Ex­plor­ing death as a part of life

Cape Times - - LIFESTYLE -

BE­FORE FOR­EVER AF­TER He­lena Dolny Loot.co.za (R 268) Stag­ing Post

RE­VIEWER: JENNIFER CROCKER

There are two things in our lives that are guar­an­teed: That we will be born and that we will die. Just those two things.

Of course there are some things that might well seem prob­a­ble, but they are not given to us with the cer­tainty of birth and death. The thing is that talk­ing about birth is some­thing that, in most cul­tures, with a few ex­cep­tions, is com­mon­place.

It’s be­come even more so with the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia, where happy ex­pec­tant moms post the first blurry ul­tra­sound im­ages of ba­bies (well moth­ers with ac­cess to good med­i­cal care do), we see pic­tures of the bump, we have tra­di­tions and par­ties for plan­ning for the birth, we em­brace birth doulas and could prob­a­bly read a mil­lion ar­ti­cles on the sub­ject if we wanted to. Death? Not so much. It’s al­most as if, as a so­ci­ety, we sel­dom talk about death. We of­ten don’t plan for death even when we know it is go­ing to oc­cur, we steer clear of dis­cussing the dead, and of­ten we don’t val­i­date their last wishes be­cause it’s just not a talk we want to have. So, it’s in­ter­est­ing that He­lena Dolny be­gins her in­cred­i­ble book Be­fore For­ever Af­ter with the story of pink tulips and her birth. Born in Ac­cring­ton, Lan­cashire, of im­mi­grant par­ents, she writes of her birth and how her fa­ther had to ride his bike to the lo­cal ceme­tery to buy flow­ers for her mother be­cause it was a Sun­day and there were no shops open. Al­most pre­scient, given the di­rec­tion that her life has led Dolny to­wards.

A visit to Zam­bia as a gap year led Dolny to South Africa, when her time as a teach­ing as­sis­tant was up.

Here the young woman was con­fronted with the hor­rors of apartheid and racism. She re­turned home and be­came a no­table part of the anti-apartheid move­ment. Dolny’s life is one that ap­pears to have been filled, liv­ing on full-throt­tle, and she is known for her work in eco­nomics, land de­vel­op­ment, and as a busi­ness coach.

She’s also a woman who has known fear, in a chap­ter of the books she writes com­pellingly about how she thought she was go­ing to die, when she heard “boots Crunch­ing on Gravel”. By now she was mar­ried to Joe Slovo and an ob­vi­ous tar­get. It turns out there was no dan­ger then, but she writes, “fear of a vi­o­lent death has been my con­stant com­pan­ion since my late 20s… I came to live a life in which fear was a fa­mil­iar emo­tion”.

With an aware­ness of the fragility of life, the fleet­ing na­ture and nar­row veil that sep­a­rates us within sec­onds from liv­ing be­ings, to life­less forms, she is well placed to have writ­ten this book. Dolny in­ter­viewed over 57 peo­ple in or­der to talk to them about the themes of Be­fore For­ever Af­ter, and her abil­ity to write nar­ra­tive sto­ries is ex­tra­or­di­nary.

The sto­ries of dy­ing too young, of dy­ing in fear, of not leav­ing prepa­ra­tions for a fam­ily, of her hus­band’s death. The amaz­ing story of a woman who hon­oured her fa­ther’s wishes to die on his terms, these are all wo­ven into a com­pelling tale of how to free our­selves to talk about death dur­ing life.

But, this is not just a book of sto­ries about death.

It’s a fluid man­ual for how to live life to the fullest, in the pres­ence of death, how to em­brace life while ac­knowl­edg­ing that it will end.

It is also one of the most “read­able” books I have read in a long time. Dolny doesn’t preach or pon­tif­i­cate, she in­vites the reader to take a jour­ney with her through sto­ries about her own life, and the sto­ries of oth­ers. Sto­ries about liv­ing with in­ten­tion­al­ity and seek­ing joy. There is no one clear an­swer, rather we are tempted and given the weapons to find our own dis­course about death.

Be­fore For­ever Af­ter in­vites you to sit awhile, in si­lence, and think about what kind of death you want to have. What pro­vi­sions you’ve made and who you’ve shared them with?

A host of top­ics that we mostly want to run from but, in run­ning, we of­fer up our lives as hostages to a great de­nial and a type of psy­cho­log­i­cal or spir­i­tual, if you pre­fer, abyss.

Hugely well-re­searched and writ­ten in a read­able style, Dolny has added a valu­able and hon­est con­tri­bu­tion to a grow­ing canon of lit­er­a­ture that is start­ing to speak about death, to cite it where it should be: as a part of life.

I laughed at times, I learned lessons from her take-outs and “things to plan for list”, I cried, and, at the end when I put down this book, I thought for a long time. I am not afraid of death, or ner­vous about talk­ing about it, but this book takes the con­ver­sa­tion to a new level. Read it.

It’s a man­ual for how to live life to the fullest, in the pres­ence of death

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