Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Swimming in a Sea of Death" by David Rieff

This is an elegant meditation on the author's mother's illnesses and death; his mother being Susan Sontag, the woman who, through one of her essays, introduced me to the alter-ego of my dreams, Walter Benjamin.  If things can be thought of in this way, this book makes up somewhat for the grotesquerie of Annie Liebovitz's photos of the bed-ridden death-approaching Susan Sontag ... photos that David Rieff describes as "carnival images of celebrity death ..."

One of his torments ... a common torment:  When it is practically certain that someone is dying do we let them in on this fact or do we feed them hope?  Note to those who may be around when my last days come:  I don't want to be lied to; I don't want to be fed the emptiness of empty hope.  Some excerpts from Swimming in a Sea of Death:

I know that for her the physical agony she was undergoing -- and I
 am not being even slightly hyperbolic when I use those words --
was only bearable because of this hope and therefore my task had
to be to help her as best I could to go on believing that she would
survive.  For me to have behaved in any other way would have
meant saying to her, in effect, "your sufferings are for nothing: you
gambled everything on a transplant, but you've lost."

There is a Jewish saying, "Just as it is an obligation to tell someone
what is acceptable, it is an obligation not to say what is not accept-
able."  Never for a moment, during the course of my mother's illness,
did I think she could have "heard" that she was dying.  Bedridden in
the aftermath of her bone marrow transplant, her muscles soon so
flaccid and wasted that she was unable even to roll over unaided,
her flesh increasingly ulcerated, and her mouth so cankered that she
was often unable to swallow and sometimes unable even to speak,
she dreamed (and spoke, when she could speak, that is) of what she
could do when she got out of the hospital and once more took up the
reins of her life.

The day before she died, she asked, "Is David here?" ... "Yes, David's
right next to your bed," I remember hearing someone say.  "Yes, I'm
here," I remember hearing myself say.

My mother did not open her eyes, or move her head.  For a moment,
thought that she had fallen back to sleep.  But after a pause, she
said, "I want to tell you ..."

That was all she said.  She gestured vaguely with one emaciated
hand and then let it drop onto the coverlet.  I think she did fall back
to sleep then.  These were the last words my mother spoke to me.

Everyone could write a book about the loss of a loved one; not everyone could do it so movingly, nor as elegantly, as David Rieff.

1 comment:

  1. I have ordered this book from the library, based on your blog.