Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susan Moreira Marques, a reflection and review

We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.

Last month, my brothers and I made a most difficult decision about our father who was, at the time facing a cluster of serious complications resulting from a stroke and car accident. Four days earlier we had gathered around our mother’s bedside as the respirator that was barely keeping her breathing was removed. Within four hours she was gone. After agreeing to discontinue treatment of our father, he would continue to live, slowly dying, for another week. As I kept vigil day after day I tried to remind myself that there was a time when death was allowed to take its course, in the home, even as so-called “normal” life would begin to spin, a troubled satellite, around the dying person. Death was part of life, not something that happened elsewhere, surrounded by tubes and machinery. Although my dad remained in the hospital until the end, he was moved to a quiet, private room where he was kept comfortable, free of pain, and cared for by the nursing staff. As a family we were supported and respected. It wasn’t easy, and we’re all still numbed and distorted in our grieving, but if there is such a thing as a good death, I think that both of my parents had good deaths, if good means having a chance to say I love you, over and over and over until the end.

nowdeathWhen I first started to read Susana Moreira Marques’ Now and at the Hour of Our Death, I wondered if I was too raw, too plagued with second thoughts about the decisions we had made, to be able to surrender to a lyrical and experimental essay about death and dying. This book had been sitting on my shelves since it arrived last year with my And Other Stories subscription, several times I had opened it but somehow the time was not right. I suppose the book was waiting for me.

Over the course of five months in 2011, Marques made several visits to a palliative care project in rural north-east Portugal. She accompanied a team of health care professionals as they traveled from village to village to assist those on their final journeys, allowing them to be able die, as comfortably as possible, in their own homes; and along the way she recorded her own observations, collected anecdotes, and listened to the stories of the people she met. The result is powerful meditation dying, as a lived experience shared by a family, a community.

The first half of the book is fragmentary in style and form, blending facts and definitions, character sketches, brief stream-of-conscious like passages, pieces of wisdom—all presented with a quiet dignity in lucid, affecting prose:

The swallows have already built their nests above the back door; this is how they do it every year. They are useful birds, and beautiful, and have always been a favourite of his. But now he watches them as he never has before, because he might not see another spring.

*

AGONY: 1. The last struggle against death. 2. [Figurative] Anguish, affliction. 3. An imminent conclusion (preceded by a great disturbance).

‘Agony,’ the dictionary does not note, is a technical term.

*

Immortal in the morning. At night, the fear of never waking.

*

Lands, roads, people, time, time, people, roads, land. What matters here is different, very different.

The second half of the book, entitled “Portraits”, offers a closer look at three individual stories. Here Marques becomes a gentle presence as she describes each situation, then she steps back and lets those involved have their say. There is Paula, a woman with a young family, who is dying of cancer. She speaks with a brave spirit about how she and her husband had taken their time, waiting to have their second child, assuming they had “all the time in the world.” She will only have another year to live at the time that her thoughts are recorded. Then we meet João and Maria, a couple in their 80s who reminisce about their years in Angola. Both are ill, yet neither feels that they are ready to die, they live for visits from their children and grandchildren, and each one fears being the one left behind.

Finally, in the third portrait, the dying person is silent by the time Marques meets the family. While their father Rui lies on his death bed, his adult daughters, Elisa and Sara, each respond in their own way in his final months, the latter driving home from France every fortnight to spend time with him and her mother. Their own accounts follow his death, capturing the early weeks of grief, anger and regret. Very different in temperament, the sisters respond in their own ways to the loss, but for each of them it is the first time they have come up against the close experience with death and it is a leveling experience. Sara realizes she had never appreciated the magnitude of what others she had known would have been going through when they lost a parent, regretting that she had failed to say anything. I can’t help but feel that that is a common occurrence. Nothing but the death of a close friend or family member prepares you for the experience. Elisa, on the other hand, is surprised to find that she is unable to shriek and scream in anguish the way her sister and mother do when her father finally passes:

. . . I couldn’t react. It must have been two months before I cried. It’s really hard for me to cry. And now I’ve finally started crying, but only because I’ll get all worked up over something minor, and then I might cry a little out of frustration. But when it happened – and the atmosphere at our house was just so strange . . . It took me a long time to realize what was going on.

The final section, a single page long, is a guide for “When you come back from the journey no healthy person wants to take,” a list of the ways “you”, that is anyone who survives the death of a loved one, can be expected to act. . . paying attention to time, the things and people that are precious, the bridges that need to be mended and, simply, endeavouring to live well. I hope I can follow this wisdom even if, at the moment, I am inclined to relate to Elisa’s reaction, with grief coming in angry outbursts more than tears.

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Now and at the Hour of Our Death is translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches and published by And Other Stories.

 

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susan Moreira Marques, a reflection and review”

  1. Its incredibly brave of you to read this given how fresh your own experience is and how raw the emotions. The subject matter alone would make it powerful but the way it’s written would have me an emotional wreck. That phrase ‘all the time in the world’ really struck a nerve with me since I was diagnosed earlier in the year with cancer. You suddenly think about all the things that you could have done, all the time you wasted on frivolity believing that there would come a time when you could devote to the real stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really feel that reading like this is important right now. You need to know that what you are feeling is normal. Talking to others helps but sometimes the engagement with words through reading is more effective – you can put a book aside, you can return and re-read sections. I’m so sorry to hear of your cancer diagnosis. I know my own very close brush with death when I had an unexpected pulmonary embolism/cardiac arrest last year has had a huge impact on what I feel is important now.
      Best wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As long as the reading works for you I’m glad. You’ve been through a horrid year with the cardiac scare and then the death of your parents. Astonishing really what the human being can withstand

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  2. My thoughts have been with you recently Joe, and though the loss of two parents so closes together is devastating, hopefully in time there will be relief that their passing was the best it could be. My father had had several strokes over the years and his quality of life had been declining – so when the end came last year, although it was probably the worst thing that had happened in my life, I take comfort in the fact that it was quick (around 20 minutes from the time they told me he was likely to go) and that he was surrounded by kindness. I’ve heard of too many people lingering for months in a state of suffering – that’s no way for humans to be treated. I think I might still be too raw for this book though I think I need to take on board the fact that we should live each day to the full. Take care. X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen. I am glad that we were all able to be with our parents and let them know we loved them. My youngest brother had been on difficult terms with dad over the past year so he especially needed the closure of being able to spend time at his bedside. It’s so complicated when we lose our parents, regardless of how close or challenging the relationship. This book is more about dying than grieving and, in a way, it ends on a very life affirming note. Worth reading I would say.

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  3. Both you and your brothers were so brave in taking the decision that you did. I’m sure that it must still be very raw for you all. We find it so hard to think about death in the richer part of the world and have a great need for books like this. I hope that you found solace in it, difficult as it must have been to read it.

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    1. It is a beautiful book and, like you suggest, important. It is unfortunate that this type of traveling palliative team is not a more widely used model. Even though there are hospices and palliative care units, there are people who feel more at ease spending their final days in their own homes.

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    1. Thanks Stefanie. The best one can do is to trust you are following your loved one’s wishes. Doesn’t make it easier but I trust we were not wrong and in his lucid moments he said nothing to make us believe otherwise.

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  4. I am glad you were able to read this – finding that one sentence which resonates with your experience makes the reading of literature, however difficult, worthwhile. I also found the final section particularly moving, and admired the writer’s unblinking bravery (as I admire yours).

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    1. Thanks Grant. I remember when you read it and at the time I was still coming to terms with my own near death experience and did not feel ready for it. I guess the book was waiting for me.

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  5. Thank you Cathy. Because my parents’ death overlapped, my dad did not know that mom had been taken into the hospital and died. When he was more lucid he would ask about her and I had to keep trying to explain that she was gone. It was so painful, but I also know he would have been at a complete loss without her. Somehow we believe they must have been destined to go closely like this.

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