Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Death and Dying

Several years ago my friend Andrea and I planned an outstanding series of programs for our public library titled "On Death and Dying." We had both recently experienced devastating losses of loved ones and the subject of helping folks educate themselves about the various ways we perceive the deaths of others and, of course, our own, was topmost in our minds.

For 6 weeks we hosted members of Hospice, local clergy, palliative care nurses, nursing professors from FGCU and even an Elder Law attorney. Though the number in attendance was less than stellar, the folks who did come were overwhelmed and grateful for the chance to learn and mingle with like-minded folks. Your public library doing what it does best.

I wish that this exquisite little novel with the big ideas had been available then so that we could have piggy-backed onto the program with a discussion of The Spare Room by Australian writer Helen Garner. This is a difficult, brutally honest look at a long friendship being tested to the breaking point by Nicola's refusal to admit that she is dying of cancer and Helen's rash invitation to take Nicola into her home while she undergoes alternative treatments.

Nicola has an outsized personality and, as a single woman with no kids or family to speak of, life has always been, as my sister would say, all about her. Helen, on the other hand, lives next door to her daughter and delightfully precocious granddaughter, is active in the community, and planning a huge trip in the not too distant future. She comes to realize that a three week stint caring for Nicola will mean that she must completely put her own life on hold.

Now, don't get me wrong, we DO these things, don't we? Usually for family though, and even then with great trepidation. How long will the ties of friendship hold without untethering when strained by sleepless nights, endless laundry, and daily trips to the clinician who subjects Nicola to vitamin C treatments and coffee enemas that leave her shaking with pain and fever.

What it boils down to is that the two friends have very different views on what constitutes a "good death." Neither one of them sees the other as the other sees herself. Then again, how can they really? How can anyone get into the mind of another? Nicola is fighting because she doesn't feel she has a legacy to leave, while Helen sees Nicola's entire life and friendship as a positive force, a legacy in its own right.

Until we, the reader and the person, are in the dying one's shoes, we can never understand what that state of mind must be like. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about how one "handles" their leave taking from this earth. Our family and friends may not approve of our choices, rifts may be bridged or chasms dug, all depending upon where we are in our own growth and development as human beings. Garner's book will conjure up all the conflicting emotions you have ever had over the years as you've sat by a family member's bedside. Some may have raged against the dying of the light, others accept with grace. Be prepared for a deep emotional response to Ms. Garner's gem of a novel.

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