I was shocked and saddened to read this morning that Irish writer, Nuala O’ Faolain is dying from cancer. She gave an interview to the Irish national radio channel, RTE 1, last Monday, and spoke candidly about her terminal diagnosis received only six weeks ago and her choice not to prolong her life with treatment. She said, ‘Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life’.
I’m a great fan of O Faolain’s writing for its honesty, humour and insight. Her memoirs 'Are You Somebody?’ and ‘Almost There’ seemed candid and thoughtful, with emotional depth without sentimentality. These, and her novel, ‘My Dream of You’, made a lasting impression on me. She has also been a long-time newspaper columnist who has written reams on Irish society; always thought-provoking and concerned with humanity.
O’ Faolain was born in 1942, the same year as my father, so she’s not an old woman. However, I was very taken aback by how frail and old she sounded in the interview, audibly choking back tears at times – hardly surprising as she has lung cancer which has spread to her brain and liver. Many writers have chosen, when faced with terminal diagnoses, to record their remaining time with diary pieces in newspaper columns, blogs and books. I was particularly impressed by John Diamond’s column in the Times - he was Nigella Lawson’s first husband - in the years between his diagnosis and death (2001); he still managed to be witty and entertaining, even in the topic of his painful battle to prolong his life, after having his tongue excised as part of the treatment. But of course, his writing in no way reflected his reality or that of his family while he was dying, but it was a way of dealing with it, of dressing it up for the public, giving us a glimpse of life as the precipice without having to experience it ourselves (yet). I guess ,for him, it made his dying feel in some way useful.
Nuala O’ Faolain has obviously decided to dispense with this window-dressing on dying and for this I am grateful somehow. There was no denying her despair as I listened to her quivering voice this morning. When asked about how she feels about passion now, something she has written about in the past as mattering a lot in life, she answered, ‘The passion can go and take a running jump at itself, that's what it can take’.
More than anything, it was the following that has had me thinking about her all day, given that she obviously is a woman who read philosophy, contemplated life, love and death, and lived life purposefully, but yet admits that nothing has prepared her for how she feels now. ‘I think there's a wonderful rule of life that means that we do not consider our own mortality. I know we seem to, and remember, 'man thou art but dust', but I don't believe we do. I believe there is an absolute difference between knowing that you are likely to die, let's say within the next year, and not knowing when you are going to die -- an absolute difference.’
I can highly recommend the three books I mentioned above, all international bestsellers, and if you are a fan already, you might visit the RTE website to hear the interview with Marian Finucane. It’s not easy-listening by any means but it’s certainly worth listening.