I picked up Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor shortly after my own cancer diagnosis over a year ago, and despite its scant 130-odd pages, it’s taken me until now to finish it. This is not to say that it is bad or even boring; on the contrary, it is a thoughtful work of flowing prose. Perhaps, though, I ought to have held off picking it up until my own experiences had faded a little.
On the other hand, I unwittingly stumbled upon a unique journey, starting in a similar place as Taylor and then, through fits and starts over the months, watched our paths diverge. Dying begins with a matter-of-fact view of the inevitable: Taylor knows her cancer is no longer treatable, and all that remains are the questions of when and how. She even explores choosing her own timing and the associated options with calm logic and quiet compassion for her loved ones.
My initial diagnosis was mistakenly grave, but I didn’t know the “mistaken” part until much later. In fact, I had the misfortune of having found a doctor who apparently had skilled all the bedside manner lectures in med school, and he essentially broke the news by advising me to immediately quit my job and move back in with my parents to die. I responded somewhat less gracefully.
The stage set, Taylor then steps back in time to explore her childhood, her relationship with her family, and other brushes with death. She does not sugarcoat the flaws in her parents, especially her father, or pretend that their deaths brought her and her siblings together in some cinematic catharsis. The text freely admits to the pettiness and resentments that continue to surface under duress in spite of any good intentions. She reflects on the loss of friends as well, candidly exploring the surprises and unfairness of being left behind while also acknowledging that she will do the same in the near future.
I, on the other hand, spent little time reflecting on my life and journey, thrown into a whirlwind of tests, treatments, insurance wrangling, and arranging schedules. Taylor makes her peace and reviews her yesterdays, but I found that even reading falls by the wayside when calculating remaining sick days available and gambling on recovery times. Cancer, as it turns out, is supremely inconvenient.
The book finishes softly, as befits the overall tone, almost dreamlike in its meditative tone and blending of present awareness with very early memories. Even reading it as an ebook on my phone, I felt as if I was quietly closing the back cover of a book with a satisfied sigh. I spent the rest of my commute still absorbing the contrast. Taylor died peacefully, surrounded by family. I got an “Oops, it was stage one, we can handle this,” and continue clambering on.