Sunday, September 04, 2005

Before I Say Goodbye - Review


I did well to save my first tear until page 82 of this short (116 page) book. A beautiful yet terrible précis of the last few months of journalist Ruth Picardie's life, her strong sense of bravado and utter acceptance of her death mark it a unique read; moving, funny, awfully sad.

The book starts out as a collection of Ruth's e-mails to friends, and their responses. Gradually these become interspersed with Ruth's column in the 'Life' supplement of The Observer, which chronicles her cancer experiences in a brief, punchy style. With a surprising audacity she tackles issues of enormous emotional importance, capturing the whirlwind nature of her illness; discovery, chaotic spread, failure of both conventional and unconventional treatments, complications, the idea of her own death.

Abruptly, her column becomes a shadow of the strong, forthright memoir we are accustomed to: we learn that Ruth has in fact been admitted to a hospice. All the while we have been thriving from the strength of her column - the seeming invincibility means that we never really believed it was so bad. But it was. Then the shock hits - she is intractably ill and the column is no more. Indeed, her sister Justine closes the column in the final entry, explaining the turn of events.

After the first column, various letters from Ruth's readers are included in the book. In general, most write to share their own experience of cancer and to impart some morsel of advice or simply to lend their support. They focus on Ruth's dilemma of leaving her twin toddlers - how to create a lasting memory of their mother, who had been ill with cancer for half of their lives. The letters are immensely moving and poignant; most of those that pen them seem afraid that Ruth might find them too mushy, but as readers we are quite sure she valued and embraced every one.

Justine writes the final 'Before I Say Goodbye' column. Ruth has died, earlier than expected. But her last few emails were not the brazen, self-deprecant humour of the past; instead brief poorly punctuated messages - the decline is clear.

The book ends with a chapter by Matt Seaton, Ruth's partner and 'coparent'. He frankly discusses the unfortunate complications Ruth suffered before her death - her brain metastases involved her frontal lobe, meaning she experienced confusion, aggression, a lack of inhibition, and became stuck in repetitive thought cycles. We realise how attached we have become to Ruth, simply from reading her emails, as we witness her spiralling descent towards the inevitable end.

The book closes on Matt's handling of the end. He acts in a way some might perceive to be a little coarse - deciding not to be present at the moment of Ruth's death, and to take the twins to the hospice to see their mother's body - but I certainly sympathised with his logic. He believed the twins would not have a definitive idea that their mother was dead without the tangible concept of death via a corpse. A little raw perhaps, but conceivably important for Ruth to live on in her children's young minds.

The letters Ruth writes to her children are included in the book, as scanned copies. This is very powerful - the handwriting is so much more personal than the book's e-mail typeface, and her crossings-out and insertions are unedited. The letters are dear and bittersweet, and although there are hints of Ruth's mental involvement, they are example of pure maternal devotion and love.

I heartily recommend this book for its wonderful insight into a tragic world. It is a brief read that is more inspirational than depressing and makes one consider death in a different light. 10 pence from every copy goes to The Lavender Trust, a charity set up by Ruth Picardie and Beth Wagstaff to provide better support for breast cancer sufferers, something that Ruth felt lacking in her experiences. An important book.

1 comment:

Giskin said...

This is an insightful review, AJ, and I agree with you that it is an important book. So often 'heroic' narratives of bravery in the face of serious illness neglect the stories of the courage it takes to be a 'carer' - a rather inadequate description of the role of those coping with the decline of a loved one. This book goes some way to expressing that role. Useful comparisons can be drawn with, of course, John Diamond's book 'C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too', and Matt Seaton's book, ostensibly about cycling, 'The Escape Artist'.