I love books. Some books I love more than my family. In my 30’s I’ve found myself asking a lot of big questions about life, death and grief and these books have been my saviours. The connective tissue between them may be death but if anything each one of these memoirs make me believe in the beauty of life itself.
Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
In 2014 I was raw from grief and on the verge of a mental breakdown when I found Cheryl Strayed’s book during my sleepless nights Googling “how to cope with losing a parent.” My grief had alienated me from my friends who didn’t understand how to deal with my suffering and I needed reassurance that I was going to survive this despair.
I was immediately gripped by Strayed’s story of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 and how that journey helped mend her broken heart, over losing her beloved mother Bobbi and the end of her marriage. Whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own brain as the realization dawned that I wasn’t alone. The memoir echoed my own experience of a family torn apart after losing one of our own, “without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope.”
In the years following her mother’s death, Strayed hit the self-destruct button hard, something I can relate to. On the adultery that contributed to the end of her marriage, “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal.” Some parts of the book were painful to read because the sense of recognition made me weep and I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy.
The book taught me a lot. That it’s ok to forgive yourself, even when you’ve hurt people you love. I learned that grief is messy and painful but you will survive. Just getting up every day and taking tiny steps to be kind to yourself can help rebuild the hole in your heart.
Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross
Late Fragments started life as a blog chronicling the last two years of the author’s life following a terminal cancer diagnosis aged just 34. In different hands the book could have been mawkish but the joy comes from Gross’s way with words, she explains her predicament without endless medical jargon and with little sentimentality. I’ve lived with a dying relative so know the reality of impending death can be as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking. Gross wrote the book for her twin sons, who were only five when she passed away on Christmas Day 2014. The dedication alone had me in tears, “There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say. I write this for Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.”
Despite the bleak diagnosis Gross finds happiness in her limited time left on earth: “For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way.” Gross tells her life story with elegance, wit and just a touch of bitterness (anger would be my primary emotion if I found out I was dying in my mid-thirties).
Although Gross’s life was short it was extraordinary. She spent four years working for two British Prime Ministers in her twenties, then founded a charity rebuilding essential structures of government in post-conflict Africa. Thankfully her legacy lives on – not only in print but in the fundraising and building of the inaugural Kate Gross Community School which opened in Sierra Leone in 2016. Many of us could live to 100 and only hope to leave such a legacy.
The book never fails to inspire me with its spirit and determination to embrace life (however short) and on the days when I am moaning about being tired/in pain/have a cold I glance at the cover on my Kindle and tell myself to get a grip. I’ve read the book on multiple occasions and gain new insight every time. And the postscript, written by Kate’s mother Jean following her death always make me howl with emotion.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell
A life story with a difference, one told entirely through near death experiences. I was so captivated by this audiobook I devoured the memoir in a single day. The narration by Daisy Donovan was spellbinding and at points I found myself listening with my eyes closed so I could fully immerse myself in the words. I’ve since listened to the book again and now own a hardback copy with my favourite passages highlighted.
The book is broken down into episodes zig zagging across decades and destinations, beginning with an encounter on a remote path that chilled me for days afterwards. As O’Farrell observes we are all closer to death than we may realise: “We are, all of us, wandering about in states of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” The book is thought provoking and conversation starting – while our stories may not be book worthy a cursory count in my close family unearthed 13 near-death experiences between five of us.
O’Farrell is a natural storyteller and skilfully describes everything from devastating childhood encephalitis to an encounter with a machete wielding mugger with a lack of sentimentality which allows for more empathy than a constant stream of self-pity. There were stories that made me hold my breath, moved me to tears and filled me with rage.
The final section – Daughter – is set in the present day and is one of the boldest and most startling chapters of a book I have ever read. O’Farrell’s daughter was born with a severe immunology disorder and the threat of anaphylaxis means her fight for life is something the family are faced with on a daily basis. The final chapter ramps up the sense of danger and urgency and whilst O’Farrell may have downplayed her own struggles you cannot help but feel the passion for her child leap off the page. It’s a book that makes you appreciate your every breath and be thankful that the author managed to survive this long to tell her tale.