For What Are We, If Not a Body Taking a Mind for a Walk?
For ten years, Cory Taylor knew she was dying. A simple melanoma that started on her leg eventually spread to her brain, in the sprawling, colonizing way that cancer so often takes hold. Dying: A Memoir is a reflection on her life from the dusky seat of her final days – she died shortly after this book was first published in her home country of Australia.
Dying is at once hard and soft, contains so much life and grief in such a tight space that it has been hard to process without a little distance from the text itself. It’s taken me an embarrassing amount of time to put down words about her words, because, like most people, death isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable with. It’s not something our society is very comfortable with, either, which forms part of the intention behind Taylor’s lyrical account of her own degradation from a body that walks and bikes and spins in sunlight to a body that struggles to function. And that’s exactly why you should read this book.
Taylor strives to create a more open dialogue around death. The book’s three sections unpack the slow, spreading sadness that accompanies prolonged illness: she begins with a back-and-forth on taking her own life, then moves through her failed attempt at therapy for “adjustment disorder,” and through discussions with doctors, Buddhist nuns, and her Assisted Dying club. She explores her prior experiences with grief: family conflicts, both of her parents’ dementia and deaths, the resentment among siblings in the aftermath. She talks about her husband and sons, but can’t quite bring herself to look squarely at the loved ones she’s leaving behind. She imagines the grief they will feel, how they will cope, and discusses the way she’d like them to process things, but knows that none of that is really up to her. She talks about her own lack of a place to truly call home: another thing to grieve.
She also explores the various ways that different cultures and societies interact with mortality, and then answers the questions nobody wants to ask a dying person, but everyone wants to know: Are you scared? What will you miss the most? How would you like to be remembered? Is there anything good about dying?
“There is nothing good about dying. It is sad beyond belief,” Taylor asserts. “But it is part of life, and there is no escaping it. Once you grasp that fact, good things can result.”
There is courage in every paragraph, every sentence of this memoir – but an essential piece of that bravery is her fear, which she does not deny or suppress. Again, with a larger purpose of more directly exploring mortality, Taylor takes the clinical diagnosis of inevitable death from doctors who use cloaked language, and shapes it into a deeply felt rumination on history, memory, inheritance, desire, and – most of all – life. She tells stories of her youth in Fiji, her grandmother’s anxiety, her father’s flightiness, her mother’s firm and wild independence. She dances in the dust that has accumulated around both her joys and her trials: “When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.”
Many end-of-life memoirs come with a heavy dose of nostalgia, and are often homiletic (as in, let me discharge all of my wisdoms to you), but there’s something different about Dying: it’s much less lessons-for-the-living, and more probing-around-the-edges-of-this-massive-looming-thing. Taylor writes from a shadowy awareness of what’s next, and at first, as I mentioned, it’s uncomfortable. But as the narrative progresses, it transforms from a sad story into a poignant meditation, a bumpy ride full of characters and moments that shaped her. And as the reader, you move from feeling viscerally uncomfortable to feeling the nuanced, sad sweetness that savors of a sincere and well-intentioned and not-overly-sappy nostalgia.
The apparently haphazard arrangement of her stories and the way she weaves family histories together reflects the randomness of life and death. It’s as if she presents these moments all at once – the past, the present, the emptiness of her future – all of time collapses in the body, as it is the seat of all her memories, the site of her life and the cause of her death. Taylor muses, “It’s often said that life is short. But life is also simultaneous, all of our experiences existing in time together, in the flesh. For what are we, if not a body taking a mind for a walk, just to see what’s there?”
header image: "the death of socrates," jacques-louis david / wikimedia commons