A year ago today, I lived in the hospital. I had a 1-year-old daughter with a blood cancer that ordinarily kills three-quarters of the persons it afflicts. The same illness, acute myeloid leukemia, had recently felled the idol of my youth, Susan Sontag. Here was a woman who had beaten back two previous cancers and who, according to her son David Rieff’s 2008 memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, commanded the best doctors fame and fortune could attract—as well as a positively Rabelaisian will to live.
Every day of the seven months that I woke next to beeping IV poles and blinking heart monitors as Eurydice (she has a Greek name to honor her half-Greek pedigree) underwent powerful in-patient chemotherapy, I thought hard about death. I’d spent the previous part of my life thinking, and writing, about love. Sex and death, Yeats once wrote, are the only subjects worthy of a poet to address. If that were true, I thought as I writhed in discomfort on the plank-size pull-out chair that was my bed in Eurydice’s isolation room, I was taking them up consecutively. Not that I had time to write in this period, or read. An effervescent infant with highly disrupted sleep patterns who can’t move without yanking the tubes out of her chest will keep even the most industrious scholar from her books. But I recalled what I’d read in earlier incarnations—the poems of Shakespeare, of Sidney, of Donne, of Keats. Death in these verses was not merely a source of fear but of beauty. Their authors serenaded it as they serenaded the women who’d stolen their hearts—often in the same pair of lines: Keats, for example, will tell his betrothed he wished “still, still to hear her tender-taken breath / And so live ever—or else swoon to death.” In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker insists repeatedly that he will soon die: “This thou perceivest,” he informs his paramour, “which makes thy love more strong / to love that well that thou must leave ere long.”
It is hard to deny that these guys were onto something. If we attend as intensely as we do to last words and deathbed pronouncements, it is, at least in part, because we treasure the very moments that seem to us most fleeting. Far from being a source only of darkness, transience is a source of light. “I wish,” writes Rieff in his memoir of Sontag, “that I had lived, while [my mother] was alive and well, with the image of her death at the forefront of my consciousness.” If we could only surround ourselves by skulls and wear lockets around our necks with the death dates of our dear ones inscribed, we might just be better people. But we do the opposite. In contemporary American culture, death is all but invisible. It is undiscussed, glossed over, hidden away, disappeared. In a society in which almost every adult has pored over thousands of images of copulating bodies, most of us have never laid eyes on a dead one. Even in the hospital—where the dead are ubiquitous—they are almost impossible to witness, or indeed acknowledge. Hospital staff are trained to omit all mention to outsiders of the existence of death. They are trained to be silent about what is going on in the next room.
In The Long Goodbye, the newest book of a recent wave of memoirs about the end of life, Meghan O’Rourke argues pertinently that death is our last, or at least greatest, taboo. Before it occurs we are encouraged to deny it, and after it’s occurred we are enjoined to put it behind us as quickly as possible: “An enduring psychiatric idea,” writes O’Rourke in her meditation on her 55-year-old mother’s death from cancer, “is that the mourner needs to ‘let go’ in order to ‘move on,’ and in the weeks after my mother died, people kept suggesting as much.” O’Rourke doesn’t think much of the notion: “I didn’t want to let go,” she states defiantly. “And in fact studies have shown that some mourners hold onto a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects.”
There is disagreement on that front among recent end-of-life memoirists: In A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates documents her own effort to stride forward. Oates spends exactly 35 minutes (by her count) with her husband of nearly 50 years after he dies alone following a seven-day battle with pneumonia. Having arrived in his hospital room at 1:08 a.m., she’s gathered his possessions, called her friends, and pronounced final farewells by 1:43, at which point she’s outside again, inquiring with the astonished night staff about funeral homes. “You have time,” says the nurse. That’s not how Oates feels. “There will never be a right time … to turn my back and walk away,” she observes—so she turns her back immediately. It’s no shock that thirteen months later, she has remarried—a fact she fails to mention in her 415-page memoir.