Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books. 283 pages.
My students would think it a little bit weird if I were to tell them that I just finished reading an exceptional book on death and dying. After all, when you’re 20 years old, you don’t want to think about the fact that at some point in your life, you’re going to die.
But I’m not 20 years old; I’m 62. And as I get closer to the end than I am to the beginning, those thoughts come to me. I remember my mother talking to us kids about the fact that someday she would die, and we would always pull back from discussing it. But the fact that it often isn’t discussed until too late is part of what this book is about. Couple that with the fact that I am married to a hospice nurse and you can see why I might be interested in this book.
Finally, as a writer, I believe that how we respond to death says something about our life as well. And fiction writing is, to me, about the human experience: all of it.
Atul Gawande, himself a surgeon, does a great job of looking at how our advances in medical technology have led us to focus on quantity of life at the cost of quality of life. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend our lives a few more months, especially if those months are spent either in suffering or in a drug-induced stupor? Gawande is opposed to “mercy killing,” but hearkens back to how other societies in other countries and in other times were more accepting of the fact that death is a natural part of life, and that rather than extending life at all cost, they would look at the last days of their family member’s life as an opportunity for the family to draw closer and find meaning, allowing the natural progression of life to take place.
The book is filled with anecdotal examples that help the reader see how death affects people in all walks of life. In fact, Gawande shares the experience of his own father, a famous urology physician, who suffered from a tumor in his spine. The stories are sobering yet encouraging, and see how regular people find courage to face the unknown.
It also talks about how our society views the treatment of seniors, the fight for independence that is important to all of us, and the revolution in Assisted Living, and how the drive to make money has fought against this innovation. The book offers promise for those of us who will be confronted by these issues in a few years, yet also opens our eyes to the challenges that still lay before us.
I give it five stars (out of five).