“I was lucky enough to have two books to distract me, as Martin was dying…” I said to someone, at some point. “How could anything about that be lucky?” I suppose they meant anything about watching Martin dying.

They were right. And they were entirely wrong.


There is no grasping death, nor dying, no matter how hard you look at it. Perhaps that is because what you see is life leaving, not death approaching. What you try to hold hands with is the person walking a path new to them, in a body less and less familiar, with which they are trying to hold hands, for if they are wise, they trust that this is the body they have always known, and they allow it to lead them where it knows it must go… If they are not wise, they reject this new body with contempt, disdain, disgust, and often, determined sulking; perhaps that may be a bit of death approaching, but I cannot say. The person I watched dying learned to hold his body’s hand… in the end, magnificently, smiling benignly on everyone in Rekai Wellesley Place, smiling at the person who checked on him half an hour before he died.

That ‘knowing where it’s going’ is an experiment in trust and is unique to each body.

There is a period of adjustment when bodies do things they have never done and refuse to do things that they have always done. A room deserted for half a minute suddenly looks like the crib of a child who got into their diaper and had a good time with a magnificent canvas: bed, wall, floor, their own arms and legs and torso. Wake in the morning to a mattress soaked but not with the spunk of a night of loving on and on—with slobbered spit and pee and runny bowels. (Talk about the dance of the visual arts.) Nothing is erect any more. No penis, nor back, nor raised arm, nor even a head forever faithful before this, rises and holds steady. As for the brain, seat of image, thought, word, landscape and soundscape… “What is it like in your head?” I ask. “It’s like wading through mud…” He cannot walk, not because he lacks strength but because the messages from cerebellum command cannot find their way across the paths of nerves.

Hoarding in our house (as distinct from storage) has always been my purview: articles, papers, mildewed books, scandal bags of ancient letters and scribbled bits of poems decades old. Now the beloved hoards. Pockets holding two pens become pockets weighed down with six and eight. The bathroom vanity stores dozens of almost finished roles of toilet paper. “It’s not OCD…” my older son says. I smile and think, “Oh yeah?” The gerontologist confirms my diagnosis.

“You have to take care of yourself…” Every caregiver knows this. The caregiver who does this is rare, in my experience. I once tried to leave M with a kind neighbour for a few minutes till his ride to Seniors Day Care arrived. I was meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. The neighbour was willing—and terrified, so I stayed with him till he was collected. Any kind of accident might have happened in 20 minutes of waiting. Kind Day Care staff bring him home with diapers full of excrement, because he hates to use bathrooms other than his own. My neighbour had two young children—enough of likely diapers of excrement!

Nothing new here. As I type millions of people on earth are taking care or being cared for in these ways. Some are on leaky boats bargaining with wide water. Some are trudging, the terribly ill and their caregivers, towards an invisible line across which there is, perhaps, just perhaps, more care, better care, tenderer care waiting. There is no hope for wellness on any of these journeys, mine and M’s included; only for decent dying.

So now we are back with the books. A book is a contract of making entered into with a community, though the size of the village that makes the book varies with the writer. A small village is the writer, perhaps the agent, the editor(s), designer(s), one or two beta readers, and, if it is funded, the taxpayers. Big villages make my books, so add to all the above, ten more beta readers, some as experts, some to give the ordinary person’s response. No author enters into this contract lightly. The distraction of a book is not like time off to shop in the mall or see a movie or have lunch with a friend so as to forget for a little while that a beloved is dying. Though these are all to be recommended, I, like too many others, rarely did any of them. The distraction of a book is a parallel ritual of holding hands, if you want, but walking this time, not into death, but into life.

I was glad to have two books to distract me while Martin was dying.

The distraction of books