Friday, July 14, 2017

It Takes Courage to Read Joyce Maynard's "The Best of Us"

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Last year I happened to catch Joyce Maynard's essay in the "Modern Love" column of the New York Times. As a person whose life has been touched by pancreatic cancer, my younger brother died over two years ago from this horrific disease, my heart broke for Ms. Maynard and her husband Jim because I knew something about their outcome that they probably refused to believe at the time.

Through the generosity of so many publishers, in this case Bloomsbury, I am given the opportunity to read books of interest to me prior to their publication. "The Best of Us" will be out in September and it will join the pantheon of memoirs dealing with death and dying that will simultaneously debilitate and strengthen you. Think of Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" or "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi.

Joyce Maynard writes with such breathtaking honesty about the joys and disappointments of her life that she has sometimes been the subject of what I see as extremely unfair criticism. This is, after all, what writers do. Their lives are fodder for the page. Fiction writers use stealth tactics but memoirists put it all out there and hope for mercy, for their humanity to be recognized.

Maynard's observations are clear-eyed and psychologically astute. When she and Jim first meet they talk over the phone for four or five hours. They lay out all their past failures and find no judgment from the other. They are adults, in their late fifties, and they are each complete in themselves, the only way to enter a relationship. When Maynard said that Jim was the first man she'd ever trusted to have her back I totally understood. If you've never had a champion in your life, a person who knows you inside and out, you cannot imagine the relief it bestows.

To finally find that kind of bliss and then, one year after their marriage, to be blindsided by a diagnosis of one of the deadliest cancers out there has to be the worst type of irony. No wonder they rebelled against the news, flying from coast to coast seeking better surgeons promising different outcomes, magical concoctions of herbs, special diets and juices, and ultimately the dreaded but longed for whipple procedure.

When and if you read this agonizing but wonderful book you may think to yourself that Maynard is exaggerating. I will attest that she is not. Each detail she shares, from the pain of being touched, to the inability to eat, to the drains and surgeries, fevers and brain fogs, and the lost look in the loved one's eyes is oh, too real. For two years I watched my brother fight, deny, withdraw, and refuse the loving care of hospice until his wife was near to a nervous breakdown herself. Like my sister-in-law, Maynard believed that only she could take the best, most tender care of the patient. They each did.

Learning about Jim through Joyce's loving eyes I once again learned how to die with grace and dignity. You cannot be given this important lesson too often. Would I have the strength to attend a Bob Dylan concert during the last week of my life so that I could say I took my beloved partner on a last date? We will never know until we are faced with these kinds of decisions ourselves. But we can read and be thankful that Joyce Maynard is an author unafraid of sharing her deepest most human thoughts with us. That trait is what separates writers from the rest of us. They should not have to fear reprisal.


Paul Woodside said...

Beautiful review, Sal!

Sallyb said...

Thank you my friend.