On ‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

by Stephanie Wescott

To be interested in death is considered perverse, morbid, impolite. In Western culture, we treat death like a stranger. We place distance between it and ourselves; pretend it’s something that while we know happens to others around us, perhaps won’t happen to us if we can avoid thinking about it.

Those who write about death are often said to ‘confront’ it. For ten years, Cory Taylor, an Australian writer, lived with the knowledge of her terminal illness. She died shortly after her final work, ‘dying: a memoir’ was published. This idea of confrontation implies of course an avoidance, a prolonged ignorance. Confrontation requires bravery and strength when the adversary is eventually faced.

While it could certainly be said that in writing a memoir of her slow death Taylor is ‘confronting’ her mortality, there is a peaceful gentleness in her approach. She treats death with kindness and curiosity. Her ultimate acceptance is in her humble appreciation for the life she had, and her generosity in sharing the lessons of dying. Her wish is to die on her terms: at home, peacefully, out of pain. A good death, at 61.

Her instinct, she says, in revealing her diagnosis to her friends was to protect them from the severity of it. This, I think, speaks to death’s invisibility: when we do see it in front of us, our impulse is to look away. It is too unpleasant. Too stark a reminder of the fate we seek to avoid.

I too have have an interest in death. I used to see my own around me; a derailing train, a sudden, terrible and violent accident, an inevitably terminal diagnosis. I was hyper-vigilant; expecting it, like when it was finally served to me I could say, with some assuredness and certainty, ‘of course. there you are’.

Cognitive behavioural therapy taught me that the brain looks for death in an attempt to protect the body it serves. My mind, having seen and grieved premature deaths of cancer and other terminal illness, forced itself into a hyper-vigilant state; perceiving threats where there were none. What it was doing was preparing me. ‘Look out here, and here and here – these are all potential ways your life could end.’

This, in fact, is not an acceptance of death. While it is an acknowledgement that death is omnipresent, and inevitable, it is ultimately driven by fear. To live in the knowledge of your own eventual death is not to live in fear, nor is it pessimism. It is to see your existence as it is: impermanent, temporary, transient.