Six Powerful Memoirs About Facing Mortality
Are you intrigued by reflections on life and death?
This is a departure from many of my other Greedy Reading Lists: witchy books, young adult favorites, or gifty book ideas, for example. But I find a memoir about facing mortality fascinating.
We're all headed toward the same end in this life, after all, and those brave enough to commit their feelings, experiences, fears, thoughts, and even joy to paper when their death is imminent seem to lay bare the true roots of the human experience. It seems inevitable that the reflections of someone facing death might lead a reader to consider their own life and how they choose to live it.
Other books on my to-read list that loosely fit within this category include:
Have you read books in this vein that you'd recommend?
01 The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
In Yip-Williams's memoir, the subtitle of which is A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After, she candidly shares the many heartbreaking aspects of facing her own imminent death from metastatic colorectal cancer.
Yip-Williams is a beautiful, intelligent writer who reflects deeply on life and on her situation. The Unwinding of the Miracle serves as her powerful farewell to her family but is also meaningful for anyone considering the way they live and how they might choose to face their own mortality.
The details of Yip-Williams’s childhood and the obstacles she overcame to simply be alive as an adult to face this sobering reality are incredible.
But she is truly amazing in the way she honestly recounts her fury and panic, her excruciating treatments and effects, her exhaustive search for new life-extending options, and her reckoning with the realization that at some point desperate hope for survival must transform somehow into an effort for grace in dying and making plans for leaving loved ones behind.
02 I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
I Am, I Am, I Am is Maggie O'Farrell's memoir of pivotal near-death experiences that shaped her life and affected the way she considers her existence. Her recollections include a childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, an encounter with a potentially dangerous man in the vulnerable middle of nowhere, and her struggle to protect her daughter.
The seventeen snapshots of O'Farrell's life at different stages highlight the frighteningly fragile nature of life. The construct of tracing near-death experiences to tell the story of her life didn’t feel forced at all, and O’Farrell’s meditations on the precious nature of life felt new, honest, raw, and fascinating.
I loved this. O’Farrell’s writing is exacting but lyrical, capturing the nuances of the moments that lead to and make up sudden crises, arising challenges, and the dangers and narrow escapes that shape a life.
For my full review of this book, see I Am, I Am, I Am.
03 When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, found himself with many thoughts about existence and little time left in which to consider his life and his impending death.
Kalanithi makes a shocking shift from being a doctor helping terminally ill patients to being a patient with inoperable lung cancer and terminally ill himself.
The author was thoughtful, intelligent, and searching for purpose, grace, and meaning in life and death--whether through studying literature, practicing medicine, loving deeply, or becoming a father. His book is rich in reflections and explorations, if too short, like his life.
04 I've Seen the End of You by W. Lee Warren
Warren's book, the subtitle of which is A Neurosurgeon's Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know, made me cry on an airplane, repeatedly.
Warren’s life story, both personal and professional, and his push and pull between faith and science, is complex and deep.
His experiences as a neurosurgeon, in the war, with his divorce and his remarriage, his beloved blended family, and his suffering unimaginable loss all inform his explorations of doubt, resilience, hope, and joy as related to his faith. Watching his up-and-down, sometimes wonderfully messy self-discovery take shape through this book was a beautiful thing. I wondered if his answers would be too easily reached or too pat, but Warren digs deeply into the realities of doubting his faith, God, his life’s work, and his vision of an afterlife.
Warren admits when he’s a mess, and he shows us the zigzag of a route he himself took through coping with tragedy, sharing that there are many opportunities to feel defeated, and that it’s natural to feel doubt and rage and disbelief in the face of enormous pain and tragedy.
There was just a little bit of repetition at times, but I read an advance reader's copy, so this likely changed before publication.
I received an advance copy of this book from WaterBrook and Multnomah and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
05 The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
“I am reminded of an image...that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more--sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.”
It seems crass to critique a book like this one. How can you wish for more of a synthesis of a life, more of an expression of heartbreak, more more more, when the real question is: how did Riggs manage to step back from her urgent life-and-death situation to write any of it?
The Bright Hour is a North Carolina woman's thoughtful account of events, written with an aim of preserving the essential history and memories from her life for her two small boys. She wrote the book while she was dying of breast cancer.
I don't believe Riggs's intention was to portray her husband as a largely unsympathetic figure, but that's how he came across to me as a reader. Her, waiting on the street in Paris while he visits his favorite bookstore but she's too sickly to climb the stairs to it; him, out for beers with friends while she's home coping--even though I know caregivers have to create well-earned breaks; and his funny but often dark humor.
06 Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler
“Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.”
Bowler, a young mother and divinity professor coping with terminal stage IV colon cancer, shares her faith, fury, despair, humor, and even joy as she faces that her family's future will continue even when she is gone.
Bowler considers the idea that all challenges are tests of character. There’s a frequent focus on the prosperity gospel—which I’d never heard named but that is preached and pursued by some evangelical pastors and their followers—amid a framework of cancer treatment and the ebbing and flowing of hope for recovery. At times the book felt jumbled to me, but there were funny moments too.
This book was published in 2018, and Bowler recently spoke at a virtual women's retreat I attended. She was gracious, funny, unassuming, and a pure delight to listen to.
Bowler's podcast, Everything Happens, is wonderful.