By Cory Taylor
141 pages. Tin House Books. $18.95.
Years ago, a palliative care doctor told me that what he knew of a patient's personality often had little to do with how he or she coped with dying. Generous people could become ungenerous, and brave people could become frightened. Angry people could become gentle, and controlling people could become Zen. Dying, in other words — like combat, like becoming a parent, like any transformative life event — doesn't always reveal or intensify aspects of our character. It sometimes coaxes out new ones.
For a long time, the writer Cory Taylor took, by her own admission, "a fairly leisurely approach to life." That changed in 2005, just before her 50th birthday, when doctors removed a mole on the back of her leg. Melanoma, Stage 4. She wrote the novel she'd always meant to write, then another. Then she wrote "Dying: A Memoir."
The book rings louder in my imagination the more time I spend apart from it, a kind of reverse Doppler effect. "Dying" is bracing and beautiful, possessed of an extraordinary intellectual and moral rigor. Every medical student should read it. Every human should read it. My own copy is so aggressively underlined it looks like a composition notebook.
"Dying" is short, but as dense as dark matter. There is an electrifying matter-of-factness to it, one that normalizes death, which is part of Taylor's goal. She deplores the "monstrous silence" surrounding the subject of mortality. "If cancer teaches you one thing," she writes, "it is that we are dying in our droves, all the time. Just go into the oncology department of any major hospital and sit in the packed waiting room."