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Book Corner August  2006

Rowing Without Oars:  A Memoir of Living and Dying
by Ulla-Carin Lindquist.   Swedish edition, 20
Translated from the Swedish by Margaret Myers
   New York:  Viking 2006,  Pp. 197

                             Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

              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: 

This is 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?  -January, 2004

            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:

When we 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:

"I 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. (137)

        The book contains many 'final experiences.'  They are rendered in such exacting detail that we are present to these final acts:

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)

Ulla-Carin's 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.