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Spring Books

Author unveils what makes us human: death


By Nancy Mairs
Beacon Press, 195 pages, $23


You have to understand that for some of us, death is not an enemy.” With this simple pronouncement, author Nancy Mairs sent a young medical resident packing and set a tone for her provocative book, A Troubled Guest.

In 10 essays Mairs looks at the almost taboo subject of death from almost every possible angle. Noting that “as a society we have no legitimate form for directly expressing and sharing grief,” it is understandable, though not necessarily desirable, that death is one subject that most people prefer not to talk about. (Just consider how many people do not have wills. Take a poll, I bet you’ll be surprised.) But Mairs has long since shed these inhibitions about death and takes us along as she examines this elephant in the living room, a “troubled guest” as she calls it.

“I am willing enough to die,” Mairs reveals. “Some mornings I have waked weeping to find myself still alive.” This disarmingly honest assessment comes from a woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago, and suffered from the symptoms 10 years before that. She is mobile thanks only to her wheelchair, and needs help with all the basic functions of living, which makes her, in the eyes of some segments of our society, already less than fully alive.

In these essays she explores a whole range of topics pertaining to death including, to name just a few, the death of parents, of children, of pets, near-death experiences, capital punishment, euthanasia, suicide (her own attempt in particular) and murder (her son’s). Whereas she never minces words or backs away from strong opinions, neither does she aim to shock. She says in the afterward that whenever she begins a project like this, it is her temptation to track down every scrap ever written about it, but goes on to say that unless you want to produce “literary turds” you have to arrive at what you think. “Your thoughts may be wrongheaded or silly, but at least they’re yours.”

Not silly at all, these are essays in the truest sense of the word as the French writer Montaigne coined the term, essais; that is, “attempts” as opposed to complete, formal philosophical tracts as was the fashion of his day. Mairs attempts and succeeds in opening up the subject most of us would be content to have no thoughts about at all, silly or otherwise.

She relates an incident already referred to from her mother’s final days. Dying from lung cancer, her mother decided that the few weeks remaining to her offered nothing of value and mouthed to her pulmonologist the words, “I’m ready.” Shortly thereafter, a young resident approached, visibly shaken, and tried to talk her out of her decision, citing all the experimental flimflam still waiting to be tried. Her mother was not persuaded. Mairs herself spoke up: “ ‘I know this is hard for you. I’m sure you went into medicine to make people well, not to let them die. But you have to understand that for some of us, death is not an enemy.’ He couldn’t understand. He went away, and we didn’t see him again.”

Death, she has come to understand, far from being an enemy, is an integral part of what makes us not just mortals, but really humans in that both our physical and psychosocial selves “rest in the reality that we don’t have all the time in the world. … Our relationships gain much of their piquancy from our awareness that every beloved is frail, imperfect and subject to loss. If we lived forever, the impetus for and the premises of all our activities would be wholly alien to the ones we have now. Death makes us who we are.”

Mairs leads into one of the most poignant essays in the book, the death of her son, by telling us how she had kind of backed into some pen pal relationships with inmates on death row. Of their guilt, she had little doubt, but of the right of the state to kill them in her name she had plenty. Nor did her convictions waiver after her adopted son had been murdered. Forty years old, with grown children of his own, he was shot in his own bed by intruders demanding money. The shooting has not been solved or even explained, but, gruesome as the assault was, Ron did not die that night.

Having every reason to expect imminent brain death, Ron’s wife and parents had agreed to donate whatever organs and tissue could be “harvested,” but when he continued to linger, for their own sense of closure, they asked for the life supports to be removed. Family members drifted away to their various lives, but his mother, Nancy Mairs, stayed by his side, holding his hand, speaking to him softly. “I needed to stay. I knew that my Ron had died days before … yet I couldn’t bear that even his body die alone. Also, having sat by my mother and stepfather as each died, I knew the sense of closure such witness could confer. Perhaps I kept watch as much for my own sake as for Ron’s.”

A friend, referring to Ron’s death, said, “It seems so unfair.” But early on, Mairs had made the point that there is “no fair or unfair when it comes to death.” Which brings us back to Mairs’ opening chapter, “A Necessary End,” and her uncompromising approach to this “troubled guest.”

“Because I look for enlightenment as much in the compost heap as in the lilies of the field, I view death with equal measures of reverence and humor, and I hope everybody gets to laugh out loud at least once.” She concludes her opening essay with this invitation. “Because I have a certain facility with language, what I am good for is putting our stories into words. It is my way of taking hands in the dark. Hold tight.”

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002