Brief candles

How Linda Died

By Mary Soderstrom

A review of How Linda Died by Frank Davey

Published on October 1, 2002

How Linda Died
Frank Davey

ECW Press
$15.95
paper
344pp
1-55022-497-2

At a friend’s funeral this summer we comforted each other by saying that she died just the way we’d like to go – of a massive, unexpected heart attack. When the time comes, we said, give us a quick death, spare us the pain and suffering. It may be hard on those who had to time to prepare for losing her; but how much easier it must have been for her! Two books – one a very personal account of the year-long decline and death of a wife, one edited conversations with terminally-ill strangers, have made me question that, however.

The point of Susan Gabori’s A Good Enough Life is that the dying have something to show the living, and that by reflecting on their lives, they may discover wisdom. At least half of those interviewed say that they are not sorry that they contracted a terminal illness because of what they have come to understand about themselves. A long death, they seem to be saying, is not such a terrible thing.

Frank Davey’s intimate memoir, on the other hand, shows just how difficult it is to watch a loved one die. Davey’s wife Linda, a mercurial and extremely intelligent lawyer, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in the spring of 1999. Chemo- and radiation-therapy slowed its progress somewhat, but she died in June 2000, after Davey and their children, Mike and Sara, had spent the last months caring for her. It was not easy for them to let her go.

Both books, then, challenge the assumptions many hold about dying, and because they do, they are worth reading. But both are troubling because they raise another question: do the dead and dying – even those who agree to interviews – have any right to privacy?
Gabori says in her introduction that her subjects wanted to talk. She has edited hundred of hours of transcribed conversations with eight women and four men, resulting in a series of well-phrased monologues, which, along with anecdotes, include some articulate philosophical reflections.

But it’s the lurid details which stick out: how one of Laura’s boyfriends always gave her a heroin fix so she didn’t get the bruises and abscesses some junkies do; how Bob had sex with 3,000 men over the years; how Dianne would stop her car in traffic and get out and argue with other drivers. After awhile I felt uncomfortable, hearing things that I would never have heard had not Gabori prodded her subjects: she says in fact that she “aggressivly” questioned one of them because he would not talk about the emotions that his abused childhood and his illness created in him.

Davey compares the journal he keeps during the days of his wife’s decline to “almost spying.” He began taking notes on her problems before she herself decided to seek help, and continued nearly daily until her death. Ordinary events gave him a springboard to writing about his relationaship with her (passionate and argumentative), and her childhood (abused and unhappy). The harsh light he shines on Linda’s selfishness insures that the book is far from a sentimental journey, and its graceful prose is what you would expect from a poet like Davey. No doubt writing the journal was something he felt compelled to do.

But why did Davey publish it so soon after Linda’s death, and why did Gabori spend several years questioning dying strangers about what they were going through? In Davey’s case he is perhaps consciously or unconsciously settling accounts with his wife. In Gabori’s, she may be trying to denature death by seeing it up close. Both books are fascinating reading, but the reader may close them hoping that no one will rush to show the world his or her death in such intimate detail. mRb

Mary Soderstrom is an old leftie herself, and the author of a biographical novel about an Anglophone Patriot in the nearest thing to a revolution that Canada ever had: The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1838 (Oberon Press, 1998).

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