Category Archives: Non-fiction

A Very Easy Death

A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.

A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir, is a beautifully written, powerfully emotional account of her mother’s death and her own emotional journey through her mother’s illness and death.

At age 78, her mother fell and broke the top part of her femur. She was hospitalized and during examination, the doctors found that she had cancer. It was a highly aggressive sarcoma, and her illness and decline were rapid. Simone and her sister, Poupette, spent most of their time at the hospital with their mother throughout that time, and Poupette was there the night she died.

This is a story that so many of us have gone through with a parent or loved one. Because the journey through illness and decline is a familiar one, I was acutely aware and appreciative of the honesty with which de Beauvoir shared their story — the story of two daughters in the process of losing their mother, and of their mother’s struggle to LIVE while dying.

Before reading the book, I thought that the term “an easy death” meant that the person didn’t have to suffer very much before dying. My family used that term about my father’s passing. He didn’t suffer long with his illness, and we were so grateful for that. But that is not what de Beauvoir meant by “an easy death.”  On the contrary, her mother suffered terribly before she died, but she had her daughters with her throughout the decline, and they helped her, advocated for her, and shared courage together in facing the inevitable. That was a luxury that de Beauvoir felt many people don’t have at the end of their lives.

With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt that we atoned for this by the days that we gave up to her, by the peace that our being there gave her, and by the victories gained over fear and pain. Without our obstinate watchfulness she would have suffered far more.

She and her sister were with her mother constantly during her illness, so de Beauvoir also describes the very painful reality a loved one faces in going through the agony of cancer.

…In this race between pain and death we most earnestly hoped that death would come first.

…Friday passed uneventfully. On Saturday Maman slept all the time. ‘That’s splendid,’ said Poupette to her. ‘You have rested.’ ‘Today I have not lived,’ sighed Maman.

…Nothing on earth could possibly justify these moments of pointless torment.

And she poignantly details the final aloneness of death.

…The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this, each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days which she confused with convalescence and yet we were profoundly separated from her.

All the way through this book, I thought of my own mother.  Simone de Beauvoir’s mother was 78 when she died, which seems so young to me from my vantage point now. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my mother who is 98 years old and still very much alive and well! But she and I are also very aware that time is getting short, which gives a special aura to every conversation, every visit, every moment we share. She and I talk about the end quite often, and our shared hope is that it is quick and painless. I live 800 miles away from my mother, so I know it is possible I won’t be with her when that time comes, to help ease her final journey, and that is hard for me.

Nothing prepares any of us for death. Even if fighting a terminal illness, Simone de Beauvoir said: “A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.” Her mother clung tenaciously to life:

What touched our hearts that day was the way she noticed the slightest agreeable sensation: it was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she were waking afresh to the miracle of living.

And on the finality of death itself, de Beauvoir said:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

Simone de Beauvoir was a gifted author and influential existential philosopher. This was the first book I read by her, but I am very anxious now to read more of her work. I was so impressed with the beauty of her writing and with her deeply thoughtful honesty. With this book, she has touched my heart and mind like no other author has done in a long time.

Simone de Beauvoir with mother and sister…

This was a book that was on my list of 50 books to read for The Classics Club, and was also on my TBR Pile Challenge list.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

When my grandmother died, we found that she had prepared well for the distribution of her belongings. On the bottom or on the back of her most important items, we found a small strip of masking tape with a family member’s name on it. We’ve remembered that over the years with humor and affection, and appreciation. Many years after her death, I turned over one of two kitchen chairs she had given me, and felt a rush of warmth and remembering when I saw the slightly curled piece of masking tape with my name on it.

Much like the planning ahead my grandmother did at the end of her life, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, is a book chock full of ideas on getting rid of the clutter in our lives. It is a book that would be helpful to read at any age! Her ideas are very practical and encouraging, and she addresses many of the roadblocks we run into when we are trying find the courage to let things go that we have spent a lifetime collecting.

“Sometimes you just have to give cherished things away with the hope that they end up with someone who will create new memories of their own.”

I will be putting many of her suggestions into gear immediately because I’m already in the purging mode this January. When I spend more time indoors, out of the cold weather, I realize how much stuff we have that we really don’t need anymore. And we are getting on in years, as well, and I definitely don’t want my children to have to deal with all our stuff.  It’s really an act of kindness and love to go through the process of letting go of the clutter now instead of leaving it for them to deal with after we are gone.

My Mom, who is 98 years old, is also reading this book and we are talking about the ideas and the process from both our perspectives. It’s a wonderful ongoing conversation right now, and an important one.

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All the Books of 2017

 

A new challenge appeared on Instagram this morning, and I thought it looked like a lot of December fun! It’s called “All the Books of 2017” and is created and hosted by Ann, from @annreads on Instagram. So I will be posting for the next 15 days on the books I’ve read so far in 2017.

Prompt #1 is the “first read of the year.”  My first read of 2017 was an intelligent little book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists, and was a great book to start out the new year. It was a very positive and important book, and I think should be required reading for everyone! Click here to watch her presentation of the book on Ted Talks.

Rivers of Oregon

On my trip to the library last week I picked up a beautiful new book called Rivers of Oregon, by photographer/conservationist Tim Palmer, and published by Oregon State University Press.  “Rivers are the essence of Oregon,” stated the author, and this book is full of beautiful photographs and interesting essays about these hundreds of waterways.

“Healthy rivers are not only essential to the abundance of life and a historically robust economy in both sport and commercial fishing, but to all we do. The livability of whole towns and regions would wither if i weren’t for rivers and the water they deliver.

Oregon’s rivers are likewise embedded in our history and culture, from the route of Lewis and Clark across the Northwest to urban greenways that brighten Portland, Pendleton, Eugene, Corvallis, Salem, Grants Pass, Bend, and other towns large and small. Whether in our backyards or in our most cherished wilderness, the rivers give us a refuge from the stress and clutter of our busy lives. At the stream’s edge, we can adjust our expectations in synchrony with the natural world.”

This book is filled with absolutely gorgeous photographs of an amazing number of rivers in Oregon with information about each one. Besides being a talented photographer, Tim Palmer is an excellent writer so this is a very readable book as well as a lovely photography book.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Oregon, the natural world, and in conserving the beauty of nature and our rivers in this challenging time in our nation when decisions are being made that put many rivers in peril.

 

Currently Reading: March

 

img_2512On a trip to the library today I picked up two books that I think are very important right now. The one I started first is March, by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.  It is the first volume of a three part autobiography in graphic novel form. I’m already caught in the first volume and look forward to reading all three.

The second book I checked out and will read next is 1984, by George Orwell. When I first read it in high school it seemed so impossible (thank goodness!) and the year so far away. Not in today’s America, though. How sad to say that it seems chillingly timely right now!

Click here to read a NY Times article about 1984.

1984

 

In the Great Green Room

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In the Great Green Room, by Amy Gary, is the life story of beloved author Margaret Wise Brown. Her children’s book, Goodnight Moon, is a classic and lives forever in the hearts of my family. The book is dearly loved by both our children and our grandson. But as much as we love this little book, I really didn’t know anything about the woman who wrote it.

So when this book was released last week, I was very interested in reading it. I bought it immediately and read it in two days. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t. The book gave me an interesting look into the publishing world of the time and into the creation of her very special books, but I found Brown’s life to be sad and tragically short, and I’ve been haunted by it in the last few days.

Her childhood was difficult with the constant dissonance between her parents and her struggle to find her own identity and worth in a world that seemed to undervalue her. She acted out as a teenager and young woman, and was considered rather “wild.” But she had a tremendous talent for writing, and especially writing for children, and that gave her a little more stability and her livelihood.

She had a strength that I admired — she survived life with very difficult parents and without much guidance overall. And she found her voice as an artist in her writing, although because her books were all for children, she was not esteemed as highly at that time as she should have been. She was instrumental in the building up of the children’s book publishing world. She was in many ways a strong woman.

But she made very poor choices for herself, especially in relationships, and I found myself feeling very sad about her life. She died young, and that, too, was a sad loss for all of us.

It was an interesting read. I do recommend it, especially if you love her work. But…I found it sad and haunting, and I’m afraid I’ll look at Goodnight Moon now with a tinge of sadness that was not there before.

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Summer Heat and Reading

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We are in the middle of a rather miserable heat wave here in Oregon. Yesterday, the temperature rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in our town. Today will be “cooler”, perhaps only getting up to 102 degrees. That’s much too hot for outdoor activity, so I intend to stay indoors this afternoon, in a much cooler spot: my new reading/knitting corner.

Knitting project: taking out about six more rows of the project I’m working on after discovering that the second skein of yarn is actually NOT the same weight as the first!

Reading: Listening to the audiobook version of Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life, Reflections at Ninety.

A Full Life