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(Katy Lemay)
(Katy Lemay)

Baby boomers are obsessing publicly about their mortality. Good for us Add to ...

So are empathic narratives such as Half-Empty and Mortality . “Writing is a way of mastering fear, of trying to understand that which cannot finally be understood,” Mr. Berman says. At their best, these accounts resonate as dispatches from the final frontier and provide a crucial documentary for the living about what lies ahead.

Everybody is going to die. We just don’t know how or when. That’s why the terminally ill are different. Their fantasies of climbing Mount Everest or living to 100 with all their faculties intact have been shattered. The infinite is roaring down on them like an avalanche. As readers, we become privileged eavesdroppers on that process. As with all travelogues, the difference between forgettable and profound depends on the telling as much as the tale.

Mortality shows Mr. Hitchens at his acerbic best when he confronts the well-meaning idiocy of the healthy who insist on telling him horror stories about the pain-racked deaths of friends from rare and diabolical forms of cancer. It is the same unsavoury sharing that pregnant women often endure in the recounting of harrowing childbirth tales.

The most compelling essay describes the toll surgery, chemotherapy and radiation took on Mr. Hitchens’s voice. Where once he could “stop a New York cab at thirty paces” or “reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall,” the pundit who admits that he “was” his voice found himself reduced to a temporary but terrifying silence. Having suffered most of the indignities that modern medicine can impose, Mr. Hitchens had already scaled down his expectations from a cure to a remission. What he longed for were not the flabby fantasies of the healthy but “two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”

Sometimes, resurgent death ambushes you a second time. That is what happened to Mr. Rakoff, who died in August. Diagnosed at 22 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he survived a ghastly treatment regimen and built a career as an actor and writer, only to be assaulted again by the Reaper. A mysterious pain in his neck was not the result of “a bad wind” in his arm, as an acupuncturist had claimed, but a deadly sarcoma likely caused by the very same life-saving radiation he had received 20 years earlier.

In the essay Another Shoe , Mr. Rakoff skewers self-pity as he rationalizes his dwindling options, including amputation of his arm above the shoulder, as palatable alternatives to dying. Even those sacrificial offerings can’t ameliorate the inevitable conclusion that he has little choice, “but to understand that truth, to really take it in, and then shop for groceries, get a haircut, do one’s work; get on with the business of one’s life.”

That was what historian Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and Ill Fares the Land, desperately wanted to do when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 60 in 2008. He continued to research and write until the disease paralyzed him from the neck down, making it impossible for him to transcribe his thoughts.

Unable to sleep, he composed essays in his head at night and “stored” them like objects in the rooms of a chalet that he visualized from visits he had made there as a child with his parents. In the morning, he retrieved the paragraphs, like taking books down from a shelf, and dictated them to an assistant.

The beautifully conceived essays, published posthumously in The Memory Chalet after Mr. Judt died in the summer of 2010, are inspiring reflections on life, loss and the realization that cherished activities such as train trips were no more.

The “understanding that some things will never be,” he writes, is “more than just the loss of a pleasure, the deprivation of freedom … it constitutes the very loss of myself – or at least, that better part of myself that most readily found contentment and peace … no more becoming, just interminable being.”

What could be more eloquent or terrifying than that claustrophobic description of sentient intelligence trapped in a moribund body?

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