Gabriel’s Inferno: Seeing Gabriel’s Pain In A Whole New Light

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a passage from Gabriel’s Inferno chapter 2 . It’s a key moment in the book, when Gabriel learns that his adopted mother Grace has passed away, and Julia is in the hallway listening to his emotional conversation.

In case you don’t have the book handy, here are a few excerpts from the scene:

“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was in my seminar!” an angry voice, all too familiar now, spat aloud. There was a brief silence before he continued. “Because it’s the first seminar of the year, asshole, and because the last time I talked to her she said she was fine!”

“Of course I wanted to be there! I loved her. Of course I wanted to be there.”

“Tell them I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”

Gabriel’s Inferno, Chapter 2

I used to read these words with a much different perspective. Previously, the scene left a very particular impression in my mind. It suggested that Gabriel might not have been checking in with his family as often as he should have, especially given Grace’s illness. That he was caught off guard by her death says a lot, after all. How could he not have known how bad things were?

Now, after losing my mom, I read them differently.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in June 2019 and at the time we were told to say our goodbyes. We did. It was a painful 18 months of being told on occasion that she wasn’t going to make it by various medical professionals who didn’t bother to read her chart to understand that even though she was a Stage IV cancer patient, she was still undergoing treatment. (Long story short,the ER doctors we’d seen over that time quickly wrote her off without seeing in her chart that she was being treated, and yes, it’s as frustrating as it sounds) 

We’d never been given a timeline on how much time she had left. As long as the chemotherapy kept holding the cancer at bay, and so long as there were more treatments to try, we would keep going until we ran out of treatment options and then we’d move to clinical trials. 

With my mom, we’d received the wonderful news on a Friday that her treatments were working, keeping the cancer stable and even shrinking some of the tumors. 

A week later she was gone. 

Now I look at this critical scene from Gabriel’s Inferno through a different lens. The guilt that Gabriel feels is as poignant as ever, but now I can see where Grace could have told Gabriel she was okay because she thought she was, or things took a turn so quickly that there wasn’t time to tell him. 

(Of course, there is still the possibility that Gabriel wasn’t checking in as frequently as his brother would have preferred, but as it was with my mom, he could have talked to her a few days before and still not known she was so close to the end)

The guilt that Gabriel feels tugs at my own heartstrings. Over the course of those 18 months with my mom, I’d been by her side every single day save for 4 nights when I was away on business. I was at every appointment. I fought every battle that needed to be fought on her behalf. I was there for everything…and yet even I didn’t see that I was about to lose her. 

The heated conversation between the brothers underlies their already tenuous relationship, of course, but through this new lens Scott’s anger – which precipitates Gabriel’s frustration during the call – is what seems more unacceptable in that moment. Scott has just lost his mother and he’s understandably upset, but so did Gabriel. If he could have been there, he would have. 

Naturally, there’s a reason this passage was written thusly and it couldn’t have been written any other way without changing everything that happened as a result of it. It’s a key moment for Julia, who’d been outside Gabriel’s office awaiting a stern lecture. She slips him a note of sympathy, mistakenly written on a piece of paper that says “Emerson is an ass.” That sets things into motion in a very particular way. If they hadn’t happened the way they did, then things might not have ended up the same at all. 

It’s one of those butterfly effect moments that could have changed so many things about Gabriel and Julia’s story. It haunts me, though, because I don’t think Gabriel could have done anything differently and the pain that he’s experiencing breaks my heart. 

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