Friday, August 31, 2018

Book Review: My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die by Kevin Toolis

by Rebecca Gagne Henderson (@RebeccaGagne)

The tone and theme of this book is set with the profound and moving epigraph from the Iliad:

“The generations of men are like generations of leaves. The wind scatters one year’s leaves on to the earth, but when Spring comes the luxuriant forest produces other leaves; so it is with generations of men, one grows as the other comes to an end”. Iliad 6 --145

The book is titled My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die. Mr. Toolis is a writer, journalist and award-winning filmmaker and documentarian. His family has lived for two centuries in a small seaside village on the Irish Isle of Achill. His childhood in a provincially engrained Irish island culture coupled with his expanding cosmopolitan world experience influences a broadening view of life and death culture. This Homeric journey through the author’s memoirs of witnessing death experiences in a variety of circumstances is written through a decidedly Western and Celtic prism. He blends the realities of his real-world journalistic experiences of war, famine, natural disaster and death with an elegant overlay of the humanities and culture.

Toolis offers us an historic autobiography of the wake through the ages, but it is much more than that alone. He reminds us of what we have lost and surrendered to medicine and technology, or as he refers to it; “The Western Death Machine”. While we palliative care types attempt to imbue sacredness at the bedside which should accompany each death, it is only a sad token -- a shadow -- of what was once a familial and communal sacrament. His depiction of the ancient ritual of the wake and other customs is not sentimental, but an unflinching description of death, grief, and mourning. He draws an analogy between physical exercise and the wake as training for our own deaths -- a way to help us exercise our own anxiety of death. The book follows the author's personal experiences with family members dying through his childhood and young adult life. His description of the collective experience of his father’s death, wake and funeral are poetic and unforgettable. The book then moves to innovative illustrations of death in our current Western culture which may be novel even to us in palliative care.

As an American of Irish-Mexican descent (please recall the affinity that the Mexican people have with death, dying and ancestors), even I learned of ancient rituals and terminology related to death, dying and grief. Over 25 years I of working in palliative care I recognize many of these rituals as they transcend culture and are simply human, for example, the term “keening” which is used to describe wailing women. Toolis explains that often times keening women are hired to wail and “sing” at wakes. This behavior can be seen at Egyptian funerals as coffins are marched through the streets to a final resting place. The description of keening women evoked a memory of an experience I had several years ago. We had been caring for a young West African, Muslim man. As he was nearing death his sister began to wail and fall to the floor. It occurred to me that she was “falling out”. “Falling out” is a grief reaction which I had previously only witnessed in some African-American traditions and communities. This response demonstrates a possible shared cultural grief characteristic which managed to survive hardship and separation over centuries, oceans, and continents and illustrates how deeply culture runs within our human experience. As we all know, there is more we have in common than there are differences.

The author’s experience as a journalist covering many incidents of death, war and terrorism forms his view of death, which may also happen with our work in hospice or palliative care. We wonder about our own deaths; after all of this, will we be the ones to suffer terminal agitation, denial and death anxiety? Toolis describes this phenomenon with aplomb and reflects our own fears, dreams and nightmares.

My Father's Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love, and die is a beautifully written work which deserves our attention. There are portions of this book which should be required reading for medical and nursing students. My hope is that many of you will read this book and share your thoughts.

Rebecca Gagne Henderson is a palliative APRN in CT. All work and no play makes Rebecca a very dull girl. When not at work Rebecca is occupied with her PhD work. Perhaps she will finish by retirement age which is two years closer than my last post.

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Photo credit: Graveyard by Kevin Toolis, used with permission.

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