It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay: The Language of Dying

Photo by Steve Collis of Melbourne, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

Grief unmoors those who have passed from the moment of “They are gone” to “Now what?” For authors who have confronted grief in memoir, fiction, and poetry, writing about grief from the position of having lost a loved one reveals a number of commonalities about the experience. Not only is grief disorienting, it also reveals the limits of language. For writers, this is one of the worst lessons to learn. Those who feel a certain power over language and its ability to create resonance and meaning discover that no matter how you write about grief, you can’t effect the ultimate power, walking away from the grief itself or changing the past so that the lost one still lives. This has left some inventing a new language through which to engage the experience.

If writers have developed their very own “grief language”—and I would argue that they have—then what of those on the other end of the grief experience, the loved one who knows they are dying? Is there a language for the dying, for them to explain to the rest of us how it feels to know the piece they are working on is most likely the last thing they’ll ever write?

I understand the impetus to write when one knows one is dying. A few years ago, I was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in the long week in which I tried to adjust to that knowledge, two thoughts went through my head. The first wondered why I had ever spent so much time worrying about supposed shortcomings in my own body. The second was a deep-seated sorrow that I had never finished my novel.

When the diagnosis was corrected to something that was easily treated, I swore I would never worry about my weight again, and that somehow, I would find time to get my book out into the world. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither vow has worked out, although the novel is still in progress.)

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, writer, and actor (if you haven’t seen it in a while, re-watch his performance as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff”) died in late July of complications from ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In the last months of his life, Shepard wrote his last work, a novella: Spy of the First Person tells the story of an unnamed narrator who collages together memories of his life, juxtaposing family lore with the history of place—New Mexico, California, New York City—as a man who waits to hear the name of his ailment to be spoken aloud.

Truth be told, most of the book is joyful, as the narrator recounts fantastic tales of Alcatraz Prison, of drinking fine tequila in Mexico, of the love he bears for his children. But the shadows lay long on the page, as when he writes about time. What are the best times of our lives? Are they always in the past? And why is the past a series of fragments, rather than the narrative whole we think our lives have been? Or is it always to embrace the present moment, stay rooted in the now? What happens if you’ve saved all your joy for the future, only to find out that your future has been truncated? It is in the moments that Shepard writes about illness that catch the reader unawares.

One year ago he could hear the walnuts drop. He could hear the walnuts crunch. He could scratch the belly of his Catahoula who had too many puppies…One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up. He could see through the air. He could wipe his own ass.

In the final notes appended after the book, his family mentions that Shepard approved the final copy of the manuscript just a few days before his death on July 27.

Cory Taylor, the Australian writer who had been awarded with the Commonwealth Prize for earlier work, spent her last days putting into language what it was like to find herself dying of a melanoma-related brain tumor when she still had so many questions left. She opens Dying: A Memoir with the admission that she has found a way to order drugs online that will allow her to choose her own time of death if she finds that her suffering is too much to bear. By letting her readers in to watch as Taylor considers options, and asking herself whether she owes more time to her family, her community, and the dictates of religion—or whether it’s her decision to make about her own death—she lets readers ask their own questions.

My former mother-in-law was faced with the same decision over a decade ago here in the United States. She spent her last years testifying in front of legislative committees, even in front of Congress, about the ethics of medically assisted death, the option that she wanted to have for herself.  She was lucky enough to live in the state of Oregon, which has legalized what’s become known as “assisted suicide,” although even that term supposes that beating cancer to the punch is somehow a crime.

Taylor, however, lived in a country (Australia) that still made assisted death a crime, and so as she considers her options, she comes to the painful understanding that using the drugs will mean doing so without benefit of her family’s companionship. Legally, it would be too risky for them. And while the opening of the book shocks readers by plunging them into the midst of the conversation, it gives a strong sense of Taylor’s independence and—paradoxically—her lust for life as she contemplates the end. The writing takes up some of the same questions that Shepard also contemplated: is life a series of disconnected memories—a sort of patchwork—or when we look back at our lives with the sharp, unsparing light that approaching death seems to equip writers with, is a life one narrative whole?

When Henning Mankell, the Swedish author who might be best known to Americans as the writer of the Wallander books, found out he had a malignant mass in his neck, he also took to writing as an outlet for his thoughts and emotions. But Mankell’s book Quicksand differs from both Taylor’s and Shepard’s in that he spends much of it writing about both a past and a future of which he has no first-hand knowledge.

Such a far-ranging set of subjects—the cave paintings of Lascaux, the burying of nuclear waste—gives Mankell an opportunity to locate his own threescore and ten years within the context of deep time. Rather than focus on self-directed anger about his illness, Mankell projects his emotions outward, at the kinds of hubris that would create nuclear waste that will be poisonous to all living things for 100,000 years—over 3000 generations of humans in the future. And then, as a means of illuminating the ridiculousness of such a project, he asks his readers to contemplate events of the past century which we have long forgotten about. Mankell returns again and again to the infinitude in which humans live, and the tininess of each single human life within a time and space with no limits. His writing, angry as it is, also turns on hope. His diagnosis was not yet terminal as he wrote, so his contemplation of the end of his time is contained within his exploration of time as a concept.

But Mankell too, when he does reflect on his life, goes back and forth in constructing a patchwork quilt of experiences rather than a single trajectory.

For writers, the realization that the amount of time we spend in our craft attempting to create coherent narratives doesn’t hold for our own lives is a profound one. Despite all that time we spend asking young people what they want to be when they grow up, or in our own heads constructing fantasy futures, it turns out that when we come right up against that limit, we have to push through alone: the whole project of thinking we are in control of our own narrative is a false one. Life, it turns out, is not a straight narrative.

Why then do we demand narrative from the tales we read or tell ourselves?