Death Interests Me

Death interests me. A lot. Or maybe not death– a state I suspect I’ll have no conscious experience of. But rather the human experience–fear, intimation, loss, and grief.
When I was 21, I almost died from what appears in retrospect to have been swine flu. Spent weeks in the ICU, months in the hospital, lost part of one lung, and was forever changed. Or maybe that story isn’t exactly true. Maybe I was already a rebel, a poet, a seeker. Maybe that experience only uncovered my basic nature. In any case, the realization of death propelled me forward into a life that worked for me.
My first husband Robert died when I was 41. That was twenty years of believing in death, even though that was also when I had my only child, a primary life affirming event. After Robert died, something shifted radically again and it was as if the life force became ascendent. I’ve tried to solve every Zen koan I ever met that would allow me to experience life and death as one non-warring state. Don’t ask how this is going.
So I keep wanting to read about death. Emily Rapp is a Santa Fe based writer whose new book, THE STILL POINT OF THE TURNING WORLD, is about her young son’s death from Tay-Sachs disease. It is a different–much better–book than I’d expected, based on my extensive reading of memoirs of extremis. For one thing, it isn’t a narrative of redemption. How could it be, as a child is dying. But despite the American preference for the storyline of “I once was lost but now am found” life–and death–don’t really work that way. Rapp writes: “After those first few weeks of blackness and bouncing back and forth in the void, I realized that I didn’t want to be coddled or protected from the wild unpredictability of my feelings….But digging into the experience of loss is not only deeply profound but artistically, at some points, absolutely electric.”
Writing helped Rapp. And this is a very good book. However, although I wrote book after book about Robert–for some reason the process didn’t offer much direct solace. The investigation certainly helped my writing, but it didn’t deeply cheer me. It was other people–from friends to strangers–that did that.
STILL POINT isn’t an elegy, a how to, or an ode to survival. Rather, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s A GRIEF OBSERVED…what happens when a fine writer is given a subject he or she never wanted, but must dive deeply into as well as transcend, often at the same time.