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‘Dying: A Memoir’ Is a Bracing Illumination of Terminal Illness

Those who have the wherewithal to write about these questions usually have the wherewithal to think clearly about them.

Taylor, who died in July of last year at the age of 61, is a firm believer in taking custody of her own death. She announces in her first sentence that she’s purchased a euthanasia drug over the internet from China. She soon adds that she’s joined the local chapter of Exit International in her home of Brisbane, Australia. “It might be any meeting of any common interest group, a bowls club, or a bird-watching fraternity,” she writes, “except that, after the tea-break, it’s back to rating cyanide and nitrogen gas according to ease of use, and speed.”

The reader should not take Taylor’s head-on engagement with her prognosis as evidence of uncommon bravery. She’s scared. Nor does she view her cancer diagnosis as a blessing. “There is nothing good about dying,” she writes. “It is sad beyond belief.”

It is this kind of truth-telling, served neat, that makes “Dying” so powerful and immediate; it is also what makes Taylor’s reassuring observations all the sweeter.


Patricia Wall/The New York Times

It is commonly said that end-of-life memoirs offer wisdom for the living. That is certainly true here. Dying has sharpened Taylor’s vision, occasioning a thorough life inventory, and writing, her métier, has given her a chance to linearize her thoughts. “I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly,” she writes, “and I am making dying bearable for myself.”

And for us. Take the subject of regret. Taylor has her own suitcase of disappointments — she’s not here to pretend that dying turns us into Edith Piaf — but she writes something quite liberating about it:

“The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps.”

Would that all of us could remember this as we’re wriggling into our hair shirts of lament.

Regret is even pointless, Taylor writes, when it comes to her own illness. While she’s not above asking “Why me?” (whereas Christopher Hitchens couldn’t countenance this question without boredom), she realizes she could have died many times before this moment — like the day a speeding sedan hit her car just seconds after she’d parked it and stepped away.

Then again, it’s possible she’d only have lost her legs if she’d been inside her car. Then she might today be alive, because she wouldn’t have had the mole where her melanoma first appeared. “I’d be legless,” she writes, “but still in good health.”

Dying turns many of us into counterfactual historians. But the alternate universe Taylor imagines is unusually provocative.

It’s almost inevitable that dying makes you reflect on your past, which perhaps explains why “Dying” is not merely a meditation on the present, but a journey backward in time, all the way to Taylor’s girlhood.

I was unprepared for how involving this stretch of her reminiscence would be. Half of its appeal is its simple Aussie exoticism — there’s talk of kookaburras, jackeroos. But her personal story is also packed with drama. There’s the greedy uncle who annexed the family patrimony. The grandmother who suffered a nervous breakdown. The unstable and bellicose father, an airline pilot, who was only at home in the sky.

Taylor’s prose is clear and direct, with flashes of surpassing loveliness. The poet-philosopher in her is in full bloom. “For what are we,” she asks, “if not a body taking a mind for a walk, just to see what’s there?”

This may not be quite as glorious a description of life as Philip Larkin’s “million-petaled flower of being here,” but it has a startling offhand grace.

Like Larkin, Taylor views her death as a retreat into the nothingness that preceded her. But there’s a crucial, melancholy difference: In the time between our non-existences, we’ve loved and created things. She quotes Harold Pinter, who wrote of his wife: “I shall miss you so much when I’m dead.”

Taylor writes that she will most miss her husband and the faces of her children. They will surely miss her, too. But it’s at least something — maybe a tiny bit lucky, even — that this gorgeous piece of her remains.

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