Over the past 25 years or so, memoir writers have plumbed nearly every facet of life: traumatic childhood, coming of age, parenthood, divorce, parents’ demise, siblings’ demise, spouses’ demise, battles with addiction, and, thank goodness, a host of less dire things. (Buying a fixer-upper in the south of France, say, or walking across Australia with some camels.)
Pretty much anything that can happen in a life has been fodder, including life’s end. These past few years I’ve seen a growing number of memoirs about death — the memoirist’s death, that is. These books are generally written in the last months of a lingering illness, and many are published posthumously. Christopher Hitchens wrote about his terminal illness. Oliver Sacks wrote about his.
Last year we read with admiration Jenny Diski’s “In Gratitude,” her scrappy memoir about living with incurable cancer (“Nobody is better at having cancer than me,” she once said), as well as Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air.” That book, sadly, was completed by his wife; Kalanithi died before it was done.
These books have a built-in interest: Death comes for all of us, eventually, and how fascinating to read the words of someone poised on the edge. What wisdom do they have? What do they see?
And how compelling for the author, too, to stay alive on the page after the body has burned itself out.
“The Bright Hour,” by Nina Riggs, published in June, was hard for me — Riggs had the same cancer that took my sister’s life, and she underwent some of the same treatments, and as I read I felt both familiarity and dread. Riggs, who died in February, was a poet, and her prose is clear and eloquent, her thoughts profound. Still, this is not a maudlin book, but a joyous one. She was able, somehow, to maintain equilibrium while looking death full in the eye.
Simon Fitzmaurice’s “It’s Not Yet Dark” is less a memoir of dying than a memoir of refusing to die. Fitzmaurice, an Irish filmmaker, was 33 in 2008 when he was diagnosed with ALS. The disease progressed swiftly, and by 2010 he could no longer move or breathe on his own. In Ireland, the common practice has been to allow such patients to die, but Fitzmaurice would have none of it. He demanded a breathing machine, an electric wheelchair, a computer controlled by eye-gaze: He wanted to live.
Now, nine years later, he is almost entirely immobile but remains productive, writing this book, producing several films and fathering twins. His vibrant memoir is braided between past and present, as he recalls former girlfriends, travel, his beloved work. “I’ve lost so much,” he writes. “And yet. I’m still here. ... I can let this life crush me. ... Or I can bear the weight. And live.”
Which brings us to “Dying,” by Australian writer Cory Taylor, who is coping with advanced melanoma when the book opens and wondering if she has the fortitude to end her own life. But she has qualms “about the harm one can inadvertently do to others, by going rogue and acting alone.” Hers is a deeply thoughtful reflection on life and impending death.
Do these seem like gloomy books to you? Do you turn away, thinking, “I’m never going to read those!” I thought that, too, and then I opened them and read them, one after another. Each carries a different message — Riggs writes of her children and husband, Fitzmaurice his determination to keep on going, Taylor her desire for control over her end.
All, to the last page, to the last second, are bursting with life. Live until you die: a lesson worth remembering.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.