Most of the time I try, along the lines of the classic Johnny Mercer lyric, to “Accentuate the Positive.” Occasionally, however, negativity has its uses.
Most of the response to my recent book, Pulling Taffy: A Year with Dementia and Other Adventures, have been enthusiastic. That memoir used journal entries, meditations, and recipes to recall my final year as the primary caregiver for my late mother who had Alzheimer’s disease.
I did receive one review that wasn’t uniformly positive. Surprisingly, it didn’t upset me. It struck me as funny. It also helped me understand a lot about the book…and about life.
The reviewer actually had several nice things to say. He liked my writing, and he appreciated the “curious and effecting [did he mean affecting?] hybrid” style of the book. He found the story moving. Nevertheless, as far as he was concerned the bottom line was that “as the book moves to its conclusion, we know how it’s going to end.”
I wasn’t offended—but I did indeed have to laugh. I didn’t set out to write a novel of suspense in Pulling Taffy. Unfortunately, until a cure is found for Alzheimer’s disease, a person who has it will not get better. His or her story is bound to end in death.
In my book about my mother I wasn’t interested in dwelling on the fact of her death. I was interested in describing, and learning from, the way in which she died—and the way in which she lived.
As I thought about the review (and one does tend to think a lot about negative feedback and one’s reactions to it), I came upon a profound truth.
In a sense, I realized that the story I told in Pulling Taffy is everyone’s story in microcosm. All of our stories end in death. What’s important about those stories is not that we die at their conclusion. What’s important is how we choose to live on our way to that conclusion. The destination is less important than the journey.
When one is close to death, as I was in that final year with my mother, the richness of life makes itself felt more than ever. Every conversation, every visit with friends and family, every child’s smile, every sunny day, every hug, every note of music, every line of poetry, and every laugh bring special joy because they may be the last of their kind.
Moreover, when one is close to death, one naturally looks back on all of life to identify the experiences, the people, and the sensations that have been most meaningful.
My mother and I embraced our moments of happiness and reflection almost instinctively at the end of her life. Looking back at our time together, I see it as a template for continuing to live the life I want to live—a life of joy, of meditation, and above all of fellowship.
Reaching out to fellow travelers on life’s journey isn’t a crutch. It’s a necessity. It is also a pleasure.
Going forward, I hope to continue to be mindful of death. I don’t intend to worry about it. I have no interest in calculating the risk of everything I do in case it leads to a quicker death.
I do want to remain aware that death is somewhere out there, waiting for me as it waits for each of us and in a sense watching me.
A potent, widespread allegory in medieval theater and art was the Danse Macabre (the Dance of Death). It reflected the constant, pervasive awareness of mortality in that era, in which the end of life was never far away from any human. In the paintings the skeletal figure of death leads people of different social classes in a group dance toward the grave.
Although this was a somber image for people who viewed it centuries ago, today I see the Dance of Death in a new way. I like to think that I am not dancing sadly toward death. I am dancing happily through life.
My next book will meditate on my strategies for leading a joyful, grounded life. And it will contain many, many recipes. Food nourishes us physically and spiritually, not only keeping our bodies alive but reminding us in a tangible way of the people who have gone before us and shared their recipes and lives with us.
As I begin to plan that book, I pause to thank my not-so-enthusiastic reviewer. He may not have given me golden words I want to quote on my Amazon.com author page, but he has made me realize that my book and my life are richer than I knew.
They are rich not despite but because I am always aware of how they are going to end.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. Across the globe, 35 million people and their families are affected by dementia. It’s going to take all of us to change these numbers. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association for three easy ways you can get involved and help end Alzheimer’s.
Image credit: The Lipstick Gospel