Tag Archives: brain cancer

Thinking about Dead Bodies with John Troyer (Hay Festival)

My second of three digital Hay Festival talks this year was by John Troyer, director of the interdisciplinary Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Troyer is from Wisconsin (where he was speaking from, having been trapped there during a visit to his parents) and grew up with a father who owned a funeral home. This meant that he was aware of death from a young age: One of his earliest memories is of touching the hand of a dead woman when he went to visit his father at work.

That’s not the only personal experience that went into his new book, Technologies of the Human Corpse, which I’m now keen to read. In 2018 his younger sister, Julie, died of brain cancer at age 43, so her illness and death became a late addition to the preface and also fed into a series of prose poems interspersed between the narrative chapters. She lived in Italy and her doctors failed to tell her that she was dying – that job fell to Troyer. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a persistent problem in Italy. In Dottoressa, her memoir of being an American doctor in Rome, which I read for a TLS review, Susan Levenstein writes of a paternalistic attitude among medical professionals: they treat their patients as children and might not even tell them about a cancer diagnosis; they just inform their family.)

Troyer discussed key moments that changed how we treat corpses. For instance, during the American Civil War there was a huge market for the new embalming technology; it was a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers so they could be returned home for funerals. Frauds also arose, however, and those taken in might find their loved one’s body arrived in a state of advanced decay. At around the same time, early photography captured corpses looking serene and sleeping. We might still take such photos, but we don’t tend to display them any more.

In the 1970s the “happy death” movement advocated for things like “natural death” and “death with dignity.” This piggybacked on the environmental and women’s movements and envisioned death as a taboo that had to be overcome. In recent decades a “necro-economy” based on the global trafficking of body parts (not organs for regulated transplant, Troyer clarified, but other tissue types) has appeared. While whole bodies may be worth just £2,000, “disarticulated” ones divided into their parts can net more like £100,000. Donating one’s body to science is, of course, a noble decision. Many people are also happy to donate their organs, though there remains a particular wariness about donating the eyes.

Troyer and Florence on my screen.

One section of Troyer’s book has become “uncannily resonant” in recent days, he noted. This is Chapter 3, on the AIDS corpse, an object of stigma. The biggest changes to death in the time of COVID-19 have been that family members are not able to be with a dying person in the ICU and that funerals cannot proceed as normal. In a viral pandemic, countries are producing a huge number of corpses that they aren’t prepared to deal with. (Indeed, the Washington, D.C. area is so overwhelmed with dead bodies that ice skating rinks have been requisitioned as makeshift morgues. The suburban Maryland rink I visited as a child is one such. Grim.)

Troyer spoke of the need for an everyday-ness to the discussion of death: talking with one’s next of kin, and encountering death in the course of a traditional education – he finds that even his final-year university students, studying in a related field, are very new to talking about death. A good way in that he recommends is simply to ask your loved ones what music they want played at their funerals, and the conversation can go from there.

We may not be able to commemorate the dead as we would like to at this time, but Troyer reminded the audience that funerals are for the living, whereas “the dead are okay with it – they know we’re doing our best.” The event was sensitively chaired by Peter Florence, the co-founder and director of Hay Festival (also responsible for last year’s controversial Booker Prize tie); the fact that Troyer got emotional talking about his sister only gave it more relevance and impact.

 

I’ve read an abnormally large number of books about death, especially in the five years since my brother-in-law died of brain cancer (one reason why Troyer’s talk was so meaningful for me). Most recently, I read Bodies in Motion and at Rest (2000) by Thomas Lynch, a set of essays by the Irish-American undertaker and poet from Michigan. I saw him speak at Greenbelt Festival in 2012 and have read four of his books since then. His unusual dual career lends lyrical beauty to his writing about death. However, this collection was not memorable for me in comparison to his 1997 book The Undertaking, and I’d already encountered a shortened version of “Wombs” in the Wellcome Collection anthology Beneath the Skin. But this passage from “The Way We Are” stood out:

After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing [the dead body] is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it, better than fiction or fantasy. When someone dies it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. It is the death. We fear that seeing will be believing. We fear not seeing too. We search the wreckage and the ruins, the battlefields and ocean floors. We must find our dead to let the loss be real.

 

Just for a bit of morbid fun, I decided to draw up my top 10 nonfiction books about death, dying and the dead. Many of these are personal accounts of facing death or losing a loved one. In contrast to the bereavement and cancer memoirs, the books by Doughty and Gawande are more like cultural studies, and Montross’s is about working with corpses. If you need a laugh, the Bechdel (a graphic memoir) and Doughty are best for black comedy.

Soul Food: Rereading Anne Lamott

I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.

 

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)

Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.

The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.

Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.

Some favorite lines:

“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”

“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”

“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”

“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)

Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.

I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”

My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.

Some favorite lines:

(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”

“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)

This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.

My original rating (2015):

My rating now (for the newer material only):

 

Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

 

Done any rereading lately?

What books have been balm for the soul for you?

Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Fiction, 3 Nonfiction

This is my third year of prioritizing novellas for my November reading. I have plenty more on the go that I’ll try to write up as the month progresses. For this first installment I review three each of my recent fiction and nonfiction reads, all of them 150 pages or fewer.

Fiction:

 

Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922)

[53 pages]

I accidentally did things the wrong way round: a few months back I read Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, which includes the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 winner “Mrs Fox,” clearly modeled on Garnett’s half-charming, half-horrible fable. In both, an upper-middle-class marriage is derailed when the wife turns into a fox. Here Mr. Tebrick sends away the servants and retreats from the world to look after Silvia, who grows increasingly feral. To start with the vixen will wear clothing, sleep in a bed, play cards and eat table scraps, but soon she’s hunting birds outdoors. Before long she’s effectively a wild creature, though she still shows affection to Tebrick when he comes to visit her den.

Anyone in a partnership will experience a bittersweet sense of recognition at how Tebrick and Silvia try to accommodate each other’s differences and make compromises to maintain a relationship in defiance of the world’s disapproval and danger. Beware unsentimental animal peril throughout. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.  

 

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

[99 pages]

It’s a wonder I never read this Pulitzer winner in high school. Like that other syllabus favorite, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it’s a Great American novella praised for spare prose and weighty symbolism. My two decades’ worth of preconceptions were proven accurate insomuch as this is a gloomy story about the nobility but ultimate futility of human striving. After 84 days without a catch, Santiago returns to the waters off of Havana and finally gets a bite. Even after the harrowing process of reeling in the 18-foot marlin, his struggle isn’t over.

This is my third experience with Hemingway’s fiction; I remain unconvinced. I appreciated some of the old man’s solitary ruminations on purpose and determination – “My big fish must be somewhere,” “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” – though they sound rather like sound bites. And I kept almost falling asleep while reading this (until the sharks showed up), which almost never happens. Take that as you will.

 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

[149 pages]

It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Her father is a Rochdale-area bus driver, but British prehistory is his all-consuming hobby. They’ll skin rabbits with stone tools and forage for roots and berries. What could be better?! As it turns out, it’s a stifling summer, and the students can’t sneak off to civilization often enough. Mocked for her family’s accent, Silvie is uncomfortably aware of her class. And, always, she must tread carefully to avoid angering her father, who punishes perceived offenses with his belt or his fists.

Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. Though I enjoyed Silvie’s sarcastic voice, I was underwhelmed for much of the book, yet ended up impressed by how much is conveyed in so few pages. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Moss, do so immediately.

 

 

Nonfiction:

 

Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Lee Austin (2016)

[146 pages]

Austin, an Episcopal priest and academic, met his wife Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was his companion for nearly 40 years. Unusually for a cancer story, it wasn’t the beginning of the end when Susan was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 1993; surgery was successful and she lived for another 19 years, but white-matter disease, a side effect of radiation, meant that her brain function was continually diminishing.

The book gives a clear sense of Susan’s personality despite the progression of her illness, and of the challenges of being a caregiver while holding down a career. I enjoyed the details of the human story of coping with suffering, but in overlaying a spiritual significance on it Austin lost me somewhat. “God, who had given us so much, now gave us this evil,” he writes. While once this kind of language would have meant something to me, now it alienates me. I valued this more as a straightforward bereavement memoir than as a theological treatise.

 

The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel (2017)

[84 pages]

“There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents.” Some species-specific natural/cultural histories can be long-winded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just right.

He gives some general information about the family, surveys the native species and occasional visitors, gives tips for telling them apart – I’m going to photograph a page on the difference between the five major species’ pellets for future reference – and shares legends and poems that feature owls (including a jaunty little Tennyson piece that reads like a folk song; I’ll suggest that my husband turn it into one). The black-and-white illustrations by Beci Kelly are charming, too. It’s a shame I missed this when it first came out, but it would still make a great gift for a bird lover this Christmas.

 

Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary by Kathleen A. Renninger (2013)

[72 pages]

These are lovely excerpts from nature sketchbooks Renninger kept between 1987 and 2013. My mother bought the self-published book from the author at a craft fair, and I enjoyed spotting lots of familiar place names from southern central Pennsylvania, where my mother and sister used to live. In the past I’ve unfairly considered the area devoid of natural beauty, but it’s clear from Renninger’s encounters that the wildlife is out there if you’re patient and lucky enough to find it – mostly birds and insects, but even larger mammals like foxes and bears.

IMG_3551Many of her sightings are by chance: near her feeders or clothesline, or while driving past fields or down a residential street. Each month ends with a poem; these are slightly florid, but so earnest that they won me over. There are plentiful punctuation issues and the cursive font is a challenge to read, but the captured moments and the sense of the seasons’ passing make for a sweet book I’d recommend to anyone with a local interest.

 

 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?