Last month my partner Brian’s best friend died. John Feld was 67 years old and had had Multiple Sclerosis for 40 years. They had known each since primary school, two little boys who actually got married in the school playground surrounded by schoolmates and teachers. Early on they worked with the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist - of course) and later when they left the party wanted to form a group for recovering communists. They had many hilarious adventures together, so when Brian delivered John’s eulogy, people were laughing and crying throughout the tale telling. But when Brian described John’s last day, at home, in his bed, with those he loved chatting together and to him in his unconscious state, the stillness of the mourners was extraordinary.
I became much more intimate with death a few years ago after my mother, my sister and I took care of my father at his home for his final two months. Oddly enough this act of just being there and helping ease any pain has been the most profound experience of my life. During that time I read some excellent books by people who know how to write and who also had suffered recent loss. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking and Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of were particularly illuminating. This past year, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal was one of our best sellers. And now that I am thinking about death again there is an enriching new book called, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe.
In the prologue Roiphe questions her own motives for writing. Was it the ghost of her own near death as a young girl when she had half of one lung removed? Was it because she felt excluded from the thoughts and feelings of her father before he died of an unanticipated heart attack? He did not consciously know that he was going to die but, in the week preceding his death, he catalogued all of his huge art collection gathered over 60 years. In the end she learned that being a death voyeur seemed to diminish her anxiety. “There is something about the compression of the final moment, the way everything comes rushing in; the intensity that is beautiful, even though death is not.”
Although she interviewed many people for her voyage into Thanatos, Roiphe tells the story of five famous writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas and Maurice Sendak. She revives the time in which they wrote with all of the cultural cacophony that fueled their obsessions. Susan Sontag, who wrote Illness as Metaphor, the ultimate book on illness, did not believe that she was going to die. Her dominant and directed personality reminds me of my father. They both seemed to live the mantra, ‘always take the stairs’. Freud, whose work was propelled by death, lived in ceaseless fear of it. On Updike’s bedside table before he died were Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Book of Common Prayer. Dylan Thomas, who wrote
Do not go gentle into that good night,certainly fueled his war against the inevitable with bottle after bottle. And Maurice Sendak, who had always been obsessed with death, exposed his fear to a few generations of youngsters. Where the Wild Things Are continues to be one of the most popular children’s books published.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
You may not be interested in the arcana of famous people’s lives. But for me both the extraordinariness and the ordinariness of these lives made me feel closer to a truth that is not always revealed in polite conversation. Thank you Katie Roiphe for writing this book.