhibited, restricted, hurt, abandoned. Death, the inevitable loss and end (or physical end) of all things, fills every crack in Claire’s being, the cracks that form following the deaths of both of her parents before she is old enough to fully realize the severity of these events and the consequences that will follow, many of which are self-inflicted.
She tells her story candidly, with a consistent and unflinching attention to detail that is both beautiful and difficult, symbolic of the effects that loss and the grieving process have on her life. Her prose is poetic and compact, never lacking in intensity, and delivered in the present tense to maintain immediacy.
The book is separated into five sections, each signifying a different step in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief. The story unfolds out of sequence, leaping forward and backward, years at a time, illustrating the variable nature of the process. Claire is in denial for over a decade, bargaining for over a decade, and so on. She enters dysfunctional relationships with people who are also grieving, either a death or a relationship or some other ghost. She reaches out and is reached out to; she taps into each step before transitioning to another. Over the course of time, she heals. There are hard lessons along the way: hurting others and being hurt and missing opportunities and choosing wrong roads. We are never entirely healed; Smith is not an exception.
Her grief is emotionally isolating—”like another country” (94)…a vast nothing expanding outward from the very core of who I am (150)…like living in a country where no one speaks the same language (234).” Her grief is a shield, a numbing one, dulling the pain inflicted upon her by others or herself. It is all-encompassing, a distraction, an excuse, a crutch. Loss protects her, giving her reasons not to fully invest herself. She turns to alcohol, and men. Eventually, the shield falls. She is forced to confront herself, her pain and its origins. She must remember, process, and accept. Over time, by trial and error, she grows to appreciate her mother’s death, and eventually her father’s death, as they lead her to the rest of her life. Lessons are learned and applied, yet we remain impulsive and, at our cores, unchanged.
Currently living in Los Angeles, married with a child and expecting another, Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief. The Rules of Inheritance is not a complete history of her life, but an achingly beautiful window into a portion of it. The grieving process is never complete. There are no rules. We become who we are by way of every relationship we have. We become our fears and our failures, yes—but we also become our successes, and our greatest loves.