In ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams,’

— Last-ditch medical interventions are their own horror story

Confined to a hospital bed, her 86-year-old body shutting down, her mind “breaking into fragments and receding,” Francie asks a nurse to bring her a contemporary novel. The nurse returns with, of all things, “Sabbath’s Theater,” Philip Roth’s sexually explicit work about an aging, suicidal creep. It’s just one of many indignities visited upon poor Francie in “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams,” Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel.

Flanagan won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2014 for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” an extraordinary novel about Australian POWs during World War II that is unsparing in its considerations of human cruelty. “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” shares its predecessor’s concerns but little of its power.

A survivor of cancer and the brain-damaging condition hydrocephalus, Francie is back in the hospital when the novel opens. She has “taken a bad turn,” and her condition worsens after she falls and experiences a brain hemorrhage. As Francie’s decline accelerates, her three late-middle-aged children become increasingly determined to keep her alive. They force their mother into last-ditch medical interventions with the complicity of a health-care system Flanagan suggests is more interested in its well-being than that of its patients. Because “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” is essentially a horror story, their efforts succeed.

Yet this is not Francie’s story. It’s about Anna, the eldest child, only daughter and family narcissist. An architect, Anna is frequently summoned from Sydney to her birthplace in Tasmania by her blue-collar brother Tommy, whom she disdains for being “that most bourgeois of embarrassments: the lower-class relative.”

Her assessments of Francie are even ranker. She looks upon the woman’s “wretched body” as nonhuman, “a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in a spider’s web.” Her reactions to Francie’s scent are equally unkind.

Allowing that her once-strict mother’s “true nature . . . was open, gentle, and loving,” Anna initially wishes for Francie to die so her pain can end. But then, Anna’s ego intervenes. “And precisely because of her shame she saw that henceforth she would have to devote her very being to keeping her mother alive,” Flanagan writes. From there, Anna’s justifications for Francie’s torment pile up like so many medical bills.

Anna has an ally in her youngest brother, Terzo, a businessman who discusses the prolonging of Francie’s life in terms of “victory” and “triumph.” They bully Tommy, whose stuttering they mock and whose poverty they find offensive, into agreeing with them about Francie’s care. “As Terzo put it, with a smile,” Flanagan writes, “they were a board of directors examining a newly acquired corporate takeover.”

Flanagan gets close to something good here, a wicked take on end-of-life care, economic privilege and hubris in the face of death. “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams” can even be viewed as a decent allegory on the climate crisis, which Anna contemplates while scrolling through Instagram, often while on the toilet. In one welcome, Jenny Offill-like moment, Flanagan writes: “How did you adapt to your own murder, wondered Anna as she watched a cat video. Was that what was happening? Were they adapting to their own extinction? Was she?”

If only Flanagan weren’t so obvious about it all. No point in this book is too plain that it can’t be blasted with a spotlight. As Anna watches Australia burn from the narcotizing screen of her phone, her mother vanishes into hallucinations of one-eyed CIA agents and “animals turning into birds and then into plants.” Piece by piece, Anna also begins to fade away. A hand disappears and then a knee, as if they’ve been digitally erased. She feels no pain, and her mobility is unaffected. “But now it had vanished she realised she missed it,” Anna thinks of her invisible knee. “But like the aurochs it was gone. Like the thylacine and the Walkman. Like long sentences. Like smoke-free summers. Gone, never to return.” Like a reader’s patience.

That Anna is unlikable doesn’t really matter, of course. Cold hearts and warped minds make for great literature. What irritates most about Flanagan’s novel is that Anna is more a character than a person. She’s hard to take and harder to believe. Is Anna, in her late 50s, really “shocked” to discover that Francie is more than just a mother but “an adult independent of [her family] and their needs”? Does it really take her so long to realize that postponing Francie’s death is not the same as giving her life? Is she only now understanding that “the more the essential world vanished the more people needed to fixate on the inessential world”? Did she really not know any of this? Did Flanagan?

Complete Article HERE!

In grieving for her father, a novelist discovers the failure of words

Review of ‘Notes on Grief’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By Carlos Lozada

Not all deaths in the time of covid are covid deaths. Even as we tally the fatalities resulting from the coronavirus — indicators of personal grief as well as national competence — we continue about the business of succumbing to non-pandemic maladies, deaths no less painful for their familiarity, grief no less wrenching for its disconnect from this plague upon us.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie experienced such a death last year, when her father, James Nwoye Adichie, a distinguished Nigerian academic, passed away because of complications from long-term kidney disease. In “Notes on Grief,” a slim, poignant reflection originating from a New Yorker essay of the same title, the author recounts her efforts to cope with her loss, to accept condolences, to carry out the inevitable rituals of death. “I want there to be a point,” she writes, but even looking for the point is so painful that she cannot fathom “the catastrophe of a direct, unswerving stare.” Grief is always hard to observe.

She writes of her father and his life and the void he leaves, only to find words wanting. With death, she explains, “you learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” All the expressions of sympathy that come from her friends, well-intentioned interruptions of her pain, are inadequate, counterproductive, or they simply annoy. He is resting grates on Adichie in particular. “He could very well be resting in his room in our house in Abba,” the author complains. He is in a better place is not just cliched but presumptuous. “How would you know?” she demands. And when people emphasize that her father lived a long life (he died at 88), she takes little consolation. “Age is irrelevant in grief; at issue is not how old he was but how loved

Her own words have been little better, Adichie chastises herself, recalling her past condolences to grieving friends. Find peace in your memories, she would tell them, only now realizing that memories, rather than relief, produce “eloquent stabs of pain.” And when a friend reminds Adichie of the sentiment she expressed in one of her own novels — “Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved” — the author finds that the words, meant to console, felt “exquisitely painful.” The line is from “Half of a Yellow Sun,” published 15 years ago, back when it seemed she had all the time in the world.

Any one of us who has lost loved ones — even that euphemism feels deficient, for we have not lost anyone; we know too well what happened to them — can relate to Adichie’s anger and her compulsion to reshape it into guilt. She ponders ways she could have anticipated her father’s illness, steps she could have taken to fend off his deterioration, “to make it un-happen.” A brief respite in which she forgets his departure feels like a betrayal, Adichie admits, not only to him but to her relatives in Nigeria who were with him when he died, while she lives across the ocean in the United States. “Do I forget because I am not there?” she wonders. “I think so.” So Adichie seeks other ways to reaffirm their closeness: scouring her belongings for a family tree he once sketched for her, digging up his old letters. “There is an intense pathos to looking at his handwriting,” she realizes. It is as though in seeing his written words, she can again communicate with her father.

The pandemic’s unavoidable form of communication — the Zoom call — is ever present in “Notes on Grief,” as are other covid impositions. The book begins on a weekly family Zoom, with siblings dialing in and cracking jokes from England, the United States and Lagos, and the parents connecting from their home in Abba in southeastern Nigeria. (“Move your phone a bit, Daddy,” they have to tell him when only his forehead appears on the screen.) Her father had been feeling a little sick and sleeping poorly, she recalls, but he urged them not to worry. Three days later, he was gone. Their next Zoom call “is beyond surreal,” Adichie writes, “all of us weeping and weeping and weeping, in different parts of the world, looking in disbelief at the father we adore now lying still on a hospital bed.” And there are yet more Zooms in which they must discuss arrangements for the funeral and religious services. The logistics of death in a pandemic can feel overwhelming. Will Nigeria’s airports be open and stay open? How to ensure a covid-compliant Mass? “I come to dread the Zoom calls,” Adichie writes. “The family shape is changed forever, and nothing makes it more poignant than to slide on my phone screen and no longer see the square with the word ‘Dad.’ ”

That missing Dad emerges as a wise, kind, thoughtful and understanding presence throughout “Notes on Grief” — a devoted teacher, proud father and supportive husband, a man who instilled in the author the confidence to admit she did not know something, who taught her never to fear the disapproval of strangers. “He infused meaning into the simplest of descriptions: a good man, a good father.” I have no reason to imagine he was anything less than this father of which one might dream, yet even she realizes that grief can reshape perceptions. “No, I am not imagining it,” she writes in almost defiant affirmation. “Yes, my father truly was lovely

The loveliest writing in this reflection, however, is not about James Nwoye Adichie, but about the anguish and longing his death produces in those who suffer his absence most acutely. “Is this what shock means, that the air turns to glue?” Adichie asks, capturing her physical response to the news. “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?” With death, we expect the world to mourn with us, and when it doesn’t, it can feel like an insult.

In the traditions of Nigeria’s Igbo people, Adichie explains, death involves a settling of accounts. This “clearance” requires that any outstanding dues to the village, the clan or other local associations be paid in full, otherwise the funeral will be boycotted. The custom shows how “forcefully communitarian” the culture remains, she writes. The author does not want to care about such things, but she must, because such things mattered to her father.

And it is in community that solace is possible. Sometimes, upon the death of a loved one, friends we had never met tell us stories we had never known. In death, those we love become more than we understood, more than we can ever remember alone. Adichie appreciates this power. She had always meant to interview her father at length, to record him as he retold and recounted the tales of his childhood, his parents and his grandparents. “I kept planning to, thinking we had time,” she laments. But others can help fill in those spots. “Concrete and sincere memories from those who knew him comfort the most,” Adichie writes. This is another way to settle accounts, one in which the community repays you many times over.

“Part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of remembering the things that matter,” the author writes, and I wonder if, in a deadly pandemic, such theft is even more prevalent. Yes, not all deaths in the time of covid are covid deaths, but not all covid deaths should be remembered solely for the crisis that brought them on, one more statistic in a global tragedy that we all just want to get past. They deserve more respect than that. Collective exhaustion should not rob them of individual grief.

Complete Article HERE!

A Daughter Grieves Her Mom, And Finds Herself, In ‘Crying In H Mart’

By Kristen Martin

By the time I came to know Michelle Zauner as a writer, when The New Yorker published her personal essay “Crying in H Mart” in August 2018, I had been following her as a musician for five years.

I first saw her perform in Philadelphia as the frontwoman of emo band Little Big League in 2013; when she emerged with her poppy shoegaze solo project Japanese Breakfast in 2016, I recognized Zauner only in her soaring, searching voice.

Psychopomp, the first record Zauner released as Japanese Breakfast, hinted at where she had been in between: escorting her mother from the world of the living to that of the dead. The first track “In Heaven” tells some of the story of the aftermath of her mother’s death of cancer in 2014: “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / sniffing at your empty room / I’m trying to believe / When I sleep it’s really you / Visiting my dreams / like they say that angels do.” Those lyrics break me a little each time I hear them, reminding me of my own grief, of my own sweet childhood dog who looked for my mother and father after they both died of cancer when I was a teenager.

But where Psychopomp and her 2017 record Soft Sounds from Another Planet explore death and grief in sparse lyrics over upbeat synths, in “Crying in H Mart” Zauner digs much deeper. The essay meditates on how shopping at the Korean American supermarket H Mart brought her mother back to her but still made her loss sting. At H Mart, Zauner writes, “you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs.”

“Crying in H Mart,” stood out to me as a representation of grief that I could relate to — one that doesn’t reach for silver linings, but illuminates the unending nature of loss: “Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding into a wall that won’t give…a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.”

That essay became the first chapter of Zauner’s new memoir, also titled Crying in H Mart, which powerfully maps a complicated mother-daughter relationship cut much too short. Stories of Korean food serve as the backbone of the book, as Zauner plumbs the connections between food and identity. That search takes on new urgency after her mother’s death — in losing her mother, she also lost her strongest tether to Korean culture.

Zauner was born in Seoul, the daughter of Chongmi, a native of the city, and Joel, a white American. When she was a year old, the family relocated to Eugene, Oregon, where her mother ruled with an exacting nature. Chongmi was a woman in pursuit of perfection in everything, and of course this prodding extended to her only child. At a young age, Zauner realized that one way she could get her mother’s approval was demonstrating an adventurous appetite. On trips to Seoul, they bonded over midnight snacks on jet-lagged nights, when they “ate ganjang gejang…sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell.”

Zauner’s food descriptions transport us to the table alongside her. On a college break, when her mother prepares galbi ssam, the relief of being cared for with a meal attuned to one’s tastes radiates off the page: “Blissfully I laid my palm flat, blanketed it with a piece of lettuce, and dressed it just the way I liked — a piece of glistening short rib, a spoonful of warm rice, a dredge of ssamjang, and a thin slice of raw garlic…I closed my eyes and savored the first few chews, my taste buds and stomach having been deprived of a home-cooked meal.”

It is this kind of care that Zauner attempts to repay for her mother when she is diagnosed with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach at age 56. After her mother’s diagnosis in May 2014, Zauner, then 25, moves home, ready to bolster Chongmi through chemotherapy with Korean cooking.

But chemo wrecks the appetite — I recall my mother being plagued with everything tasting as though it were laced with metal. During the first round of chemo, her mother can’t keep food down; during the second round, she develops mouth sores that make eating painful. When the chemo fails to shrink her tumor, Chongmi decides to forgo further treatment, having learned a lesson from her younger sister Eunmi, who died of colon cancer following 24 chemo treatments. In this, Crying in H Mart is a rare acknowledgement of the ravages of cancer in a culture obsessed with seeing it as an enemy that can be battled with hope and strength.

Zauner carries the same clear-eyed frankness to writing about her mother’s death five months after her diagnosis. One chapter recounts her mother’s last days, unconscious at home, her breathing “a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffeepot.” It is rare to read about a slow death in such detail, an odd gift in that it forces us to sit with mortality rather than turn away from it.

Also notable is that Chongmi’s death does not fall at the end of the book. It comes just past halfway through, allowing Zauner ample space to grapple with the immensity of her loss. One balm that emerges is reconnecting with her Korean identity through finally learning to cook the dishes she longed to make for her mother.

As a teen, Zauner drifted away from her Koreanness, effacing that side of her heritage for fear of being seen as other. In those same years, she shrunk from her mother’s need for control and constant wheedling. Just as they established their adult relationship — just as Zauner begun to embrace her mother’s culture — her mother died: “What would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.”

Cooking becomes the key. Her teacher is Maangchi, described by The New York Times as “YouTube’s Korean Julia Child.” In cooking, Zauner conjures ghosts: her aunt Eunmi munching on Korean fried chicken, her mother ordering more kimchi to go with knife-cut noodle soup in Seoul, her grandmother slurping black-bean noodles.

Near the end of the book, Zauner meditates on the process of fermenting kimchi, and how it allows cabbage to “enjoy a new life altogether.” She realizes that she needs to tend to her memories and heritage in the same way: “The culture that we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me…If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”

What Crying in H Mart reveals, though, is that in losing her mother and cooking to bring her back to life, Zauner became herself.

Complete Article HERE!

The struggle for the right to choose when and how to die

Katie Engelhart’s book spells out the moral and practical conundrums

The Inevitable. By Katie Engelhart. St Martin’s Press; 352 pages; $27.99. Atlantic Books

IF IT IS humane to put down a dog in unbearable and incurable pain, why not extend the same right to humans if they want it? That question echoes through “The Inevitable” as it follows four people in search of a good death—and in fear of a bad one.

Katie Engelhart’s deeply researched and beautifully reported book raises familiar quandaries. Do people have a right to die on their own terms? Should doctors help? Do motivations matter? And might a right become a duty for everyone who grows old, dependent or demented? It also considers less publicised problems, such as: how do people actually die? Advances in medicine and technology that have made pills and appliances safer have made it harder to achieve an “easy” or “peaceful” death for those who seek one.

As policymakers and ethicists ponder these moral conundrums, around the world people are taking matters into their own hands, a trend that gives Ms Engelhart’s book its urgency. Faced with intolerable suffering, her subjects have largely given up on laws and doctors and instead turn to strangers on the internet for help. For instance, Avril Henry, a British octogenarian, spent her nights “marinating in her pain” and considered eating lethal fungi from her garden to end it. But “death by mushroom could be slow, messy, painful. The Nembutal would work better.” The “Peaceful Pill Handbook”suggested buying that drug from either a vet-supply store in Mexico or the Chinese black market. Doubtful about Chinese merchandise, Henry settled on Mexico.

Over several years, Ms Engelhart’s main characters meticulously plan their escapes from old age, dementia and chronic or mental illness. She also follows two doctors, one of whom lost his licence for teaching people how to “exit” via “DIY death seminars”. At times the book itself has a DIY air, taking in the practicalities of connecting a gas canister to a plastic bag that can be placed over a head.

The similarity between the “euthanasia underground” that it describes and underground abortion networks is striking. The president of Compassion & Choices, a lobby group for doctor-assisted dying, once referred to plastic-bag hoods as “the end-of-life equivalent of the coat hanger”. Among those to have taken charge of their deaths were some early AIDS patients, their suffering immense, their fates fixed. Just having the right drugs, or knowing they could get them, seemed to make many of these young men feel better, recalls the more likeable of the two doctors.

Henry planned to kill herself with the Mexican drugs in her bathtub, but fretted that she would soil herself and that her house would smell. Dignity—in life and death—seems to preoccupy her and others above all. Even more than a bad death they fear a bad end to life, in which they are no longer themselves. A desire for autonomy runs through their stories like the thin veins of some of the characters.

Yet this is not a right-to-die manifesto. The author’s own ethical doubts are among the book’s strengths. She writes compassionately of her subjects’ struggles, but is more reserved about the motives of some of their helpers. She remains torn about what is perhaps the hardest question of all: euthanasia for victims of dementia. Rather than passing judgment, she presents facts. About half of Americans think patients do not have enough control over end-of-life decisions. Existing laws often have arbitrary effects.

After the drugs arrived from Mexico, Henry’s house was raided by police. She had discovered the concept of the “Completed Life”. “That’s when you feel that your life is shaped and finished. And the direction thereafter is down. I did have a complete life. It was a great life,” she told a friend. Soon after the raid she was found in her bathtub, having drunk the poison the police had missed. The note she left had a postscript: “If I have fouled the bath in death, please please be kind to wash it down.” She provided the disinfectant.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Jump, Darling’

The late Cloris Leachman delivers a touching swansong in this small-scale Canadian drama

Jump, Darling, with Cloris Leachman and Thomas Duplesses

By Allan Hunter

The late Cloris Leachman remains an inveterate scene stealer in Jump, Darling, a small-scale drama that provides her with a touching swansong. Phil Connell’s compact tale of a young drag queen’s emotional travails finds its heart in the chemistry between Leachman and co-star Thomas Duplessie. LGBTQ festivals should provide some traction for a modest tale that will feel at home on domestic screens.

Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings

Writer/director Connell wastes little time in scene-setting, instead propelling us into the world of aspiring actor Russell (Duplessie) who has found a second wind and a potential new career as Toronto drag queen Fishy Falters.

His commitment to drag provokes a parting of the ways with wealthy, status conscious boyfriend Justin (Andrew Bushell). After a disastrous appearance at Peckers night club, Russell decides to leave town and take temporary sanctuary with his elderly grandmother Margaret (Leachman) in Prince Edward County.

Margaret is all too aware of her frailties and forgetfulness but remains determined to avoid becoming a resident at the local Millbrook Care Home. Russell’s arrival could be the solution to her problem.

Jump, Darling travels along predictable roads as family secrets are revealed, ghosts of the past confronted and separate generations discover the strength to be true to themselves. What makes the journey worthwhile are the performances. Leachman completed two further films before her death earlier this year aged 94. This is her last starring role. She is physically frail but delivers a sardonic one-liner with impeccable comic timing and brings out the poignancy in a spirited, frightened woman whose final wish is to have a good death in her own home. Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings and it feels as if the film belongs to Margaret.

Russell may be trying to figure out his future but there feels less at stake for his character as he dallies with elusive bartender Zacahry (Kwaku Adu-Poku) and brings his drag persona to brighten up local bar Hannah’s Hovel.

Duplessie makes a convincing drag artiste. There is some of the relish of Tim Curry’s Frank n Furter in his Fishy Falters and Connell captures his committed lip-synching performances with dynamic camerawork and sharp editing. The film also features appearances from real life Toronto drag acts Tynomi Banks, Fay Slift and Miss Fiercalicious.

Cinematographer Viktor Cahoj conveys the charms of this wine country corner of rural Canada that are compiled into attractive montages. It is a promising first feature but the characters surrounding Russell are thinly drawn, especially Justin and Zachary. Russell’s exasperated mother Ene (Linda Kash) seems to exist merely to chide and then reconcile.

Connell’s need to keep the narrative forever moving forward comes at a cost. Jump, Darling has a trim running time but a little more complexity or contemplation would have been welcome. The lack of depth in the supporting characters is more apparent when the focus returns to the emotional plight of Margaret in her final days which feels very real and very moving.

Complete Article HERE!

We all need to debate death and dying, and consider our own deaths

By Arnoldo Kraus

“Everyone’s death is different,” writes Jennie Dear at the end of her book, What Does it Feel Like to Die? Inspiring New Insights into the Experience of Dying. Dear is correct: just as every life is different, so every death is different. The dissimilarities in deaths lie in whether or not we accept the inevitability of death and especially in our internal dialogues about the necessity of death. Dear’s book tries to answer an old problem: how to speak openly and freely about the different ways of dying? The power of modern medicine makes these discussions particularly urgent—to preserve autonomy and avoid harm at the end of life. What does it Feel Like to Die? is an open invitation to talk about the limits of life as well as of the limits of medical technology.

Real life experiences are “the best teacher.” In Dear’s book readers learn how her family members and friends confronted the existential crisis that comes with dying. The book is directed to readers eager to understand the meaning of facing our mortality, the significance of dying, people’s deep denial about what is happening, and the ways to cope with dying. She uses many ways to answer the difficult question: What does it feel like to die? In richer societies, modern death is sometimes a kind of disease as instead of prolonging life, medicine prolongs death.

Dear discusses how in rich societies assisted suicide and euthanasia were until recently largely taboo. The major impression of the West of the Buddhist monks expelled from Tibet after the invasion by China was the almost absolute negation of death. In many Eastern cultures knowledge of self precedes knowledge of the world. The order is clear: first the inside, then the outside. In the West the order (or disorder) is upside down: first the exterior, occasionally the interior. When people do not reflect on themselves, and the purpose of living is seen in material achievements, it is difficult to accept and understand the dying process.

What Does it feel Like to Die? is not a medical book and is not directed at health professionals, but an increasing number of health professionals are themselves unfamiliar and uncomfortable with death. It is a vivid book about the process of dying by a daughter, a former journalist, and long-time hospice volunteer. The triad of daughter, journalist, and volunteer allows Dear to study the soul of very sick patients who will die in weeks or months despite the best attention from doctors and nurses. She understands the implications of end-stage disease, “a disease that cannot be cured or adequately treated that is reasonably expected to result in death of the patient.” She explains in plain language the feelings of dying patients: “dying is different for everyone. There’s no textbook”; “pain seems to dissipate in the very last few hours, and, for most people, those hours are peaceful”; “in the last two weeks of her life, my mother was ready and eager to die”; “I’ve also tried to convey some sense of the beauty and joy that often surround dying, the sense of meaning it can give to the dying person and people around her.”

Dear includes topics like the existential “slap”, where people die, whether dying hurts, and the last few hours of someone’s life. She considers doubts and questions that we should all contemplate. The language is clear, and she mixes personal reflections with the words of doctors, hospice nurses, and other published accounts of the dying process. This book can help the internal debate we should all have about death and dying and our own deaths.

Complete Article HERE!

You Can’t Avoid Death, But You Can Make It Easier

By

LIFE EVENTS
By Karolina Waclawiak

Do you know how to euthanize a bird? If not, you will just a few pages into “Life Events,” Karolina Waclawiak’s astute and distressing new novel.

Technically, euthanizing a bird isn’t that hard. All you need to do is make a concoction of simple syrup, a crushed anti-inflammatory pill and a crushed anti-anxiety pill, and administer it via an eyedropper. But as the protagonist, Evelyn, discovers, “the agony was in the waiting.” She has to sit by him for hours, watching him die after “dropping the mixture onto his tongue, hoping he would take the sip that would finally dull his pain.”

We meet Evelyn at 37, aimless, jobless, in the last stages of her dying marriage and consumed with grief over her parents’ impending death. It’s in this state that she notices a “hummingbird in distress” on the patio of her Los Angeles apartment, and resolves to put it out of its misery.

A few weeks later, Evelyn enrolls in a program for so-called death doulas, or people who come to patients’ homes to prepare them for euthanasia and be with them until the end. The narrative follows her training and then her work with three very different patients. Evelyn approaches the job with true devotion, but she fails at detachment — a requirement in this position. Evelyn is too present, too involved, too reckless — to the point of having to seek a Plan B pill after an encounter with one of the patients.

The job would’ve been unbearable if not for the alcohol and anti-anxiety pills that Evelyn takes to dull her own pain. Waclawiak accomplishes a brilliant feat here, creating an atmosphere of almost palpable, effortful dullness that presides over the entire novel. With so much opportunity for raw emotion, the author seems to avoid it at all cost, going for exceptional clarity instead.

In the absence of any real emotional attachment to the characters, the reader is forced instead to engage intellectually, to actually face the tough questions about our own inevitable death.

In the novel, the death doulas have to make sure that their patients make an informed decision rather than an emotional one; so as part of their training, they have to fill out the same questionnaires they give to their patients. In these passages the reader can’t help pausing and applying the questions to herself. One of the toughest questions asks what degree of livelihood constitutes a life worth living, on a scale from 100 percent (full health) to 0 percent (death). “By 60 percent, mobility was reduced and disease was significant,” Evelyn explains with clinical matter-of-factness. “Consciousness could waver between full, drowsy and confused.”

Imagining yourself functioning at 60 percent is scary enough, but it’s fully terrifying to think what will happen to you at 30 percent or below. An easier option would be to just keep your head in the sand and not think about death at all. And this is exactly what a majority of Americans are doing.

The health crisis we are living through has exposed many uncomfortable truths about our collective state of denial. Most people have reacted to the threat of Covid-19 as if this were the only possible cause of death, as if they’d never before fully considered their mortality. Tallying the pandemic’s daily fatalities with fanatical persistence, these individuals and public health officials are ignoring all the other deaths, praying for a vaccine that will allow them to finally relax, as if the prevention of one specific disease could render one immortal.

And even before Covid-19, our medical and cultural institutions would put so much effort into “defeating” death, which actually means prolonging life by just weeks or days at the cost of horrible suffering. Meanwhile, so little effort is put into helping patients accept their eventual death, effectively encouraging them to ignore mortality.

Waclawiak’s “Life Events” provides a powerful argument against that attitude. The novel offers you a hand, gently helping you pull your head out of the sand to accept the inevitable.

Complete Article HERE!