Dying – a Memoir by Cory Taylor

“My body is my journey, the truest record of all I have done and seen, the site of all my joys and heartbreaks, of all my misapprehensions and blinding insights. If I feel the need to relive the journey it is all there written in the runes on my body. Even my cells remember it, all that sunshine I bathed in as a child, too much as it turned out. In my beginning is my end.”

I wobbled at the beginning of Cory Taylor’s memoir, Dying. She writes of her stage IV melanoma. I had my own meeting with melanoma last year – obviously not as far progressed as Taylor’s but nonetheless, the scar is still very large and very fresh (literally and figuratively) and I wondered whether reading this book was a good idea. It was. Because Taylor doesn’t dwell on her illness, her decline or her imminent death in the way that the title suggests. Instead, she reflects on her life, her family, and the largely dysfunctional relationship western society has with death.

“Despite the ubiquity of death, it seems strange that there are so few opportunities to publicly discuss dying.”

For Taylor, whose cancer was well progressed when she began writing this book, assisted dying was an option she was contemplating. Rather than delving into the ethics (and politics) of that possibility, she compared her situation to that of her mother’s, who, with no control over her death, experienced a long, slow deterioration with dementia.

“If I’m afraid of anything, it’s of dying badly, of getting caught up in some process that prolongs my life unnecessarily.”

Taylor’s lack of fear is the most striking part of her story. Nothing suggests she is scared of what’s ahead. Instead, there is a reoccurring theme of loneliness. Is being lonely more frightening than dying? Perhaps. In particular, she notes the lack of language around death and mortality – for her, as someone without any religious beliefs, this emphasised the feeling of loneliness.

There were parts of this book that shone – I particularly loved the descriptions of her time in Fiji. But there were other parts where I felt Taylor was still sorting her feelings, that she knew she was running out of time to resolve her thoughts on some major family stuff – predominantly in relation to her father and brother – and that, for better or worse, the forum was this memoir. I hope it was cathartic for her.

“A sudden death cuts out all of the ghastly preliminaries, but I imagine it leaves behind a terrible regret for all the things left permanently unspoken. A slow death, like mine, has that one advantage. You have a lot of time to talk, to tell people how you feel, to try to make sense of the whole thing, of the life that is coming to a close, both for yourself and for those who remain.”

Taylor passed away just weeks after the publication of Dying.

3.5/5 It seems to me that the 2017 Stella longlist is The Year of #ALLTHEGRIEF – this is less confronting than you’d expect.

Taylor spent some of her childhood in Fiji – these memories are the fondest in the book.

“Her specialty was a fish stew made with coconut milk and cassava… I would come home to the sweet smell of the stew filling the house.”

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26 responses

  1. A brave read for you, Kate, and a very brave book, by the sound of it. Interesting that Taylor noted the lack of language around the subject. It seems to me that this has become a problem for us, with the inexorable advance of medical progress, in contrast with our nineteenth century ancestors, for instance.

    • Thank you.

      I agree about the lack of language. I wonder if much of it is because many people have moved away from religion? Personally, I have no religious beliefs and yet I have seen friends that, in times of crisis, have taken great comfort in the rituals associated with their religious beliefs. I’m always acutely aware of this and wonder about the equivalents in my own life.

  2. Yes, I think it was brave of you too.
    But oh dear, it’s not just the Stella, the entire publishing industry is awash with grief. While I’m sure individual titles like this one are important books, I’m starting to feel that it’s a writing school theme…

  3. Pingback: The 2017 Stella Prize Shortlist | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  4. Wow, this is not something I would normally pick up but it sounds enlightening vs. the heartbreak I would expect from a subject like this. She makes an excellent point about how little death is discussed even though it’s such an obvious fact of life. I wrote up this discussion post last week about prioritizing your reading if you were given a timeline of life, much like The End of Your Life Book Club. Gawd, people thought I was being terribly morbid. I hope this was cathartic for the author too.

    • It is actually far less heartbreaking than you might expect (and this is coming from someone whose tear ducts operate on a hair trigger…). She really does an excellent job of asking the pertinent questions about death – there aren’t a lot of answers (perhaps because it’s a very individual thing, perhaps because she never got there…) but it is a useful text for beginning a dialogue.

      RE: End of Life book club – I don’t think that’s morbid at all and I’ve often thought about the same thing.

  5. So few people in my family, in my life for that matter, have ‘died young’ that I generally avoid discussions of grief as outside my experience. But what I do think we are discussing more and more is the fear of falling into dementia. Personally I don’t mind dying, just so long as it’s quick!

    • Agree. Many of us have had the experience of watching someone deteriorate slowly from dementia (unfortunately this is all too relevant to my life). When my time comes, I’d like to really healthy one day and really dead the next!

  6. I guess I have a fairly high tolerance for grief books. Having experienced a massive grief in my early thirties I completely understand the need to write it out. I wrote a journal, because I’m not a writer. And my, did it help.

    I also understand that people write about it because it is one of the big defining experiences of life – the death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship – and those are the experiences writers want to tackle.

    However, it can be confronting at certain times in our lives or we can read a surfeit. Then, I guess, we just have to say no, and read something else, because there’s plenty out there. But then, I have never committed to reading all the long or shortlists for a prize, so that’s not an issue for me.

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