I read Anna Quindlen’s book One True Thing a very long time ago, shortly after it was first published in 1994. The reason I picked this book is because I still vividly remember it to this day. One True Thing is the story of Kate Gulden, diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, and her daughter Ellie, who leaves her life in New York to take care of her mother. Everything Kate experiences in the months leading up to her death is vividly portrayed. As her physical condition declines, Kate gradually experiences loss after loss – her independence, social life, friends, mobility and finally her dignity. Each loss tears out a piece of her heart. Once she can no longer live in a way that she loves, Kate begins to actively die. There is a poignant scene between Kate and Ellie that occurs when Kate cannot get out of the bathtub and is forced to allow Ellie to help her. Kate is devastated by the condition of her body and by the fact that Ellie has to see her like that. Ellie and her father then must face the ethical dilemma of what to do about Kate’s suffering at the end of her life.
I think this book was the first realistic description of the process of dying I had ever read. I didn’t clearly understand that death can be a slow, agonizing march to the finish. At that point in my life I had never personally experienced death in that way. It would be several years before I went through a very similar experience with my mother. In a way, this book helped me understand some of the physical, mental and emotional struggles a dying person deals with. It gave me a clear picture of what death really looks like.
I think unrealistic portrayals of death are misleading and potentially harmful. It is difficult to watch someone you love die. If you are ill-prepared or misinformed, the experience can be overwhelming. Death and dying is rarely quick, painless or clean. The breakdown and failure of the mind and body is a hard thing to witness.
I think the media makes it easy for us to eavesdrop on death. We can treat death as something that happens to other people. We can read a news story and not have to really think about our own death or the death of someone close to us. The ideal life in America is the antithesis of death, so it is not surprising that our society avoids dealing with death whenever possible.
I do think our society is a death-denying culture. Anna Quindlen touches on that very thing in the book. Kate’s friends cannot acknowledge her progressive decline because it would mean they had to “acknowledge the disease, and the fears, and the dangers, and the death.” As Kate gets closer to death, her friends stop coming to visit because they are uncomfortable in her presence. It is much easier to avoid the dying person rather than to confront our feelings about their death.
I know it is easier to watch the movie (there is one) rather than read the book. The book is always better, almost without fail. I encourage you to take the time to read this book. You won’t soon forget it.
For more information about the book, Anna Quindlen posted a question and answer session about the writing of One True Thing on her website http://annaquindlen.net/one-true-thing/. Her other books are great, too!