Life is complicated. Death is simple, or can be. Anyhow, it’s conclusive and something common among us. Sometimes how we get to the end can be a story worth telling, and reading. You don’t need to be obsessed with death and its plans for you. I am not. Still, like almost everything else, learning something about the end of the line, how it works, and especially how gifted, accomplished people manage it is worth investigating. No special counsel required. Two books I’ll mention will advance enormously whatever you are thinking about your leave taking.
Nina Riggs’s Bright Hour is an Homeric tale told by a poet, lyric, brilliant, funny, lively, reflective, and heartbreaking. One ordinary life, but an epic odyssey. The immense loss that is, of course, the story’s conclusion reminds the reader of the certainty that awaits each of us and of death’s often broad, always careless embrace of the lives of surviving families and friends. Ms. Riggs died of a cruel, rapacious cancer, as her mother had only months earlier. Riggs’s account is not a cancer story. She might have succumbed to any other terrible, wasting, relentless illness. Bright Hour is the story not of the disease but of the enormity of her loss.
Inspired by Riggs’s prose poem and so driven to enlarge my struggle with death, or at least the inescapable fact of it, I went next to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. You might reverse the order, or you might look elsewhere, to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal perhaps; or C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed; or Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, or dozens of others. But, you will not find two such perfect companions as the stories by Kalanithi and Riggs. A neurosurgeon and scientist of enormous distinction, afflicted with cancer at the peak of his power, at work Kalanithi peered and probed with exquisite care the brains and spines of his patients to save for them their true selves, or at least, if possible, what was most precious to each. For one, perhaps a few more years, for another to see the first grandchild, or to see a business safely into his family’s charge. Kalanithi worked his scalpel along the delicate, even elusive, frontier between personhood and mere flesh and blood. And, as time grew short for him, as it had for so many of his patients, the certainty of his fate imposed the same reductive determination to save until the end first his work, his patients, but ultimately his wife, his parents, his friends, a daughter, and this book. He had a great deal to explain.
Kalanithi was not a poet, as Riggs was. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and an ethicist. He tells the story of the slow decline of his health, his powers, and his ambition, and comes to the very place that Riggs did and we will, though by a very different path.