Jeffrey Berman's new book, Dying to Teach, is wrenching, but leaves us filled with empathy. This book is many things at once. It shows Berman, author of Risky Writing: Self Disclosure and Self Transformation in the Classroom and The Talking Cure, as an insightful reader of texts. After his wife's death, he is inspired to talk back to the writers who have dealt with death and to tell them what they have grasped or failed to grasp: he engages with books like Quindlen's One True Thing, Hemmingway's Farewell to Arms, and the play, Wit.
But Dying to Teach, besides exploring literary examples of death and dying, is also deeply personal. It shows him as a husband enduring a terrible loss-the agonizingly drawn out death of his wife, Barbara, from pancreatic cancer. He tells us how he cared for her during her illness, through all the ups and downs of experimental treatment. His love for her comes through on every page as he reviews their life together. He says their mutual love was never stronger or expressed more often than during her illness. He felt blessed to be able to care for her, and sleep next to her every night holding her hand.
One senses how they functioned as a couple and how tenaciously she clung to her life, hating the thought of leaving him. He gratefully admits her capacities as a helpmate. He makes it clear that aside from her life as a teacher, she had a multitude of talents and hobbies. She created a stained glass chandelier. She made her daughter's wedding dress. She even got out of bed to fix broken toilet weeks before her death, astonishing her home aide. She is clearly the most practical of the pair.
When there no longer hope, we see her courage and love, reflected in her diary entries, as she tries to prepare herself for death and her husband for separation. Much as she wants to live, she concentrates on giving her husband the means to carry on. When one of her daughters asks her if she is ready to die she says, with a touch of whimsy, "Well, I think Dad knows all the important recipes." His book, intertwining his words and hers, is both a memorial to her and a last attempt to survive his grief.
Berman tries to keep her alive through words. While caring for her, he secretly consumes books on death and dying; terrified by a doctor's detailed account of how we die, he reads everything about healing through writing. With his students at the university he is able to smile. Teaching itself brings relief from intolerable feelings. In one of the book's most striking moments, Berman writes a eulogy for Barbara just before her death and reads it to his class. As long as he writes about her, she is with him. His students say his candor enables them to explore their own emotions towards death and to imagine taking risks in their personal writing that they wouldn't have been able to before. One says: "you have taught me more about life in this one class than I have learned throughout my time in college."
Berman brings up issues which are becoming increasingly relevant as the population ages. Death is no longer a taboo subject in America and there is much discussion about end of life questions. Berman deals with many of them. He gives rich praise to hospice aides who make it possible for him to care for her at home. He struggled with the idea of assisted suicide. When Barbara asked him to give her a fatal dose of morphine he could not bring himself to do it. Later, he wondered if he had done the right thing. No doubt this is a difficult book, but it is a brave one: not only about dying, but about love and family and one man's way of surviving a catastrophic loss.
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Berman, Jeffrey. Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love,
Loss, and Learning. Albany: SUNY Press, 2007
PEN American Center West,
Online Publication Date: 01 June 2008
To cite this Article: WEBSTER, BRENDA (2008) 'Berman, Jeffrey. Dying to
Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning. Albany: SUNY Press, 2007',
Women's Studies, 37:4, 428 - 429
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/00497870802050035
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Women's Studies, 37:428-429, 2008
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0049-7878 print / 1547-7045 online
Women's Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4, Mar 2008: pp. 0-0
Berman, Jeffrey. Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning
Albany: SUNY Press, 2007.
BRENDA WEBSTER PEN American Center West
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