I don’t really consider myself a literary critic, so sometimes I read reviews on Amazon or GoodReads. Even though I don’t write traditional reviews, I find reading what others say sometimes helps me find a way in to a critique. In the case of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life reading reviews was a good reminder to me to focus on the book, not the person. One reviewer gave the book two stars because she disagreed with the author’s (and her husband’s) decision regarding Silvan’s life. Several other reviewers gave a one star or a two star because—well I don’t know why, they didn’t actually “write” a review, just clicked.
I read grief memoirs to study the craft, to learn how authors write about and make meaning of grief, which literary tools they use to tell a story, and which may serve me in my work. I examine the structure, the verb tense, voice and the use of image, and all kinds of nerdy writer stuff. I also look at how the author makes personal grief about something more. (I’m really not maudlin, but reading about others’ grief also reminds me that I am not alone.)
Monica Wesolowska successfully turned her writing not only into a beautifully crafted memorial of her son’s too-brief life, but she has something important to say about end-of -life decisions, or in the case of Holding Silvan, the beginning of life, the quality of life….many things we will all need to grapple with as medical science becomes more and more advanced. Whether as in Wesolowska’s case we’ll have to decide appropriate treatment for a baby born with extensive brain damage, or we’re faced with making decisions about care for an elderly parent or spouse who’d experienced a trauma, we can only hope we can make these decisions with love as Wesolowska and her family did.
There are so many things I could talk about in regards to this book: use of tense, the narrative voice, reflection vs. exposition vs. scene, concise and controlled prose, but instead I’ll focus on the opening, and connecting the personal to the universal.
IN THE BEGINNING….
In creative writing workshops we often discuss how the opening of a book tells you how to read the rest of the book…. From the opening of Holding Silvan we understand that Wesolowska is grappling with Big Issues.
In the morning, the phone next to my hospital bed rings. Stepping from the shower, my skin scrubbed of the sweat and blood of yesterday’s triumphant labor, I slip past David to pull on my old robe and head for the phone. I’m not worried. I’m expecting another friend, a relative, more words of congratulations to match my sudden pleasure in my baby—a healthy, full-term boy who waits for me in the nursery—but the woman on the other end is a stranger.
….. She says she needs to clear up some confusion about the spelling my name before the transfer. I, too, am confused. When I tell the stranger that I don’t understand, that I am about to go down the hall to collect my baby because it’s time to nurse, she says, “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, darling.”
With these vague but tender words, the ecstatic glow of motherhood that had surrounded me since Silvan’s birth begins to fade.
We know something is terribly wrong. And while at this point we don’t yet know the extent of the problem. We are primed. And we know a major themes of the book is: the struggle between expectations and reality.
THE PERSONAL IS THE UNIVERSAL….
One of the ways that Wesolowska relates her personal story to the larger issues is by use of an historical event: the right to die (or more specifically the right to withhold treatment) case of Karen Ann Quinlan. In 1975 when Quinlan fell into a coma her parents fought in court to have the right to remove her breathing tube.
Wesolowska recalls all the dining room talk about this case during the seventies and how as a teen she wrote about euthanasia for a school report. Later she considers the Quinlan case in light of the decision she and her husband made:
We know that, though Karen Ann Quinlan’s parents were acting simply out of love for their child, their legal battle has made things better for us. Because of them, we were able to take that first step of removing Silvan’s breathing tube. And because Quinlan survived the removal of her tube and went on to live for years in a coma before she finally died of pneumonia, some other family with some other comatose loved one must have fought for the right to remove artificial hydration and nutrition as well. Perhaps, we think, Silvan’s life and death will have had greater purpose if his death allows future children to die more easily than he is. (p. 123)
Wesolowska’s use of the Quinlan case reminds me of a creative writing exercise in Judith Barrington’s book wonderful book, Writing Memoir. Barrington suggests the writer think of an event of historical or cultural importance. Write about the event, what you remember, where were you when it happened, how your family reacted, and write about how the event changed your understanding of the world and/or of yourself…. I think Wesolowska’s book is a great example of employing this technique in memoir and it allows her as narrator the opportunity to expand on her personal beliefs and the legal issues surrounding end-of-life care.
When my mother died in 1978 at the age of 42 we had our own end-of-life challenges. We kept her home, rather than in a hospital. This was before hospice and in defiance of the advice of doctors, but mom didn’t want to die in a hospital. In 1994 when my grandma (in her 80s) was diagnosed with cancer she chose to not do chemo and as she neared the end of her life we kept her home, but with the support of hospice. When Granddad died at the age of 94, extraordinary medical intervention wasn’t really considered even though we all loved him dearly and would have kept him around for another hundred years if we could have. And my dad died suddenly at the age of 73 (though not unexpectedly given the state of his health). Because we live and love, end-of-life care decisions always hover under the surface of our lives. I am thankful that I’ve not had to make one of those tough decisions, but I’m not naive enough to think I won’t ever have to.
To that two-star reviewer I say, I hope you never have to face the kind of decision that Wesolowska faced, but if you do, I hope you’ll remember this book, and think about what it truly means to love someone. I know I will.