Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett. William Morrow (New York, 2011). 291 pp., $14.99. Colm may be only 7, but he knows a lot: He’s very sick, he may not recover and his mother, Cathleen, loves him fiercely. In just a few pages of Proof of Heaven, author Mary Curran Hackett creates an absorbing world that challenges us to think about love’s possibilities and limits, the concept of an afterlife, and where God is in all of our earthly suffering.
Colm is a frail boy whose heart suddenly stops beating without warning, requiring EMTs to revive him time and time again with defibrillation paddles. Yet no clear-cut diagnosis immediately emerges. Nothing can be more heartbreaking than a child’s life-threatening illness, and Colm’s plight evokes many intense feelings among the characters.
Cathleen, a single mother, has always found comfort in her rock-ribbed Catholic faith. Now she wonders if eventual heaven can ever "surely make sense" of this spectacle of life’s chaotic randomness to which she is a reluctant witness. Her brother Sean, a firefighter used to emergency calls, is stunned by his inability to save the life of someone he dearly loves. One time when Colm’s heart suddenly stops beating, Sean begins to pray for the first time in years as he gives the boy CPR.
And Dr. Basu, Colm’s kind physician, has lost a son of his own and readily understands Cathleen’s grief: "He wanted to reach out, to envelop (Cathleen and Colm) both and promise him that he could make it all better, but he could not." His benevolent skepticism about heaven connects him to Colm.
For his part, Colm worries about how to tell his devout mother of his spiritual doubts — and that before he dies he wants the chance to meet his father, who abandoned Cathleen years before.
Hackett deftly limns these characters with a few well-chosen strokes, and the narrative carries us along. An adjunct English professor at the University of Cincinnati, she explains in an engaging afterword how she developed the idea for her book. Like her character, as a child and young woman she experienced fainting spells so serious that they eventually led her to get a pacemaker. And like Colm, as a child she was pious but not at all sure that she believed in God.
No wonder her novel’s description of Colm’s thoughts about going to church rings true: "Church was such a letdown for Colm, and the worst part of it was sitting still. Colm believed his mother and uncle chose to take him to the world’s longest Mass — with a choir that sang every response, with a priest who seemed to go on and on during the homily and who talked with his mother after every Mass. Colm didn’t get it. Why did people come to church? What was the point?"
Proof of Heaven is a solid debut novel that will engage readers as it inspires them to weigh the basic questions of why we are here, what it means and what hope may be found in the tale of a child’s suffering.
Roberts directs the journalism program at SUNY Albany. Her books include Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.