Which is, can ever perish totally,
Since Nature makes one thing out of another”
Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, by Alison Jean Lester (illustrated by Mary Ann Frye), is an account of how the author’s mother, father and maiden aunt each approached their deaths. It is framed around the mother, Valerie Browne Lester, who, on learning that her cancer was likely terminal, opted to eschew further treatment. Instead, she retired to a residential hospice where she took control of the time she had left.
Written with love and generosity, there is no glossing over the more gross aspects of an old and failing body as it approaches its end. Nevertheless, this is a book that offers hope for what all will inevitably face – that it need not be a time of fear and upset.
The book opens with a preface that explains why the author chose to write about her mother’s dying. She then introduces the reader to Valerie, offering a potted biography of events that helped shape her. Valerie was also a writer, with a number of published works. Included within this volume are poems – some written by Valerie and others that influenced her. These help shed light on her emotions and spirited approach to life.
Born and schooled in England, Valerie also spent childhood years in Jamaica. When she married James Lester they settled in America. Here their two children, Toby and Alison, were born and raised.
Valerie’s father died of Parkinson’s disease and her mother of Alzheimer’s disease – drawn out endings in England that must have impacted their only child. She told family and friends that she did not wish to live beyond eighty. She got her wish.
After forty-six years of marriage, Valerie supported her husband, who had ALS, enabling him to die in the manner of his choosing. Alison and Toby were also there at their father’s end. Both he and his wife discussed with their children what they wanted and why – conversations that helped those remaining to come to terms with their loved one’s death.
During the last years of her parents’ lives, Alison was living abroad with her husband, raising their children until they left to follow their own paths. Alison’s brother lived with his wife and daughters an hour or so’s drive from their parents. Whatever the distance and other family commitments, the siblings travelled regularly to provide support as needed. There were also many close friends offering assistance – emotional and practical.
What comes across clearly in this narrative is how lucky the elderly relatives were to have friends and family able and willing to help out over the course of the protracted period it takes for a human body to finally fail. It is so different to how many other families end up functioning in such circumstances. Care was provided by health professionals but it was the family who came together to ensure the dying’s wishes were upheld – including that there should be no long faces when outcome had been understood and accepted. Valerie wished to celebrate the life she had experienced, and then be celebrated.
Although both James and Valerie accepted their prognoses and took control of their deaths, James’ sister, Jane, raged against the prospect of her end. Unmarried and with no children of her own, Jane also benefited from her niece’s willingness to do what she could to support and help as Jane’s ageing body suffered trauma and illness. The comparison in attitude serves as a reminder that not everyone will accept the inevitable with equanimity. This too must be accepted.
The writing in this book is both emotional and factual – thought-provoking and warmly engaging. It is structured to be succinct yet provides detail many appear reluctant to voice let alone face. There are sections that raise an element of revulsion – such as when control is lost over basic bodily functions – although Alison dealt with these with grace. She did have certain regrets, listed in a final chapter. It is also pointed out that the prospect of the imminent death of a parent enabled her to put aside differences that had previously resulted in conflict or hurt.
“Mum was returning to her factory settings, letting go of her sharp edges, her harsh judgements, the burden of ‘taste’. She told me once that cutting my toast into triangles rather than rectangles was low class. Now toast was just a good thing, however it came.”
Included within the details of dying are reminders that the elderly are still functioning human beings. Valerie had dalliances after she was widowed, sharing details that her daughter did not welcome. When sorting through her mother’s belongings, staying in her assisted living facility, Alison gained a fresh appreciation of how older people can still bask in new connections and approbation.
I am of an age when I and many of my peers have experienced the slow dying of elderly parents. This account serves as a lesson in the importance of discussing openly and clearly how people wish to be treated as their end nears. It is also an uplifting story, demonstrating it is possible for family and friends to support each other without resentment. I wonder if Alison realises quite how amazing – how unusual – many would find this.
Much is decided by others who think they know best for both children and the elderly – creating lasting repercussions for all involved. With death the final act for all who live, setting out one’s wishes in advance makes good sense. As Alison points out, it also removes a burden from those who must make affecting decisions at such a difficult time, and then live with the impact.
This is a tale that spills over with love, relish and appreciation. A recommended read for all who must deal with the dying. A reminder to live until death.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.