LEAH KAMINSKY We’re all going to die: A joyful book about death. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
Leah Kaminsky invites us to ask questions about our own attitudes and behaviours in the face of death, with the promise of a more fully lived life.
To be a doctor terrified of death, writes Kaminsky, is like being a pizza chef terrified of dough. This is the problem at the heart of this charming and thought-provoking book – we’re all going to die.
For the author, a Melbourne GP and writer, death is never far away. It’s there in the cancer diagnosis of a young family man, in the nonagenarian on a regular check-up, in the hospitalised woman struggling to take her last breaths.
And yet, for all that death is part of her routine, Kaminsky has – until now – been scared stiff of it. She has parlayed her fear into busyness, into a preoccupation with the ‘life’side of medicine’s life-and-death ledger. Death is a ‘freefall into a black hole of terror’. Who wants that?
The trigger for a new approach is the impressive response of one of her patients. Michael is a 37-year old husband and father of young children and it is Kaminsky’s job to give him the news about his inoperable pancreatic cancer. She is full of dread, but Michael grasps the nettle. Refusing to participate in pointless and evasive ‘let’s conquer cancer’ conversations, he decides not to waste time on ‘bullshit’. Instead, he will throw a death party. All his friends – and his doctor – are invited:
Michael showed me what could be possible – the depth of love he expressed for others, the openness of conversation, the immediacy of the moment right here, right now – what the paradigm might be if we weren’t so afraid of death.
Inspired by Michael, Leah Kaminsky decides to confront her own fear of death head-on, partly by writing this book. She explores her own feelings and habits, weaving them through her exploration of our society’s strange dance with death: on the one hand endlessly playing and replaying it in computer games and movies, and on the other hand constantly surprised by it, behaving as if it were some sort of cruel and peculiar misfortune.
The silence and awkwardness surrounding death has important consequences. It means we risk failing to connect emotionally with the dying. Our own lives are thus impoverished, missing the richness available in those connections. It means that we spend ridiculous amounts of money on medical treatments for those who will shortly die no matter what we do. It means we often go to the grave without making the practical arrangements that would head off a lot of confusion and heartache.
It’s all difficult stuff, but this eclectic tour of the territory is not without humour and even – as boldly promised on the cover – a good dose of joy.
We learn that Japanese culture venerates the honorable suicide – this is the land of the samurai tradition of hara-kiri – and that a popular tourist attraction is Suicide Forest. We hear of moth phobias and sword-swallowers, of a species of jellyfish that ages backwards, of the weird delights of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. Such tidbits may not be joyful, exactly, but they’re certainly Quite Interesting in the Stephen Fry sense. They loosen us up, get us walking around more confidently and purposefully in the company of death.
But then, just as we’re getting comfy, we’re jolted out of the general and cultural into the painfully personal and specific. We learn that Kaminsky’s mother, a holocaust survivor, eventually committed suicide when her daughter was in her early 20s. And there was a boyfriend before her own long current marriage: a young man ‘riddled with tumours’ at the ripe old age of 32. The gears have suddenly shifted; perhaps we are about to descend into the underworld.
But we do not. This is not the book for all that; perhaps we will get those darker, more searing stories another time. Or perhaps this is the source of the energy that drove Kaminsky’s powerful novel, The Waiting Room.
Instead of descending into the circles of hell, we stay in a more workaday world, meeting some of Kaminsky’s patients, listening in to their conversations. Ray, for example. Kaminsky visits Ray at home and clips his toenails. Ray’s light is fading but he remains fiercely committed to his animals, including a lamb he feeds from a Foster’s Lager bottle filled with milk, a couple of tabby cats and a genial duck. He lovingly tends the miniature pet cemetery down at the back of his yard.
He carved the name of each animal he had cared for into miniature gravestones and visited each one every day. Ray wasn’t so much avoiding death as surrounding himself with life.
And this is where we find the joy so boldly promised. The joy is to be found in love. Love is an answer to Death. It cannot defeat death, but it is big enough to meet it halfway, to embrace it, talk with it, live with it. If we have loved, then we can carry our loved ones with us beyond their deaths. They can haunt us in a good way:
Being ‘haunted’, one of our species’s most primal fears and the source of some of our darkest myths, can just as easily be the source of our most comforting memories.
This book is an exploration, not a how-to manual. And yet it invites us to ask questions about our own attitudes and behaviours in the face of death. In that engagement lies the promise of a more fully lived life.
Leah Kaminsky We’re All Going to Die: A joyful book about death HarperCollins 2016 PB 304pp $27.99
Tracy Sorensen is definitely going to die. In the meantime she is teaching journalism at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst.
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