I was 10 when “Brian’s Song” aired in 1971 as an ABC Movie of the Week. It is the story of the abiding friendship that grew as Brian Piccolo, who was white, and Gale Sayers, who was Black, competed for playing time as N.F.L. rookies with the Chicago Bears. It’s also the story of Piccolo’s death of cancer at 26. I was a girl in Birmingham, Ala., then “the most segregated city in America,” when “Brian’s Song” reminded this country that race was not an insurmountable barrier to love.
Of course I read “I Am Third,” the 1970 memoir by Gale Sayers from which the film was adapted, as soon as I could get my hands on it. When the bookmobile librarian suggested that I might also like “Death Be Not Proud,” John Gunther’s heart-wrenching account of his 17-year-old son’s death from a brain tumor, I devoured it too.
I was not a child obsessed with death; I simply wanted to understand how the world works. My friend Mary Laura Philpott read the same kinds of books as a child, and for the same reason.
“The more I saw and heard of the real world, the more I came to suspect there was sadness everywhere, and if I was going to live in this world, I should understand its scale and reach,” she writes in her acclaimed new book, “Bomb Shelter.”
Reading stories is a gentle way for a child to encounter the hardest truth that shadows mortal life: There are no happy endings.
“The first problem love presents us with is how to find it,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her new memoir, “Lost & Found.” “But the most enduring problem of love, which is also the most enduring problem of life, is how to live with the fact that we will lose it.” Many stories solve the first problem. Far fewer admit that the second even exists.
Books about loss tell us something about our own nature. They remind us that we belong to a species capable of carrying on when we think we can’t carry on any longer. Death is just part of how the world works. It’s part of how we ourselves work.
“No part of an embodied life is guaranteed except for death,” writes Tallu Schuyler Quinn in her new essay collection, “What We Wish Were True.” To face it — however haltingly or furiously or tearfully, or on a carousel of all those swirling feelings — is to be fully alive.
Ms. Quinn was the beloved founder of the Nashville Food Project, which addresses food insecurity. Last summer, when I wrote about her life and mission, she was working on a collection of essays drawn in part from her CaringBridge journal about living with a terminal brain cancer. Ms. Quinn died in February. The book will be published on Tuesday.
I did not know Ms. Quinn personally, but even from a distance I know that her life was a bright testament to the power of serving others. I know, too, that she could write like an angel, with poetry and humor and a bone-deep understanding of the way love and grief walk hand in hand through the world together, twinned: “As these tumors hold court in my mind and mix me up in these sad and terrible ways,” she writes, “I find shelter in new thanks and new praise and in another day — and even in how healing these salty tears taste pouring into my open mouth as I wail my thanks for this unexpected, unbelievable, boundless shelter of love.”
There are reasons to worry that a book which confronts the essential inevitability of death, especially the untimely death of a human being in love with the world, someone who never seemed to waste a minute of her one remarkable life and is heartbroken to leave it behind, will be a book many readers will fear to face.
After all, we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has taken millions of people from their loved ones. We are watching in real time as bombs fall from Ukrainian skies and Vladimir Putin’s ground forces slaughter innocent people. The hunger Ms. Quinn fought so hard to alleviate will inevitably worsen as inflation rages. In such a world, who could bear to read a book which the writer herself did not live long enough to see into print?
But the human world has always been just this tragic, just this unbearable, and the literary world has always given us reasons to understand the gifts such books can offer — not in spite of the tragedies we witness and live through, but because of them — if we don’t turn away.
We’ve all had near misses that shook us to the core: when a hydroplaning car skidded to a stop in the nick of time; when a toddler, unwatched for half a second, teetered at the top of a flight of steps but was caught just before stepping over the edge; when the scan showed a shadow that had to be a tumor but turned out to be nothing at all.
And every near miss is almost always followed by a golden time, too brief, when the futile frustrations and pointless irritations of daily life fall away, when all that’s left behind is gratitude. We are here. Our beloveds are here. How remarkable it is to be together. How full of grace the fallen world can be.
“What We Wish Were True,” like so many end-of-life memoirs that came before it, and so many others still to come, is for readers a kind of literary near-miss experience. Its beauty reminds us to linger in the grace. Its wisdom teaches us to treasure the ordinary pleasures we ought to have been treasuring all along.
“I think about everything I will miss, and what I won’t be alive to witness or experience or endure or bounce back from,” writes Ms. Quinn. “No singing show tunes in the minivan. No burnt toast with butter in the mornings. No snuggling up to watch cooking shows. No walks together circling the neighborhood we love so much.”
Whether it comes before or after we turn the last page of a book, we know the ending of every human story. “If an ending could be changed through strategic planning or force of will or the sheer love of life, things would go differently, but this cannot be changed,” Ann Patchett writes in “These Precious Days.”
It cannot be changed. The finality of that truth is breathtaking.
But “What We Wish Were True” is not a book about dying any more than “Brian’s Song” is a movie about dying. It is a book about the life of an extraordinary person. It is a book about love and gratitude and making every day an opportunity to love, a chance to decide, again and again, to keep on loving for as long as we draw breath. And, through the miracle of books, beyond it, too.
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