When I was in my early 20s, I went rock climbing with a boyfriend who didn’t understand how to use ropes. We were stuck about 5 feet from the top when he undid my rope and told me to jump to a nearby ledge and then scramble the rest of the way up. Untethered, 55 feet up the side of the rock face, I jumped, and I lived (but I never went rock climbing again).
Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir “I Am, I Am, I Am” reminded me of this story, buried for years in my memory with all the other stories of my life that are too scary to think about. We all have them, those experiences that are even more terrifying in retrospect than they were in the moment, but in this riveting memoir, O’Farrell has written hers down. The book is the story of her life, told through 17 near-death experiences, from a near drowning (rescued by a friend), to a near murder (saved by her own wits), to a near plane crash to a complicated childbirth that nearly ended the lives of herself and her baby.
Her stories are harrowing, but the purpose of these essays is not to frighten. It is to affirm. She did not die; she lived through all of these experiences and now recounts each one in vivid, fully alive detail — remembering the feeling of the wind in her hair, the roughness of the grass, the jolt of the plane, the sharpness of the machete.
Some chapters are written all in one breathless scene, the tension almost unbearable even as we know she will be OK. In one, O’Farrell sits in a rental car on the side of a remote road in rural France, trying to nurse her colicky son. Her husband has gone for a walk and has taken the car keys with him, and as two shifty men approach, she realizes she has no idea how to lock the car. “The men have seen my panic, seen my problem, and now they are running and I have no idea what they want — money, car, baby, woman — but I don’t want to find out, I don’t need to know the answer to that question because they’re just ready to react. … Still I fumble over the car controls, still my son yells, still the men come, bearing down on us.”
Other pieces are longer, more introspective, covering a lengthy span of time, such as the chapter about falling ill with encephalitis as a child, an episode that set the stage for the rest of her life. “Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine — perhaps to a fault — about death,” she writes. Instead of fearing it, “Its proximity felt instead almost familiar.”
It is in the final essay when the tension becomes almost unbearable and the meaning of the book becomes clear. This brush with death is not hers, but her daughter’s. O’Farrell’s daughter suffers from an autoimmune disorder that leaves her profoundly vulnerable to anaphylactic shock, “if she eats something with a trace of a nut. Or if she sits at a table where someone has recently consumed sesame seeds. Or if an egg is cracked nearby. Or if she is stung by a bee or a wasp. If she touches the hand of someone who has been eating nuts or eggs or salad with pumpkin oil. If she enters a cloakroom and one of the coats has a peanut in the pocket. … We live, then, in a state of high alert.”
On a car trip in rural Italy, out of cellphone range, out of GPS range, far from any hospital, her daughter begins to go into shock.
We are all, O’Farrell points out, close to death at any moment, whether we think about it or not. We must not give in to fear; even on the verge of death, life is to be lived. Up on that rock ledge, she would urge, go ahead and jump.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. @StribBooks. facebook.com/startribunebooks
I Am, I Am, I Am
By: Maggie O'Farrell.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $25.95.