Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler
|Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: With tenderness and honesty, Ziegler tells the story of her daughter Brittany Maynard's life and death. Diagnosed with a massive brain tumour at age 29, Brittany chose to move to Oregon and end her life in November 2014 using the state's Death with Dignity Act.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: November 2016|
|Publisher: Ebury Press|
|External links: Author's website|
The paperback version of this book is called A Mother's Love
You probably remember the case of Brittany Maynard; it was much in the news in the latter half of 2014. Diagnosed with a massive brain tumour at age 29, Brittany chose to move from her home in California to Oregon so that she could take drugs to end her life at a time of her choosing using that state's Death with Dignity Act. She and her family appeared in documentaries and national news media and gave official testimony to raise awareness about the cause of assisted dying for the terminally ill. A film about her story is also in the works.
The diagnosis came on New Year's Eve 2013, when Dan, Brittany's husband of just over a year, took her to hospital for an excruciating headache. She'd been suffering from bad headaches for a while, but it was still a total shock to learn about the enormous tumour that surgeons suggested had been growing in her head for up to a decade. Remarkably, Brittany's brain had developed so many workarounds that she never knew anything was wrong until the headaches set in. However, Ziegler traces the behaviour patterns that they only learned in hindsight were likely attributable to the tumour: impulsive decisions, reckless adventure travels, insomnia, and multiple degree courses and career paths started and soon abandoned.
Doctors were initially hopeful about Brittany's chances, but when a major surgery removed just 45% of the tumour – which grew rather than shrank in the following weeks – it seemed clear that medicine had reached its limits. From the start Brittany was clear-eyed: she knew that this tumour was going to kill her, and she knew she wanted to get to Oregon right away so that she could die as she chose and not let the tumour rob her of any more of her faculties. It took significantly longer, though, for her family to come around to this plan.
Assisted dying is a controversial subject on which every reader has probably already formed their own ideas, but no matter your views I think you will be touched by this grieving mother's tribute to her daughter. The book rather elegantly alternates chapters from Brittany's medical journey toward death with chapters about her earlier life. Each is headed with the dates and Brittany's age at the time, so it is easy to follow the chronology.
What I most admired about Ziegler's account is that she does not have her rose-tinted spectacles on. She is open about how difficult it was to raise the strong-willed Brittany as a single mother and science teacher turned saleswoman. Especially during Brittany's teen years, there was a lot of tension between them, and Ziegler and her third husband, Gary, often had no idea how best to deal with Brittany's sudden mood shifts and devil-may-care actions.
Even after they all moved to the little yellow house in Oregon where Brittany would die, things were hardly peaceful. Brittany was angry and aggressive, both verbally and physically. Ziegler only later realised that this may have been a result of the medicine used to curb her increasingly frequent seizures. The pair had such bitter arguments that for a while it looked like Brittany would not allow her mother to be present at her deathbed on 1 November.
As a reader you pretty much know how this book ends. I felt slightly let down by the deathbed scene itself, but the tour through Brittany's life is full of singular moments and unforgettable travel experiences. By including e-mails, letters and Facebook updates, Ziegler gives a real sense of her daughter's forceful, exuberant personality.
As the title quote from Mary Oliver's poem 'The Summer Day' asks, 'what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?' Brittany's time on earth lasted less than 30 years, but she lived with abandon. Ziegler, facing her later years without her only child, takes from the experience a determination to remain soft-hearted and live life to the full. This memoir could easily have become mawkish but instead remains dignified: well-structured, balanced, and nicely written. I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic.
[I will mention as a short aside that Brittany's husband Dan plays a noticeably tiny role in this book, and has in fact come forward saying that he does not endorse Ziegler's view of events and believes Brittany wanted him to tell her story instead. This does not cast doubt on the book for me; it seems inevitable that in the aftermath of such highly charged circumstances different people would have different recollections and interpretations.]
Further reading suggestion: On the theme of living life to the full while dying of cancer, we highly recommend A Tour of Bones: Facing Fear and Looking for Life by Denise Inge. For a fictional exploration of the issue, try Right to Die by Hazel McHaffie.
You can read more book reviews or buy Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler at Amazon.com.
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