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By Richard von Busack
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff (Simon & Schuster; $21 hardback)
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields (Knopf; $23 hardback)
The Inevitable is approached from two different angles: one book from a colloquial, chatty point of view, one from a deathbed witness who concludes, "The living always fail the dying." Rieff, a noted journalist, recalls the slow demise by leukemia of his mother, Susan Sontag, at age 71, during Sontag's third and final bout with cancer. (Sontag's "anti-autobiographical" essay Illness as Metaphor was based on her own painfully won victory over stage-4 breast cancer.) Rieff recalls the bravery of his irreplaceable mother—as well as her fervent atheism, unshaken by the terminal disease. He also deals with the subject of heroic methods that medicine uses to fight those rarer, more extreme cancers in cases where there is little serious hope of success, and much chance of suffering. Ironically, Sontag once suggested that leukemia was one of the few cancers that permitted a Romantic-era-type demise. ("It's an easy death," a physician friend told me once.) Being Sontag, she took the hard fight by enduring a bone-marrow transplant, and there was nothing easy about it. Without sentiment, without the false sunshine of inspirational lit, this short memoir tries to look straight into death. And Rieff does this with the same devotion to reason that marked his mother's life and art.
There's a link between these two books. Sontag was a patient at the University of Washington's hospital, and Shields teaches English at that Seattle campus. Shields takes the Herodotus approach to a history of death. Here are anecdotes of science and custom, interspersed with autobiography and memoirs of his indefatigable father, the San Mateo civil rights activist Milton Shields. At the time of writing, Shields was far along the road to becoming a 100-year-old. Among stories of the older man, and their love and rivalry, Shields sums up the current gerontological research suggesting what will keep a person as far from the Reaper as possible. Father and son are both sports fiends, and exercise is of course good. Finding God, and going to church, is one supposed indicator of a long life, or maybe life will just seem longer after all those slow months of Sundays. The Thing About Life ... is a random, charming, sometimes nattering book, loaded with trivia nuggets, on the inexorable aging of cells and the hopes—still vague—of an science-created everlasting life to come. Shields' chapter on famous last words doesn't include Sontag's last message to her son—"I want to tell you. ..." But he does report Karl Marx's death-defying last snarl: "Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
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