Courtesy of The New Yorker | By Cory Taylor | Posted 07.31.2017 | Published 09.01.2017
A few months back, I was invited to take part in a program for ABC television called “You Can’t Ask That.” The premise of the show is that there are taboo subjects about which it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation, death being one of them. The producer of the program explained that I would be required to answer a number of questions on camera. She said questions had been sent in from all over the country, and the ten most common had been selected. I wasn’t to know what these were until the day I went into the studio for the filming.
It turned out that the producer of the program herself had a need to talk about death, as she had recently lost her father to cancer, and was struggling to cope. This is so often the case with people I talk to about my situation: they listen for a while, then they tell me their own death story, but always with a vague sense that it is shameful, that the whole sorry business is somehow their fault. In taking part in “You Can’t Ask That,” I wanted to do my bit to change things around, to win back some dignity for the dying, because I don’t think silence serves the interests of any of us.
The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.No, I don’t have a bucket list. From the age of fifteen, my one true ambition in life was to become a writer. It is my bliss, this thing called writing, and it has been since my school days. It isn’t just the practice that enthralls me—it’s everything else that goes with it, all the habits of mind.
Writing, even if, most of the time, you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. As a schoolgirl, I thrilled at the power of poetry to exclude everything other than the poem itself, to let a few lines of verse make a whole world. Writing for film is no different. Emma Thompson once said that writing a screenplay was like trying to organize a mass of stray iron filings. You have to make the magnetic field so strong that it imposes its own order and holds the world of the screenplay in its tense, suspenseful grip. In fiction, you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.
Yes, I have considered suicide, and it remains a constant temptation. If the law in Australia permitted assisted dying I would be putting plans into place right now to take my own life. Once the day came, I’d invite my family and closest friends to come over and we’d have a farewell drink. I’d thank them all for everything they’ve done for me. I’d tell them how much I love them. I imagine there would be copious tears. I’d hope there would be some laughter. There would be music playing in the background, something from the soundtrack of my youth. And then, when the time was right, I’d say goodbye and take my medicine, knowing that the party would go on without me, that everyone would stay a while, talk some more, be there for each other for as long as they wished. As someone who knows my end is coming, I can’t think of a better way to go out. Nor can I fathom why this kind of humane and dignified death is outlawed.
No, it would not be breaking the law to go out on my own. The newspapers are full of options: hanging, falling from a great height, leaping in front of a speeding train, drowning, blowing myself up, setting myself on fire, but none of them really appeals to me. Again I’m constrained by the thought of collateral damage, of the shock to my family, of the trauma to whoever was charged with putting out the flames, fishing out the body, scraping the brains off the pavement. When you analyze all the possible scenarios for suicide, none of them is pretty. Which is the reason I support the arguments in favor of assisted dying, because, to misquote Churchill, it is the worst method of dying, except for all the others.
No, I haven’t become religious; that is, I haven’t experienced a late conversion to a particular faith. If that means I’m going straight to hell when I die, then so be it. One of my problems with religion has always been the idea that the righteous are saved and the rest are condemned. Isn’t that the ultimate logic of religion’s “us” and “them” paradigm?
Perhaps it’s a case of not missing what you have never had. I had no religious instruction growing up. I knew a few Bible stories from a brief period of attendance at Sunday school, but these seemed on a level with fairy tales, if less interesting. Their sanctimoniousness put me off. I preferred the darker tones of the Brothers Grimm, who presented a world where there was no redemption, where bad things happened for no reason, and nobody was punished. Even now I prefer that view of reality. I don’t think God has a plan for us. I think we’re a species with godlike pretensions but an animal nature, and that, of all of the animals that have ever walked the earth, we are by far the most dangerous.
Cancer strikes at random. If you don’t die of cancer you die of something else, because death is a law of nature. The survival of the species relies on constant renewal, each generation making way for the next, not with any improvement in mind, but in the interests of plain endurance. If that is what eternal life means, then I’m a believer. What I’ve never believed is that God is watching over us, or has a personal interest in the state of our individual souls. In fact, if God exists at all, I think he/she/it must be a deity devoted to monumental indifference, or else, as Stephen Fry says, why dream up bone cancer in children?
Yes, I’m scared, but not all the time. When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified. I had no idea that the body could turn against itself and incubate its own enemy. I had never been seriously ill in my life before; now suddenly I was face to face with my own mortality. There was a moment when I saw my body in the mirror as if for the first time. Overnight my own flesh had become alien to me, the saboteur of all my hopes and dreams. It was incomprehensible, and so frightening, I cried.
“I can’t die,” I sobbed. “Not me. Not now.”
But I’m used to dying now. It’s become ordinary and unremarkable, something everybody, without exception, does at one time or another. If I’m afraid of anything it’s of dying badly, of getting caught up in some process that prolongs my life unnecessarily. I’ve put all the safeguards in place. I’ve completed an advanced health directive and given a copy to my palliative-care specialist. I’ve made it clear in my conversations, both with him and with my family, that I want no life-saving interventions at the end, nothing designed to delay the inevitable. My doctor has promised to honor my wishes, but I can’t help worrying. I haven’t died before, so I sometimes get a bad case of beginner’s nerves, but they soon pass.
No, there is nothing good about dying. It is sad beyond belief. But it is part of life, and there is no escaping it. Once you grasp that fact, good things can result. I went through most of my life believing death was something that happened to other people. In my deluded state, I imagined I had unlimited time to play with, so I took a fairly leisurely approach to life and didn’t really push myself. At least that is one explanation for why it took me so long to write my first novel. There were others. I had been trying to write the story of my parents for years, making character notes, outlining plots, embarking on one false start after another. But again and again I failed to breathe life into the thing, constrained by the fact that my parents were still alive to read what I had written.
Once my parents were dead, I didn’t have to worry so much. I could say what I liked about them without hurting their feelings. And once I knew that my own death was looming, I could no longer make any excuses. It was now or never. I wouldn’t say that made the writing of my novel “Me and Mr. Booker” any easier, but it spurred me on.
It was a feeling like no other, in late 2011, to hold a copy of my first novel in my hand. When Patricia Highsmith’s publisher sent her copies of her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” she couldn’t believe how much space they occupied. It seemed so brazen to have made an object that took up room in the world. I knew what Highsmith meant. I’d stuck my neck out at last, staked my claim to be taken seriously as a writer, and here in my hand was the proof. Now, I thought, I can die happy.
Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start rewriting your past you realize how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing. But I do wonder where I’d be now if I’d made different choices, if I’d been bolder, smarter, more sure of what I wanted and how to get it. As it was, I seemed to stumble around, making life up as I went along. Looking back, I can make some sense of it, but at the time my life was all very makeshift and provisional, more dependent on luck than on planning or intent.
Still, as the British psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips says, we are all haunted by the life not lived, by the belief that we’ve missed out on something different and better. My favorite reverie is about the life I could have led in Paris if I’d chosen to stay there instead of returning home like I did. I was twenty-two. I had a standing invitation from my cousin and his wife to visit them in Paris, so I emptied my bank account and bought a ticket. I remember standing on the deck of the ferry leaving Folkestone one blustery November afternoon and thinking that my life had just begun, that this was the start of my great adventure.
My cousin met me on Rue Mouffetard and I followed him around while he bought the ingredients for dinner. So many cheeses, wines, pastries, charcuterie. So much seafood, all so fresh it gleamed. And so much beauty, in the passing faces, in the sensual language, in the storybook houses winding down the hill. I could barely breathe for happiness. I could have stayed if I’d really wanted to. I was broke, but I could have found work if I’d tried. My cousin taught English, or I suppose there were au-pair agencies I might have telephoned. I spoke bad French, but I could have learned the language.
The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps. This split between the dream and the reality can be the cause of intense dissatisfaction at times. But I am no longer plagued by restlessness. Now I see the life I’ve lived as the only life, a singularity, saturated with its own oneness. To envy the life of the alternative me, the one who stayed in Paris, seems like the purest kind of folly.
No, I don’t believe in an afterlife. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes sums it up for me. We come from nothingness and return to nothingness when we die. That is one meaning of the circle beloved of calligraphers in Japan, just a big bold stroke, starting at the beginning and travelling back to it in a round sweep. In my beginning is my end, says T. S. Eliot. Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth / Which is already flesh, fur and faeces / Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. When I first read “Four Quartets,” at school, it was like a revelation. The world was just as he described it and no other way, a place where beauty and corruption cohabit and are often indistinguishable.
When the Buddhist nun who sometimes visits me asked me if I believed in an afterlife, I said I thought we are only remembered for so long, by the people who knew us, and that after friends and family are gone we’re forgotten. I told her about the cemeteries in the Japanese porcelain town Arita, where my husband, Shin, and I have bought a house. I told the nun that Shin, a painter, had decided to move to Arita because he liked the idea of painting on porcelain instead of on perishable materials like paper or canvas. Arita is littered with porcelain shards everywhere you look. Shin likes to imagine that four hundred years from now shards of his work might be unearthed and collected by some curious traveller, just as he likes to unearth and collect fragments of work painted by his predecessors. In that way, he says, he will have achieved a degree of immortality. I say that I feel the same way about my work. I like to think that, long after I’m gone, someone somewhere might read a book or essay of mine in a last remaining library or digital archive and be touched in some way.
The nun listens politely to my theories of the afterlife but I can tell she doesn’t agree with me. I get the feeling that for her things are not as simple as I describe them. I don’t pretend to understand her belief system, but I imagine it assumes the existence of another place, separate from this one. What else can she mean when she describes the essential spirit departing the body for the “ether”? This is where religion gets too cryptic for me, or maybe it’s just that language is inadequate to describe the indescribable.
I’m much more drawn to all of the ordinary ways in which we cheat death. It might be through the evocative power of the objects we leave behind, or it might be in a form of words, a turn of the head, a way of laughing. I was sitting at dinner the other night with some very old friends of ours. They’d met my mother many times, back when she was still herself, before she became ill. The wife looked hard at me for a while.
“You get more and more like her,” she said.
It felt for a moment as if my mother had joined us, that us all being together had conjured up her presence at the table. It was only a fleeting thing. But then I can’t imagine an afterlife that consists of anything more than these brief and occasional visits with the living, these memories that come unbidden and out of nowhere, then vanish again into oblivion.
No, my priorities remain the same. Work and family. Nothing else has ever really mattered to me.
To say that family has been my other chief priority in life is to understate the case. Marriage, children, the whole catastrophe, as Zorba called it. To become a mother is to die to oneself in some essential way. After I had children, I was no longer an individual separate from other individuals. I leaked into everyone else. I remember going to a movie soon after Nat was born and walking out at the first hint of violence. It was unbearable to think of the damage done. I had never been squeamish in my life before, but now a great deal more was at stake. I had delivered a baby into the world. From now on my only job was to protect and nurture him into adulthood, no matter what it cost me. This wasn’t a choice. It was a law.
That makes it sound like a selfless task, but it wasn’t. I got as much as I gave, and much more. The ordinary pleasures of raising children are not often talked about, because they are unspectacular and leave no lasting trace, but they sustained me for years as our boys grew and flourished, and they continue to sustain me now. I can’t help but take pleasure in the fact that my children are thriving as I decline. It seems only fitting, a sure sign that my job in the world is done. It’s like the day Dan, then in the fourth grade, turned to me twenty yards from the school gate and said, “You can go now, Mum.” I knew then that the days of our companionable walks were over, and that as time went by there would be further signs of my superfluity, just as poignant and necessary as this one.
No, I am not unhappy or depressed, but I am occasionally angry. Why me? Why now? Dumb questions, but that doesn’t stop me from asking them. I was supposed to defy the statistics and beat this disease through sheer willpower. I was supposed to have an extra decade in which to write my best work. I was robbed!
Crazy stuff. As if any of us are in control of anything. Far better for me to accept that I am powerless over my fate, and that for once in my life I am free of the tyranny of choice. That way, I waste a lot less time feeling singled out or cheated.
As I told the young psychologist, I rely on friends to divert me from dark thoughts. I don’t have a lot of friends, but the ones I do have are so good to me, so tender and solicitous, it would seem ungrateful to subside into unhappiness or depression. And then there’s Shin, without whom I’d be lost. He’s been so good-humored and loving; I owe him no less than my sanity. If I’m ever depressed or unhappy, I hide the fact from him as best I can. It’s the least I can do.
No, I’m not likely to take more risks in life, now that I know I’m dying. I’m not about to tackle skydiving or paragliding. I’ve always been physically cautious, preternaturally aware of all the things that can go wrong when one is undertaking a dangerous activity. Paradoxically, it was Dad, a peripatetic airline pilot, who taught me to be careful. I don’t think he was temperamentally suited to flying; the risks played unhealthily on his mind and made him fearful, tetchy, depressed. At the same time, he was addicted to the thrill of flying and couldn’t give it up.
His ambivalence about danger confused me while I was growing up. He never discouraged me from taking up risky activities; instead, he filled me with fear about the possible consequences, with the result that I was never any good at them. When he taught me to drive, he made sure to emphasize the fallibility of the machine, something he would have learned during the war, at flying school, where mistakes could be fatal. He liked to open the bonnet of the car before we set off, and run through a sort of flight check with me to make sure everything was hooked up to everything else. These were good lessons and they’ve served me well, but I wonder if a certain enthusiasm for risk drained out of me as a result of his teaching methods, and whether that wasn’t his intent. It strikes me that I might have turned out differently if he’d taken me for a spin one day in one of the Tiger Moths he loved so much, shown me what had turned him on to flying in the first place, emphasized the mad joy rather than the danger.
The irony is that, despite my never having tempted death the way daredevils do, I’m dying anyway. Perhaps it is a mistake to be so cautious. I sometimes think this is the true reason for my reluctance to take my own life. It is because suicide is so dangerous.
I shall miss you so much when I’m dead: Harold Pinter, dying of cancer, speaking of his wife. I know exactly what he means.
The short answer to the question of what I’ll miss the most is Shin, my husband of thirty-one years, and the faces of my children.
The long answer is the world and everything in it: wind, sun, rain, snow, and all the rest.
And I will miss being around to see what happens next, how things turn out, whether my children’s lives will prove as lucky as my own.
But I will not miss dying. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and I will be glad when it’s over.
This text was drawn from “Dying: A Memoir,” by Cory Taylor, which is out August 1st from Tin House Books.