Five years ago, I would probably have said that I read very little nonfiction outside of professional literature. That has changed for me. For escape reading, I would probably still choose a mystery, but I have come to really enjoy and seek out current nonfiction. I think the shift started for me through reading memoir, essays, and authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks, Michael Pollan, and Diane Ackerman.
I read an important book this past week, BEING MORTAL: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. It’s a book that I wished I had been able to read during my mother’s final years, but it has now brought my awareness to issues that are important in every family. My husband and I are both youngest children with 10 older siblings between us.
Dr. Gawande writes beautifully of his own grandfather who lived to be 110 and his father (also a physician) who fought a rare cancer of the spinal cord for a number of years. It was facing choices about medical treatment vs. the desired quality of life all the way to the end of life that motivated the writing of this book.
There was a part of the book where he talked about human beings having both an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” These two selves often come to radically different opinions when viewing the same experience. He writes, “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments–which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. . .A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”
Dr. Gawande recognizes the complexity of decisions facing the terminally ill, but also the simple truth that “all we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.”
I highly recommend this book to anyone who still has living parents or has family members or friends facing terminal illness, or old age. It gave me a lot to think about as I consider getting older myself. We tend to deny that fact in our society, but I appreciate that Dr. Gawande had the courage to write about a topic that most people want to ignore.