Monday, April 7, 2008

Susan Sontag

Writer and essayist Susan Sontag was perceptive and intelligent to the point of being intimidating, but death is the great leveler. Her son, David Rieff, has just published a memoir of Sontag's final months after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. He writes not only of her reactions to the news, and the way she prepared herself for death, but also about his thoughts and feelings. What should he say? What should he do? How should he react?

These are questions we all face when confronted with the illness and death of a friend or loved one, and Rieff's book - Swimming in a Sea of Death - is sad and gripping without being maudlin. When you're suddenly put in the position of being the emotional caregiver for a parent, it feels very strange. All your life you have regarded this person as the one who consoles you, who comforts you, who protects you; is anyone ever mentally prepared to take on a role that seems to belong to someone else? Intellectually, we're fully aware that our parents will die one day and that the time will come when we have to take care of them. But I think it is always a shock when that day comes, and it's hard not to feel unsure of oneself. Rieff's book conveys this message beautifully in thoughtful prose. You can feel his affection and respect for his mother come through the pages to you, and I imagine Sontag would be very touched by his musings.

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