I Hope You Have A Good Life: A True Story of Love, Loss and Redemption
by Campbell Armstrong
Published by Crown Publishing
248 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
In his gripping memoir I Hope You Have A Good Life, Scottish-born writer Campbell Armstrong recalls this conversation with his ex-wife Eileen in 1997 as she lay dying from lung cancer:
On one occasion Eileen whispered to me, "Tell this story..."
Armstrong kept his promise. His book recounts the remarkable circumstances that brought Eileen back together with her daughter Barbara after some 40 years of separation. What makes the story poignant to the point of heartbreak is the fact that by the time mother and daughter found each other, both were battling advanced metastatic cancer.
Though Campbell Armstrong is the bystander in this compelling story, he narrates it with such a sense of intimacy and passion that he pulls the reader into the heart of the action. But I Hope You Have A Good Life is more than an ecstatic, bittersweet reunion story. Armstrong speaks of the intricacies of family, of personal turmoil and human frailty (particularly his own) with a no-nonsense candor that is sometimes almost shocking to read. He made grave mistakes in his marriage to Eileen and fought a host of demons, not always successfully. These personal battles make for a parallel narrative of great intensity and drama.
Armstrong did not yet know Eileen when she gave birth to Barbara in the conservative atmosphere of Glasgow, 1955. When her parents found out that the 17-year-old Eileen had become pregnant after an affair with a much older man, they concocted a story about a "nervous breakdown" and discreetly arranged for the baby to be adopted: "And Barbara was taken away by strangers, a form of abduction sanctioned by law, to a life Eileen could never know anything about. A hole in the fabric of space opened, and the baby disappeared through it into dimensions where her mother couldn't follow."
Eileen moves on. She tries to forget. When she meets Campbell Armstrong in the early 1960s, he is an aspiring writer several years her junior, ambitious but undisciplined and magnetically drawn to Glasgow's gritty pubs:
Drinking, everybody knew, was essential to the writer's development and self-image... I liked drunkenness as a condition, the swiveling of my perceptions, the unfettered rush of thought, the laughable clumsiness of speech, the dizziness, the unexpected verbal intimacies drunken strangers share.
Eileen is a breath of fresh air to Campbell, "looking to kick away the struts of propriety... lively, scattered, funny, forever on the edge of some great upheaval or other."
When the two fall in love, Campbell eventually learns her painful secret. Though he feels powerless to comfort her, they manage to make a life together in the freewheeling atmosphere of London in the 1960s. Eileen works to support them while Campbell takes a stab at being a student, admitting later, "I drank more than I studied."
After their first son Iain is born, family and financial pressures lead them to marry and move to Oswego, New York, where Campbell teaches creative writing and Eileen develops a career of her own working with disabled children. Two more sons, Stephen and Keiron, are born. But dark undercurrents poison the family's happiness. Armstrong spends a great deal of time and energy analyzing what went wrong in the marriage, taking on the lion's share of the responsibility. A quirk in his perception leads him to describe his rampant alcoholism as something outside himself, a "demon" beyond his control: "I had a malicious bug in my system that was constantly thirsty." When he has an affair with a student, it further rends the fabric of the marriage.
Relocating the family to Phoenix does nothing to solve his problems and eventually he leaves Eileen for another woman, Rebecca. With her help he embarks on the long and twisted road back to sobriety and self-respect.
Though the story of Campbell and Eileen is essential to the flow of the memoir, it does not follow in a chronological timeline but is told in flashbacks, with most of the narrative taking place many years later in Phoenix as Eileen battles for her life. Campbell and their three sons are never far away during this highly-charged, exhausting time. The disease is a cold and relentless presence in the book, a stalker which Eileen tries hard to outrun and outwit: "Cancer is a wrecking ball," Armstrong writes, "and if you can minimize its destructive path in the smallest way, it's a triumph." In tending to her during her time of greatest need, he attempts to make amends for all the years of chaos and pain.
This story might be too painful to bear without the near-miracle of Barbara's reappearance in Eileen's life. Suffering from advanced ovarian cancer, she has searched fruitlessly for years trying to find scraps of information about her birth mother. Barbara is both ecstatic and anguished when she finally connects with Eileen's brother Sydney in Glasgow and learns that though her mother is still alive, her condition is terminal.
The time the two spend together is painfully brief, but full of an inexpressible joy: "The bond that occurred between Eileen and herself was instant, high-voltage. Immediately, she felt secure, loved. Whole. She'd found her blood ties... It was suddenly a world where joy could bloom at the heart of sickness." At one point Barbara, nearly bald from chemotherapy, is reluctant to remove her headscarf in front of her mother:
Eileen was quick to sense her daughter's discomfort. She stroked Barbara's head and said, "I remember this head, you know. The last time I saw you, your hair was just like this..."
Witnessing these moments of grace in the midst of impending death, Campbell Armstrong experiences something of a personal epiphany, a maturing into real manhood. This part of the story rivals the reunion in poignancy, as this formerly tormented soul begins to find meaning in death and a measure of peace with himself. Experiencing Eileen's generous forgiveness, he is at last able to let go of his self-hatred. I Hope You Have A Good Life is a powerful story with more than one stream of meaning. Beyond a cancer memoir or a story of the triumph of love, it recounts the quiet, moving victory of a man who finally finds the strength and the integrity to do the right thing. | October 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.