Death is the most private and singular experience we’ll ever have — we die alone, and, to borrow a title from Ian Fleming, we only die once. But by the time death comes for us, we will have experienced thousands of proxy deaths — in books, in movies, on TV, in song. The experience of dying, and especially of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, then facing your final months, is such well-examined cultural material, a person being told she’s in her final days may have the paradoxical sensation of already wearying of an experience she has yet to have.
When she was told, in late 2014, that she was going to die “sooner rather than later,” the writer Jenny Diski had just such a sensation. “You could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises,” she wrote. But rather than resign herself to having nothing new to say about the cliché-ridden terrain of terminal cancer, she did the opposite — she wrote a cancer memoir that is both an exploration of the disease, and a meditation on the writer’s attempts to pierce the fog of platitudes and received wisdom, and record an authentic and truthful experience.
From the opening chapter of In Gratitude, published as an essay in The London Review of Books just weeks after Diski’s diagnosis, the writer is coolly vigilant to all the possible culturally-determined responses she might have to this news, and the futility of formulating an original response. She makes a “Breaking Bad” joke, then regrets it, fearing her doctor has heard the joke before: “I was mortified at the thought that before I’d properly started out on the cancer road, I’d committed my first platitude. I was already a predictable cancer patient.”
Platitudes and clichés exist, in part, to give us a sense of comfort and familiarity when facing terrifyingly unfamiliar experiences, and also because they’re true. Life really is short. Laughter can be the best medicine. Each day is a gift, and we should always remember to stop and smell the roses. Who among us hasn’t, when describing a life-altering experience, fallen back on slogans and bumper sticker-speak to convey what it felt like? We may even preface our remarks saying, “I know it’s a cliché, but… I really did see my life flash before my eyes/realize you don’t know what you have until it’s gone/understand that everything can change in an instant.”
When Diski learned she has two to three years left, there were no flashes of mortality or epiphanies about the fragility of life, perhaps because she had learned to hold it in a loose grip long ago. Much of In Gratitude recalls her childhood, with two unreliable parents; her suicide attempt and time in a mental institution; and her unlikely rescue by the writer Doris Lessing, who played the role of foster mother with limited success. Diski learned early on not to take anything for granted, and also that the world’s expectations of her had to matter less than her own expectations of herself. She regarded her extraordinary life with neither awe nor resentment, and the title of her memoir is in a way a play on words. Despite the crippling sense of her debt to Lessing, she could never quite manage to prostrate herself to the vicissitudes of fate. While it was nice to live with a writer (nicer, at least, than the mental hospital), one gets the sense Diski always knew she would become exactly who she did, and the only person she really needs to feel grateful towards is herself.
It is even in this relationship, with her surrogate mother, that Diski resists cliché. Reading her memoir, you see how she fought from an early age to understand the truth of relationships, of adult behavior, and of familial bonds. Her rejection of the half-truths grown-ups try to foist on children set her up well for a life of perspicacity — that she would be able to apply this shrewdness to her final days is something we, as readers, should be grateful for.