Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.

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Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.

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We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.

***

Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)

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About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.

***

After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.