Something dreadful is happening to the generation that insisted, “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”
Not only are baby boomers getting old, many of them are hearing bad news from their doctors. And as with everything else that has happened to them – careers, marriage, children, divorce – they are obsessing about their mortality, and often in public .
Many of them are even preparing pre-death testimonials so that they can control their posthumous images.
“Certain writers tell themselves stories in order to die,” literary critic Jeffrey Berman argues in his forthcoming book, Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life . “Writing becomes, for them, an act of self-creation amidst the process of self-extinction.”
Mr. Berman, an early boomer who had his own collision with eternity when he was hit by a car while researching his book, says people who write about their impending deaths “speak to us from beyond the grave, and they remain living for as long as we reflect on their words.”
Such a first-person twist can come as a shock to traditionalists who expect deaths to be recorded with journalistic objectivity. But anybody who has delved into the history of obituaries, as I have in my recent book, Working the Dead Beat: Fifty Lives that Changed Canada , knows that obituary styles are as mutable as the times in which they are written.
When the Duke of Wellington died in 1852, his massive 40,000-word obituary ran over several dense pages on two successive days in The Times of London. By the middle of the last century, both the subjects and the style of obituaries had broadened and loosened up to include advance interviews with the subject and his (it was still mostly men who got the attention) associates.
Anecdotal accounts began appearing in the 1980s about ordinary people with odd occupations, survivors of natural disasters, or inventors of household products such as Krazy Glue or Cheezies. Democratizing obituaries was a natural outcome of a society that was becoming more egalitarian, but it also spawned the attitude that every passing should be noted, if not by a journalist, then by family or friends in an effusive death notice or short narrative essay.
The print mould itself was smashed by The New York Times in January, 2007, when it ran a video on its obituary website in which widely syndicated columnist Art Buchwald delivered his ultimate punchline: “I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.”
Several months later, charismatic computer scientist Randy Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture,” about his impending death from pancreatic cancer.
The inspirational talk, which was uploaded to YouTube and subsequently adapted into a mega-selling book, transformed him into a celebrity philosopher and guaranteed him huge obituaries around the world, not for his accomplishments but for the pathos of his premature death.
Since then, we have seen a rash of books in which boomers abruptly confront life’s final moments, including the late Canadian writer David Rakoff in Half-Empty and the acclaimed Mortality , a collection of Christopher Hitchens’s magazine pieces about his precipitous demise.
Mr. Hitchens was beginning a book tour for his memoir, Hitch-22 , when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer in June, 2010. As he went on to write, “There is no such thing as Stage 5.” Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, persuaded Mr. Hitchens to write about his sudden exile “from the country of the well.”
A lot of death literature is narcissistic. Born from a desperate attempt to define a legacy and to create empathy for a foreshortened life and a gruesome death, it may have no resonance beyond a prurient curiosity. Such personal tales can’t substitute for an obituary – a dispassionate assessment of a life and career in the context of its times.
However, having interviewed many people for anticipated obituaries, I have learned that most dying people know all too well what is happening to them and are more than willing to talk about their emotions and their lives. It is those around them – close family and friends – who are squeamish. That’s why interviews, such as the Art Buchwald video, are useful enhancements to traditional obituaries.
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?
Making sense of a desperately bad hand affects people in different ways. Writing is how writers explore the unknown, but not everybody has that facility. What unites many actively dying boomers is a determination to make a mark, to leave a physical, if not a literary, reminder of their lives.
That is what Gloria Taylor was trying to do when she joined the court case to challenge Canada’s law against assisted suicide in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Suffering from ALS, she knew she could not change the inexorable progress of her degenerative disease, but she wanted the right to die when she found life intolerable.
“I can accept death,” she said in her affidavit, “because I recognize it as a part of life. What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life.”
But some things are beyond our ability to plan. Ms. Taylor, who won an exemption while the court ruling is being challenged by the federal government, died of a virulent infection last month, before she could exercise her hard-won legal right.
But she has put a human face on assisted suicide, an issue that will become increasingly important as aging boomers try to manage their deaths in the same way as they have tried to control their lives.
Determined to make his mark, politician Jack Layton, for example, achieved his greatest electoral success while fatally ill. After leading the New Democratic Party through three federal elections, he triumphed in the 2011 campaign, a year after revealing that he had prostate cancer. Less than three months later, a gaunt Mr. Layton announced that he was again fighting cancer.
Yet having raised the NDP to new political heights was not enough. He wrote a farewell letter to ensure that his final words were circulated, the way he had composed them, far beyond his deathbed. A few hours after his death on Aug. 22, 2011, his “Dear Friends” e-mail went viral. Within seconds, chunks of his epistle, especially the final paragraph urging all Canadians to be “loving, hopeful, and optimistic,” were Tweeted, Facebooked and made into posters that could be downloaded from the Internet. The politician was controlling his message even after death.
Condemn the farewell letter as a narcissistic attempt at immortality or the final act of a control freak if you wish, but it offers benefits to both the dying and the bereaved. Such a public peek behind the privacy of the final curtain can allow all of us – admirers, rivals, and foes – to creep closer to the deathbed, share in the grief of immediate friends and family, and explore the nebulous boundary between life and death.
As readers, Mr. Berman says, we learn from these terminal accounts how “other people have coped” in a situation that “we will all confront.”
And that can’t be a bad thing in an aging society.