Study Guide

The Usual Rules Mortality

By Joyce Maynard


There's people jumping, he said. The fire trucks are melting.

From her desk, a girl named Sandra, who never talked, began to cry. Several people put their heads down on their desks. One girl started getting the dry heaves, but not the one who'd said she was going to throw up. She was already gone. (3.9-10)

When Wendy hears about the people jumping from the towers, she knows this isn't going to end well—there's a real possibility her mother won't make it out of the World Trade Center alive.

Now the face in the picture was her own slim, beautiful, laughing mother. She knew the face better than anybody's except her own. Only now, for the first time, it struck her that her mother looked different. Not quite like her mother anymore, but almost like someone who used to be her mother. (3.162)

When Wendy and Josh put up flyers of her mother all over New York City, she realizes this is the first time her family's had to confront the fact that they might not all be around forever. It's scary and strange.

He was doing the rounds of hospitals again. A lot of families who were missing someone were going over to the armory on East Seventy-third Street to give the workers there hair samples and dental records, but when his sister suggested that, he looked as if he might murder her, and she didn't bring it up again. (3.210)

The mere idea that Janet might not be alive anymore is horrible to Josh, and he refuses to even entertain the possibility. In fact, he won't let anyone else talk about it at all—not even his own sister.

I was just wondering, she said. A young woman in a vest had stopped to take a drink from her water bottle by the spot where Wendy was standing. You aren't finding bodies or anything are you?

Not much you'd recognize, the woman said. If it's anything human, they've got a priest set up in a tent to say the last rites. (3.275-276)

Wow, if that woman knew that Wendy had a parent in the Twin Towers, she probably wouldn't say that. But her comment about the parts of bodies they're finding brings the reality of the situation home for Wendy: Her mother is probably dead.

A girl at my school said all the people got buried under the building, Louie whispered. My teacher said to be quiet but the girl said her mom said all the people got turned into bits of dust and the reason everyone's wearing masks is they might be allergic to dead people. (5.33)

Even though Louie is too young to really understand death, he's still disturbed by what he's hearing about the 9/11 attacks and the people who were in the Twin Towers. He's totally aware that something terrible happened to his mother.

They stood there for a while looking at the pictures.

He doesn't look like the kind of person who'd be dead, said Amelia.

I know what you mean, said Wendy. But lots of people don't. (6.12-14)

Although the cute firefighter on the flyer looks young and healthy and like he'll survive anything, Wendy knows the truth: People can look perfectly normal before they die. They can seem like they'll live forever until the very last moment.

I'd really like to get to know you more, the tangerine peel said. It's just so fascinating having a friend whose mother got killed.

The second she said it, she gasped. Seth looked up from his sandwich. Oh my God, said Amelia. It just came out.

It's okay, Wendy told Amelia. She felt relieved that someone said it, finally. (6.54-56)

It might be a little (okay, a lot) insensitive of Amelia to mock the other girls in their class who are trying to get close to Wendy now that her mother is "missing," but Wendy is just relieved that Amelia has said what everyone else is afraid to say: Janet isn't coming home again.

It made me think about what music we would choose, she said. If we did something like that.

Not just yet, okay, Wen? he said. I just can't let myself believe she isn't coming home. If I did, I don't know how I'd go on living. (8.82-83)

She may just be a kid, but Wendy has an easier time accepting that her mother is dead than Josh does. Josh is afraid to say it aloud; he's scared that he won't be able to go on if he admits that Janet is gone forever.

The idea that he wanted to be dead, though, that part was new. At her worst moments these last six weeks she never wanted that. She wished the world would disappear plenty of times. She wished there was a place to be where she didn't have to think anymore, where the sisters stopped coming at her. But dead, never. (8.91)

When Josh admits that he wants to be the one who died instead of Janet, it terrifies Wendy. She's already lost her mother—the idea that she could lose Josh as well is just too much for her to think about.

The thought came to Wendy that a person didn't just die in a single instant, but gradually, in stages. She had begun to lose her mother that day in September, but it was still happening, a little at a time, as if her mother had been on a little boat that was very gradually drifting out to sea, or holding on to a balloon that kept on rising till you couldn't see it anymore. (15.69)

Now that Wendy has encountered the first big death in her life, she realizes it's not as simple as people make it out to be. She doesn't just lose her mother once—she loses her again and again as she relives the times they shared.