Exploring death as a part of life
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