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Book Corner August 2006
Without Oars: A Memoir of
Living and Dying
The size of this newly translated book is small, held in the hands
like a prayer book. This work
is like acts of prayer: passionate,
painful, numb, searching, attempting communication.
In 2002, the author, a well-known Swedish T. V. journalist, mother of
four, learns a terrible truth. The
opening page of this journal describes it this way:
where I begin and where I end. It
is about my end....'Halfway' through my life I have been invaded by a rare
disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS...I feel profound sorrow about
everything that I am not going to experience.
I am devastated that soon I will leave my four children.
At the same time I feel great joy and happiness about
everything...Does that sounds strange?
What is unusual about this lyrical journal is its eye-witness
account. Unlike many works
whose authors describe others' terminal illnesses, the dying person herself
writes the script. Each
chapter, or section runs only to a page or two.
Some of the writing has the feel of free verse.
The disease, which takes everything except the
intellect, prompts observations that are deeply reflective.
There is no blurring of the mind, only ever-more acute reflections on
people, surroundings and impending loss.
Because the disease takes away the ability to experience much of a
sensory nature, Ulla-Carin savors all of her declining senses:
leave the beach in Ysatd I see how three wind-power stations coalesce into
one for the blink of an eye. The
wind-power stations act as a navigation beacon and I make my way towards the
one that is furthest away. I
wade through poppies, with their skirts of crumpled silk, and flick at
dandelion clocks. Beyond roars the sea.
Here is my road now. My
navigation beacon, which I must follow.
And the sea can be my altar. (56-57)
Her four children and husband, a burn surgeon, are involved in many
ways in her saga. She grieves greatly over leaving the two youngest,
boys. She writes this
dialogue between her and Pontus, the nine-year-old:
was sad last night, Mommy./ Tell me, Pontus./ You're just getting sicker./
Yes, I know. And you're going
to die./ Everyone does./ But I don't know anyone who has a dead mother.
The book contains many 'final experiences.'
They are rendered in such exacting detail that we are present to these
This evening I'm eating my last meal.
Not a meal like I had when I was healthy, but a meal as they are now.
Chopped and mashed crab topped with a little lobster sauce and
crumbled tarragon. Cut-up baby
spinach warmed in lemon oil, the stalks removed.
Avocado mousse. Half a
glass of white wine...After this fasting.
Early tomorrow morning I'm going to the hospital and there I will be
given the hole for tube-feeding. 142)
pastor is a friend of many years.
The vicar whose son builds churches with his toy bricks gives me a
prayer cloth that smells of herbs. She
sings about not being afraid, and we remember how we pushed our prams uphill
in the winter slush. 'You
should feel angry. You have the
right to complain,' she says and quotes the hymn-book version of Martin
Luther: "You must learn to cry out, and not just sit there on
your own or lie on a bench, hanging your head and letting your thoughts chew
and gnaw at you..." She is the one who will scatter earth over me, and
when I think about that I am carried away to a chapel near a white beach
where towering waves roll in from the Norwegian sea. ( 176)
This book is almost unspeakably lovely because of its piercing
honesty and beauty of detail. It
is the story of every woman/every man's inevitable journey to death and in
Ulla-Carin's version, here is grace and beauty and love seen at their most
honest and blessed.