Counting Months Summary
by David Leavitt

Start Your Free Trial

Download Counting Months Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Counting Months Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Six months before the story opens, Anna Harrington was told that she had six months to live. Now, sitting in the oncology department waiting room, she is suddenly overcome by the realization that she was supposed to be dead by now. Instead of elation, she feels only dread, for she does not interpret the fact that she is not dead as a reprieve but as a stay of execution. When her doctor praises her for keeping up an active life, she suddenly realizes what a lie she is living.

The doctor’s optimism only depresses her as she leaves the hospital and drives to a supermarket. It is Christmas, and she marvels at sights and sounds that she never expected to live to see, but she feels no joy. The more she tries to forget her condition, the more obsessed with it she becomes. She is overwhelmed by the irony of the fact that she is living in a body that is killing itself from within.

Back home, she is plunged into the familiar domestic routine of dealing with three energetic young children who have no idea of what she is going through. At odd moments, the horror seizes her, then recedes as family demands intervene. Recently divorced, she has the added burden of being a single parent. Tonight she is supposed to take her children to a party at the Lauranses, Jewish friends whose son Greg is a born-again Christian who is displaying signs of bizarre behavior. Soon after the Harringtons arrive at the Lauranses, Anna settles a dispute between her son Ernest and a boy who he says broke his thermos bottle. The fact that Ernest is not telling the whole truth bothers her, especially when she remembers that she will probably not be around much longer to guide her son.

Two things happen at the party to aggravate Anna’s fragile emotional condition. First, she is accosted by Joan Lensky, a woman who pretends to be a concerned friend but who is really a busybody. Joan seems to live for nothing but comparing other people’s sorrows with her own. She presses Anna for details of her condition and seems to enjoy speaking graphically of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hair loss. She even goes so far as to suggest that Anna consult an organization that arranges things before people die to ensure that everything will be properly taken care of afterward.

Anna is no sooner rescued from Joan’s morbid prying than she is confronted by a group of retarded children whom Greg Laurans has brought from the state hospital to sing Christmas carols. One of the girls is a dwarf with a deformed head and large, alert eyes set unnaturally low beneath a broad forehead. When the children sing, they have such trouble pronouncing even the simplest words that their singing becomes grotesque. Anna sees their performance as a deliberate cruelty to all concerned and tries to comfort Greg’s distraught mother.

Shortly thereafter, Ernest announces to his mother that his brother, Roy, is in the bedroom with some boys smoking pot. Instead of recoiling in horror, Anna merely tells Ernest not to be a tattletale, as if nothing else can now happen that could possibly upset her. Just as she says this, she spies the dwarf girl looking up at her. The girl is holding a glass of water in her tiny, fat hand, and on her face is an expression that Anna thinks could indicate either extreme stupidity or great knowledge. As the story ends, the dwarf girl is staring at Anna, unblinking, as if Anna herself “were a curiosity—or a comrade in sorrow.”