What happens when you die?
Part memoir, part poetry and part philosophy, Eve Joseph’s latest book, In the Slender Margin (HarperCollins 2014) looks at death through the lens of history, religion, literature, myth and pop culture.
July 30th, 2014
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Sheryl MacKay of CBC’s North by Northwest as she speaks candidly with Eve about her book.
Sheryl: How would you define your book, In the Slender Margin?
Eve: It’s a book about thinking, about exploring my thoughts on death. Having worked in that field for a long time and not coming up with any answers, I was curious about what it all meant.
Sheryl: I’d like to start with something at the end of the book, the last paragraph in the acknowledgements. It says, “In a discussion with P.K. Page shortly before her death, we talked about how metaphor, the engine of poetry, is also the language of dying. She was intrigued and asked if I had written about that. This book is my response to P.K.” Can you talk a bit about that conversation and this response?
Eve: Going to P.K. ‘s place was like no other on earth that I know. I would get there and at first P.K. would make tea and we’d have cookies. Then she’d say about halfway into our meeting, ‘And what are you drinking today? Is it scotch?” Usually it was. She’d get out the vodka and the scotch and we would just spend hours talking about everything. Once we started talking about metaphor and I said, “You know, metaphor is the language that the dying use. It’s not direct language.” She looked at me really directly, in the way P.K. does, and she said, “Have you written about that?” It wasn’t even a question it was more of a command.
Sheryl: I can imagine that.
Eve: I hadn’t written about it but I started to. The book grew out of an essay, and I started to write more about death. The surprising thing is, I was writing about the concept of hospice, and my brother entered the book. I hadn’t expected that. P.K. read the essay shortly before she died so I had a sense that she knew a little bit of what was coming.
Sheryl: I want to jump back to the idea of metaphor as the language of dying. What do you mean by that?
Eve: It’s an intriguing mystery to me. For example, someone might say, “Yeah, I’ve packed my bags. I’m ready to go. The cab isn’t here yet.” or “You know the yellow taxi outside my door? It’s got the wrong address, but I’m going to go anyway.” Over and over, you hear metaphoric language. You have to listen well. If someone says, “I want to go home,” that may mean they want to go home to die and sleep in their own bed. It can also mean, I want to go home somewhere else. I remember a young woman saying, “Where will I live when they jackhammer my street?” If you understand that language, you can enter it.
Sheryl: So often, if we’re sitting with someone who says something like that, we think their mind is wandering.
Eve: Exactly. They’re hallucinating or the medications have… but where will you go when they jackhammer your street? You may not have an answer, but you can enquire, “I don’t know, where will you go?” Someone might tell you. We might find out.
Sheryl: When you started working in hospice care more than 20 years ago, you kind of fell into it, didn’t you?
Eve: I fell into it. I was a new social worker, with two kids, and I lived a couple of blocks from hospice. My youngest was a year old; my eldest was six. As I say in the book, we were broke. At that time, I was married to a Coast Salish carver who made his living carving totem poles in our driveway. I’d just graduated, and heard that there was an opening at hospice. I had never thought about working with the dying. At that time, this was not some great calling, but it became a calling to me.
Sheryl: Those were early days for hospice.
Eve: It was1985. The Victoria Hospice and the thinking about hospice had not been around in Canada for a long time. I remember I filled in the application, had a great interview and went home. I didn’t think, “This is marvellous; I’m going to work with the dying.” I thought, “I could come home for lunch.” I had no conception of what it might mean to work with the dying.
Eve: It was like being immersed in another culture. It was as though I had moved somewhere I didn’t speak the language. In those early days, I was shocked by death. I didn’t know what to do with it. But I was working with people who were astonishing. They were completely at home with death and that was remarkable to see.
Sheryl: Tell me about the idea of listening in a particular way and being ready to follow where a person is leading you.
Eve: Yes, I had to learn that. One of the first people that I met was a woman who was dying of bone cancer. She was a young woman and her ribs were cracking. When she rolled over, her ribs cracked one a rib at a time. I was horrified. Jo Dixon was head counsellor at hospice in those days. She first helped me understand metaphor. She said, “The bones cracking are the way that this woman will eventually leave her body, will eventually get free of this body.” That’s a big thing to say. She spoke with the patient and worked with her on this. For the patient, it meant that as opposed to feeling that every time she rolled over, she was being destroyed, she could now make some sense of how she would leave this cage of hers, this body of hers.
Sheryl: That makes me think of the passage on hope that you wrote about. I’d love you to read that, and talk about the idea of hope in the context of living with a terminal illness.
Eve: To speak about hope can be tricky. We’re told not to lose it. As if it were a thing we might misplace if we’re not careful, like our passports or keys. We’re told we must have it and that we can’t live without it and that it’s still there even if we can’t see it, like one’s invisible childhood friend. Hope and prayer are often linked together. When faced with serious challenges, we might say, I hope and pray that things work out. Prayer, unlike hope, looks to a higher power to intervene, but hope is earthbound, a kind of secular prayer. Recently, I read an article by Dr. Martin Scurr, a medical columnist for the Daily Mail, in which he wrote, “Should I discover tomorrow that I have advanced life-threatening cancer, I won’t go rushing to the doctors for a heavily invasive course of medical treatment. No, I will shut up my London surgery, head to my home in Norfolk, stock up on gin and tonic and have a really good time until I meet my end.” Doctors it seems, base their hope on what they’ve seen. They know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. The rest of us are often unsure what to base our hopes on. A fine scotch whisky, I think, is a good start. The language of terminal illness is characterized by hopelessness. There is nothing left to do. There is no hope for a cure. It’s hopeless, people think, and are often told. What I found over time was that hope changes. Sometimes meaning is found in the last weeks moving slowly towards death and reconciliation, or an opportunity to speak about things not spoken about before; in celebrating a last birthday or the birth of a child. We are hard-wired for hope. Illness itself is hope’s alchemist. At the beginning with the initial diagnosis, the hope is for a cure. Over time as a person loses any quality of life, when they’re unresponsive, or in intractable pain, hope may be for an end to suffering. Viktor Frankl believed it was possible to find ways to create meaning out of suffering. Meaning is not something handed down from God in Frankl’s opinion; rather it is to be found in our own human responses to tragedy. When a good friend of my daughter’s died attempting to rescue a kayaker caught in a whirlpool, the family was devastated but found some solace in the fact that he died trying to save a life. Families of accident victims may find a measure of comfort if their loved ones’ organs can be used. We look for meaning. Our hope is that our loved ones did not die in vain. From the old English hopian, meaning to wish, expect, look forward to something, hope allows us to imagine a future. On the other hand, if we’re not careful, if we’re too focused on what we want to happen, we can miss what is happening right in front of us. Hope can be a thief. It can steal the present moment right out from under our feet.
Sheryl: That is such a thought, hope being a thief, keeping us from being here.
Eve: I think that it’s really true.
Sheryl: It’s wonderful to look forward, but I think that sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
Eve: And sometimes, we don’t want to see what’s right in front of us, too. There’s no easy answer.
Sheryl: Eve, you bring so many parts of your life and your thinking to this book. One of those is talking about Salish practices around death and dying. Your ex-husband is Coast Salish. I’d love to talk about something that you mentioned, the idea of cooking for the dead. It was something that you did for your brother.
Eve: I did.
Sheryl: That was years later. Can you talk about that?
Eve: I’m not sure that I could have worked hospice had I not been married to somebody who, in this case, a First Nations man, had a whole belief system around death that we do not have in North America. It wasn’t that I took that belief system, but that it made things make sense for me. It intrigued me so much that I wrote my Master’s thesis on Coast Salish Perceptions of Death and Dying in Counselling. I was intrigued by the practical response to suffering. The belief that comes with cooking for the dead is that you know that the dead are hungry, that we, as the living, can still do things for them. The conduit between the living and the dead is a ‘Shaker’, a person who mediates between the world of the living and the dead. On a number of occasions, I have worked with a Shaker and sent over food.
Sheryl: You say in the book that this ceremony has such a deep meaning, the act of doing something for the dead.
Eve: It’s so respectful. I think that we’re bereft in a society where we can’t do something for our loved ones.
Sheryl: And it’s getting harder and harder because so many people have decided not to have services.
Eve: I think it is often a practical decision. People don’t want their loved ones to spend money, but I think it’s’ more than that. I think that many people have the idea that they don’t want to cause a fuss, they don’t want to cause suffering. What’s helpful is to be able to do something, to remember, to gather, and to do something.
Sheryl: You speak in the book about people you’ve met who take it upon themselves to make that difference for people who’ve outlived their families, or people who are alone and don’t have anyone to gather around. These people feel that death has to be marked in some way, and they are going to do it.
Eve: There’s a wonderful BBC documentary called, The Lonely Funeral. Twenty-five years ago, a Dutch civil servant, GerFrits became disturbed by the number of people who died anonymously in Amsterdam each year. Either nobody knew these people, or they had outlived everybody. There was nobody left to do something for them. Ger Frits found that troubling, so he started to arrange funerals for them. I think he has three pieces of music that he chooses from. The government, through this program, pays for the casket. Ger goes to the church and has a small service. It used to be just Ger and the undertaker. Ten or twelve years ago, a poet, Frank Starik, heard about these lonely funerals and contacted Ger. He said, “I would like to write a poem.” And Ger said, “No, no, no, no, no. This is not a sentimental thing. This is just about respect.” Starik kept at him until Frits finally said, “Well there’s a funeral on Monday. You can come. You can write a poem.” The poem is on the documentary and it’s stunning. It’s wonderful to write a poem for someone you don’t know, to write a poem that’s based on anonymity, but catches what it is for that person to have walked the earth.
Sheryl: And you found one woman in B.C. doing a similar thing.
Eve: I did. It completely surprised me. I’ve worked in the ICU at Victoria General Hospital and a few times a year, someone will come in who has nobody, or we can’t find out who they are. I phoned Royal Oak Cemetery and spoke with a woman there. I fully expected to hear that what happened was that these people were placed in unmarked graves. The woman I spoke with does a similar thing in Victoria to what they do in Amsterdam. She holds a little service. She makes sure that these graves have markers, and she treats these people with enormous respect.
Sheryl: It’s interesting because as we were mentioning, when it’s somebody in your own family, having a ceremony, or a service to mark their passing is so important for the people who are left behind. In those cases, it’s a social thing too, to mark the life that’s been.
While working at the Victoria Hospice, Eve Joseph of Brentwood Bay published a series of variations on the Persian literary form of the ghazal, The Startled Heart (Oolichan, 2004). This debut collection marries the spiritual and physical worlds as Joseph explores grief and loss and the process of dying. It was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize.
Her second collection The Secret Signature of Things (Brick 2010) evokes and explores the process of attaining epiphanies. It was also nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. In a long poem called ‘Tracking’ she struggles with the question of how to remember many missing aboriginal women on the West Coast.
In the Slender Margin (HarperCollins $21.99), Joseph’s third book, is part memoir, part meditation on death. The early demise of her brother coupled with twenty years of work at a hospice give Joseph ‘an insider’s point of view’. Using references ranging from Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and D.H. Lawrence to Voltaire, Joseph writes about the mysterious and at times horrendous aspect of what she has observed of this life stage.
Born in 1953, Eve Joseph grew up in North Vancouver. As a young woman she worked on freighters and travelled widely, then received an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. She has been nominated for many awards, including a National Magazine Award and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. Her non-fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and she received the P.K Page Founder’s Award for Poetry.
The Startled Heart (Oolichan, 2004)
The Secret Signature of Things (Brick 2010) 978-1-894078-81-8 $19
In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Dying (HarperCollins 2014) $21.99 978-1-44342-671-8