Wednesday, May 23, 2012

When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone. Philip Gould, edited by Keith Blackmore. London: Little, Brown, 2012.

I have just read this book, and have been very moved by it.

Philip Gould was polling and strategic advisor to Tony Blair and deputy chairman of Freud Communications. He died from recurrent oesophageal cancer in November 2011.

The book is about a personal journey, and an openness and sharing of that journey, as the inevitability of imminent death becomes apparent.

Gould shares his experience from diagnosis (when he became, in an instant, the ‘cancer patient’, labelled with a diagnosis that transformed him from subject to object), through treatment, recurrence, further treatment, and the reality of death.

When he first received his diagnosis he chose to be open about it, telling family and friends immediately. He was rewarded by affection and support that sustained and uplifted him.

We are all part of some community or other, and I was particularly moved by Gould’s sense of shifting from one community to the next. In hospital following his first operation he speaks of walking the corridors as he rehabilitated, alongside other fellow patients also doing the ‘walk of the dead’. He did not feel alone as ‘No one spoke, no one even smiled. We just walked on, like ghosts.’ (p.32). I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Building’, a hospital, and ‘in it, conceits/ And self-protecting ignorance congeal/ To carry life, collapsing only when/ Called to these corridors.’ (Philip Larkin – The Complete Poems, Archie Burnett (ed), London: Faber & Faber, p.85.). Larkin goes on:

‘…All know they are going to die.

Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,

And somewhere like this.’

Gould’s ‘walk of the dead’ was perhaps prescient of what was to come. Within three years or so, recurrent cancer was beyond cure/containment and he was told that he had, at most, 3 months to live. Again, he shifted communities, as reflected by the changing role of his medical team, who moved from treating his cancer to managing his death.

The fear he felt following the original surgery and subsequent treatment (he saw himself as a very small boat in a very big sea), was replaced by a sense of calm as he faced the absolute reality of his death, and entered the ‘Death Zone’. He realised that his awareness of his own mortality up to then had in fact been an illusion. Accepting his imminent death freed him from death itself, and the knowledge of it somehow reconfigured time so that he was able to use it on his own terms.

The experience of living with cancer, and the reality of death, was transformative, facilitating an intimacy and openness and sharing that he would not otherwise have achieved. It somehow enhanced, hugely, the meaning of his life, to the extent that he did not regret its happening. The experience made him feels stronger and freer. And you believe him.

This is both an uplifting book and a very moving one. Sometimes, and I cannot explain this, the bravery and acceptance of others in the face of huge adversity can be hard to witness and to accept. Perhaps, this is because we cannot see ourselves behaving in the same way in a similar situation. Perhaps, we are overwhelmed by the sheer sadness and loss that we inevitably associate with death. Gould speaks of society’s notion of death, and the consensus that so often surrounds it, which is that it is wrong and belongs to a different time and place. Perhaps too, accepting our mortality is something we cannot actually contemplate.

This relatively short book is rich in much else, including Gould’s views on the NHS and politics. But in the end, it is his unsettling honesty and courage as he speaks openly of his own approaching death, and as he stands next to his grave shortly before he dies, that is the powerful essence of this book. His own imminent death gave meaning to his life. The story he shared has added to mine.