Signs of Life
A Memoir of Dying and Discovery
By Tim Brookes
“For a nation obsessed with the happy ending, we give remarkably little thought to our own,” writes journalist Tim Brookes. “Our fictions are full of the desire to shape these final mythic moments — the good dying peacefully, or tragically, the bad falling from a great height onto sharp objects, the death perfectly or ironically illustrating the quality and virtue of the life. Yet in real life we’ll do anything to avoid even mentioning death, let alone anticipating it. The only encouragement we get to plan for our death is from life insurance companies who will go bankrupt if we don’t.”
Brookes initially intended to follow a methodical plan in order to gain insight into the mystery of our final days. He would volunteer at a local hospice to learn all he could about this growing movement — one that promotes a new level of emotional and physical care for the dying and that has become a powerful alternative to the often dehumanizing experience of death in a hospital or nursing home. He would also interview patients and experts in hospice care in hopes of limning the difficult decisions imminent death brings to the surface.
But Brookes’s plans changed shape dramatically when, shortly after he’d begun research for his book, his mother called to report her diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. What began as an investigative report evolved to embrace the author’s intimate account of meeting — and accepting — his mother’s death on its own terms. Slowly Brookes began to fill in the outlines of what he’d learned about hospice with the subtle shadings of his mother’s experiences. Abstractions about death with dignity, the role of hope, and the need for family became powerful and immediate realities. Yet amid the sorrows came unexpected and joyful signs of life: a reconnection with long-forgotten relatives, a new opportunity to get to know his mother more deeply than ever before, and even laughs as the whole family struggled through a journey we will all take one day.
Signs of Life blends insightful reportage of a revolutionary program for helping the dying and a son’s frank account of coping with the fears, concern, and love he holds for his dying mother and his growing appreciation of mortality. Brookes discovered that the hospice experience imbued his mother’s dying with profound meaning; her death and the process of grieving enabled his family to grow closer together even as they came to recognize the levels of distance among them.
With intimacy and eloquence, Tim Brookes has written a deeply personal travel guide for the road that lies ahead. While not shying away from the difficulties of such a time, Signs of Life shows us that some of the most important revelations and changes are possible only near the end of life, when not only the dying but the survivors are completing a journey towards the deepest intimacy they may ever have known, a journey of discovering and letting go, and of coming home.
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About the Author
Brookes, perhaps best-known as a long-time commentator on National Public Radio, researched issues involving death and hospice care at a time when his efforts were intertwined with care for his dying mother. The resulting book has become a classic on death and dying—practical considerations as well as the search for meaning in life and death.
His other well-known titles include Guitar: An American Life; The Driveway Diaries: A Dirt-Road Almanac; and A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow.
What People are Saying
“Brookes’ dedication is simply “For my family” –and it really makes sense. The book is about his mother’s illness and death in England (where he was born, too) and the effects of those events on his siblings, wife, and child. He started this account as revenge for his father’s painful, badly handled death. By the end of his mother’s life, however, his book had taken a positive turn as Brookes dealt with the hospice movement and the different U.S. and English attitudes toward dying and death. Brookes points out that women have played a major role in hospice development and maintains that some of hospice’s main benefits could only be the results of women’s thinking and emotions. He found that one hospice nurse, Jane, particularly exemplified much of the best in hospice care. Meanwhile, open and frequent communication among the Brookes siblings enabled them to learn about themselves and one another as well as their mother. With the exception of hr funeral, Brookes’ thought-provoking book is surprisingly upbeat.”
“The news that his mother is dying of cancer transforms a journalist’s inquiry into the growing hospice movement–what might have been a full-fledged investigative report becomes a moving, highly personal memoir. Brookes, who teaches writing at the University of Vermont and whose essays are heard frequently on National Public Radio, demonstrated his skill at weaving reporting and personal experience into a seamless whole in his exploration of asthma (Catching My Breath, 1994). Here the personal story takes clear precedence. When Brookes began his research, he decided he needed to see a dead body and arranged to view an embalmed cadaver awaiting dissection in a laboratory. It was an unsettling experience. Months later, he was called to the bedside of his dying mother at a hospice in England. Between these two charged events, Brookes learned a great deal about life at its extreme, the needs of the dying, our fear of death, the differences between suffering and pain, the limits of palliative care, and the gap between hospice philosophy and real-life practice. An exile, he also learned a great deal about what home and family meant to him. From time to time, there’s a hint of what the book might have been had circumstances been different. As a reporter, Brookes looks at the hospice movement with a far more critical eye than hospice doctors do in their own writings (see Michael Kearney, Mortally Wounded, p. 1996, and Ira Byock, Dying Well, 1996). Noting its persistent confusion over the nature of its spiritual mission, he comments that the hospice movement’s “graceful New Age ecumenical dance” is likely to be pulled apart by the stronger forces of medical science and established religion. An affecting memoir by a talented writer that leaves the reader regretting that he did not probe even more widely and deeply into the nature and role of the hospice.
“Brookes has the sensitivity, as well as the sense of consistency with his own ideals, not to deduce any lesson about death and dying; pamphlets do that. Instead he allows us to touch the thing itself. The ending he gives his story is moving, intelligent, and unlike anything else in this literature. To reach it other than through the text is to trivialize it, and I hope others will make the journey.”
—Arthur W. Frank, Hastings Center Report
“Brookes’s honest appraisal of hospice care brings much-needed balance to the debate over care of the dying. Highly recommended.”
“A haunting account . . . . Brookes brings his mother’s strong, independent spirit to life and vividly describes how dealing with her impending death brought problems as well as renewed intimacy.”
“An informative and moving account of hospice care—a vivid personal memoir incorporating the search for meaning of both death and life.”
—Madalon Amenta, executive director, Hospice Nurses Association
Table of Contents
- Planning Revenge
- A Brief History of Death
- Spring Training
- Crisis of Information
- A Privileged Position
- Conclusions Infinite
- Nebraska Notch
- Not the Whole Story
- Life on Jupiter
- Other Gardens