Is mortality a subject you avoid?
Atul Gawande, the influential and clear-thinking American surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to think through those difficult decisions we all face if we are lucky to live a long life or unlucky and face an early but prolonged death. So yes, this might be a book some of us would instinctively avoid, yet I want to shout at everyone, young and old, READ THIS, because he shows you how to retake control.
If, as most of us do, we fear pain or prolonged weakness at time of our death, this book is a revelation. Gawande, with a curious and open mind, investigates current and historical end-of-life care and discusses what matters most and how it can be achieved. He learns from those quiet experts at the coal face, the dying, the relatives, the nurses and the carers, what questions to ask yourself and what questions to ask those you love. He emphasises the deep importance of asking those questions while in good health as well as when they need answering in extreme circumstances.
This book is not difficult to read because it is so well written and full of real examples. It does, however, need courage if these are questions you always avoid or if you find clearly-discussed medical matters uncomfortable to read. The magic is that facing fear makes you feel better. This book gives you tools to cope with that fear and a sense of control over your mortality.
So, what does it do for writers along the way? Gawande looks at research into the differences between our experience during events and our memory of that experience. Being human, these are often contradictory – at the time we experience ‘the peaks of joys and the valleys of misery’, but when we remember it is ‘how the stories works out as a whole’. So a really entertaining football match in which your team performs blissfully for hours can be ruined by some bad football at the end. Why? ‘Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.’ [my italics] The Peak-End moment is what matters to memory.
Last Tuesday night I read two poems from Paul Stephenson’s recent pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris, at the Cambridge Speaker’s Club – our Toastmaster’s venue. Listeners found these as moving as I did; they convey the mood – strangeness, fear, pain and warmth – of those days. I read Safety Feature and Blindfold [about that brave muslim in the Place de la République].