Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Grand Central Publishing, 2016
400 pages – Amazon
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Random House, 2016
256 pages – Amazon
Maybe it’s because leaves are falling, flowers are turning brown, and the grass is drying up, but lately I’ve been thinking more of death and loss. At the gym, a woman my age lost a friend to a sudden heart attack. In town, shop windows hold signs asking for prayers for Brandon, a little boy who is dying. School buses carry children away from my neighborhood, and I think of my boys, now grown, and living apart from me, as they should. Not needing me. Traffic outside my window wakes me on weekday mornings, carrying people with places to go, work to do. I can roll over and go back to sleep. Now retired, I have no place to go, no work to do. Not anymore.
So it’s probably no coincidence that I read three very different books about death this month, all three haunting me, moving me to consider them together. All three telling me what I already know and can’t forget.
I know that death is a universal and mostly random occurrence. It has no compassion, no justice or mercy. “As they rise up through the foggy white, talking and laughing…none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea,” writes Noah Hawley in Before the Fall, a novel about the aftermath of a plane crash. Nine people die including a rich media mogul and a titan of Wall Street. The only survivors are an unsuccessful artist and a four-year-old boy whom the artist saves by swimming for six hours to shore with the boy on his back. The artist had been obsessed as a child with fitness expert Jack LaLanne, which is why he’s in excellent shape to swim to safety with a dislocated shoulder—a purely random fact that saves the boy’s life.
I know that money is no guarantee of anything, and the rich people on the private plane are not as protected as they look. They are nice to each other. They love their children. And they are sometimes ordinary. They shop at the farmer’s market and Barney’s. But as good and innocent as they may be, catastrophe happens. A rightwing newsman questions the hero-artist’s motives after he befriends the boy, heir to his family’s mega-fortune, a sensational story the TV audience craves. Was the plane crash caused by terrorists, pilot error, mechanical failure, weather…or something else? The author tosses alternate theories into the mix before unveiling the answer, and when he does, it’s almost anti-climactic. The story is in how the characters on the plane lived their lives. The TV executive’s “Roman circus of information and opinions.” And the Wall Street titan’s “What’s a handshake, after all, except a socially acceptable way to make sure the other guy doesn’t have a knife behind his back.” None of them does anything “out of character,” and that’s what we’re left with in the end. The good are still good. But the dead are still dead, the living forever changed.
I know that neither intelligence or education guarantee a long happy life. When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a nonsmoking neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer at 37. Because he loved literature, he planned to become a writer after completing 20 years in medicine, and so he was honored when surgeon and writer Abraham Verghese, who shared his love of both medicine and words, agreed to write the introduction. “Listen to Paul,” he writes. “In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too.” Uncanny as it is to imagine the dead speaking to me, I can say I got it, too. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. Live your life. Enjoy it, love others, feel everything – good and bad, and follow your dreams, even if you may never reach them. Because life is a gift, bestowed not on the deserving or the good, but on everyone. We just don’t know how long we get to keep it.
Kalanithi had studied for a decade to help others in dire straits yet was unable to save himself. Ironically, he asked his oncologist, “Can I start smoking now?” Like most people facing death, he saw the unimportant stripped away. Down to the bedrock of existence, he questioned his own identity. Was he a surgeon if he could no longer operate? Who was he now when all his life had been directed toward a career he could not hold on to? Again and again, he raised the big existential questions: what is the meaning of life, why are we here, is there a God, how do we face our own death? He entered medical school, he writes, because “it would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” Unlike the characters in Before the Fall, he saw his own death coming. Acknowledging his own vulnerability, and his suffering, grief and despair, he finally “goes on” because he must, quoting Wordsworth.
My third coincidental selection in this reading trilogy looks at death through the eyes of a survivor. This Angel on My Chest, by Leslie Pietrzyk, is a hybrid between fiction and memoir, a collection of short stories with one theme: what it’s like to be a young widow. The author’s own husband died in his thirties of a sudden heart attack, and the reader wonders which of the stories are true. Using a list, a quiz, a support group session, a funeral reception, and a lecture on creative writing and more, she put me in the widows’ shoes, never giving them names, never naming the dead husbands, a decision which makes the possibility of widowhood more real. It could happen to me. This is what it’s like to have the person you love most die and leave you alone. “I will never show these assignments to the lovely man who is my husband,” writes a widow, now remarried, about her creative nonfiction class. “I will never write a book. I will never know the difference between truth and honesty, and I will never, never understand why you died.”
I know that some things I will never understand. That maybe it’s not possible to understand death, because there is no why of it. Yet writers do so to make sense of life, after all. Because somehow, deep down, we believe there is an answer. “Time is one more thing I can’t make sense of anymore,” says another widow in Pietrzyk’s book.
In literature, and in life, we often want a better ending than the one we get. Approaching seventy, I want more time. Seventy! I am older than everyone in the books I’ve just described, older than their authors. Older than most people on Earth. How can I, a woman whose best friend died when she was five, ask for more? What have I done with the years I have been given, 65 more than she, my kindergarten pal? Where have they flown? And is it okay to ask these things even as the three books haunting me this fall urge me to look to this day?
Questioning the past can enhance my life or detract from it. It’s up to me. In life, and in the act of writing, we go on and on: reading, living, trying. We go on.
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who teaches memoir workshops and speaks on the healing power of writing throughout the Philadelphia area.
Her work focuses on memoir and personal essays and has been published in literary magazines and anthologies as diverse as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Massage, The Quilter, the Christian Science Monitor, gravel and Foliate Oak.
She has won fiction and essay contests from the Wild River Review, the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center, and Mom Writers Literary Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published by Pearlsong Press.
Linda’s unpublished novel based on the life of a 19th century ancestor was a finalist for the 2015 Eludia Award. More information is available at www.lindawis.com.