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Book Review

The Present Giver
A Memoir, by Bar Scott
Alm Books
223 pages, paperback
ISBN-13: 978-061544069

Reviewed by Annie Dawid

Recently decamped from Woodstock, New York, to Westcliffe, Colorado, at least for part of each year, singer-songwriter Bar Scott has published her first book, The Present Giver: A Memoir, which tells the story of her son, Forrest, who died in 2002 at the age of three and a half, from cancer. Scott informs the reader of this fact on the frontispiece of her beautifully designed book, adding, “If this were a novel, I would be reluctant to disclose that the central character dies in the end. But this is not a novel, and Forrest’s death was not the end.”

The Present Giver is a brave book about a mother’s experience of the terribly short life of her only child. It is not maudlin nor mawkish. We learn many of the gritty details of the cancer and treatment that take over Forrest’s life, as well as that of Scott and her husband, Peter. We spend a great deal of time on the pediatric oncology floor of Albany Medical, coming to grips with an extremely rare disease, hepatoblastoma, with its five percent chance of survival. Four children there have the disease, Forrest among them: two will die, two survive. Forrest’s AFP blood test shows 388,000. “A normal AFP – the number you and I walk around with – is between 1 and 9,” writes Scott. “A year later, after three surgeries and fourteen rounds of chemo, his AFP was 12, the closest we ever got, but still way too far away.”


While we experience the daily life of Forrest and his family during his illness, we also experience the love and light that this child both received and emanated in his short stay among the living. Despite the above technical details, which offer only a brief sample of the lingo and medical ephemera Scott will come to know, The Present Giver is a joyous book.

With eight musical CDs to her credit, the songwriter in Scott understands that joy and sorrow together make for more power than either one separately. She recites to her son a prayer/poem every day since she gave birth, pregnant for the first time at age 39:


I love you, Forrest, more than the sky

No matter where you go

No matter what you do

I will always love you

Fill the sky with your love so that

you may know God

and God may know you.


It is said that a child’s death is the hardest to bear, for it goes against the natural order of things. One gives birth, and one assumes the child will one day bury the parent. When the parent buries the child, a re-negotiation with life’s terms is inevitable. Peter says to Scott, “Some people fixate on finding a cure. Other people fixate on blame. You fixated on God.”

Years later, she agrees with her husband’s assessment. “I thought that if I could understand God then I could keep Forrest alive. There were even times when I thought that Forrest’s cancer was specifically designed so that I would be forced to make sense of God. It was like a test: if I could figure it out, Forrest would live: if I couldn’t, he’d die.”

Scott is valiant in her effort to make sense of God. It is easier to make sense of Forrest. He is funny and bright and generous. During his illness, he accumulates a veritable herd of stuffed animals, all of whom he names. “If a stuffed dog arrived, Forrest would enthusiastically say, ‘iss one’s named Dog!’ It didn’t matter if there were already six stuffed dogs in the house named Dog – he liked to name his stuffed animals according to their species.”

The marriage does not survive Forrest’s death, as happens in at least half of all marriages where a child dies. And yet, again, the reader will find no bitterness in Scott’s account of these years. They were blessed years. “There’s a lot to be thankful for. I loved being a mom, and, in particular, Forrest’s mom. I liked him a lot and I loved him too. He was gentle and kind. He was also funny and smart and he loved to dance. He felt empathy for others, which is one of the most important qualities a human being can have, I think.”

Read this book. You too will be thankful.