Tag Archives: memoir

Beginning the End-of-Life Discussion

CBR_Logo2Hope for a Cool Pillow
by Margaret Overton

Physician Margaret Overton experiences two sides of the same coin in Hope for a Cool Pillow, her new memoir, which tackles disparate views of healthcare.

HopeForACoolPillow_cover_paperbackOverton, a Chicagoan whose first memoir, Good in a Crisis, was one of Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2014, examines the deaths of her parents, which she experiences both as a daughter and as a physician, one eye on the experience as a loved one, one eye on the experience as a medical professional. This dual view is at the heart of Hope for a Cool Pillow, which looks at the emotional, medical, financial, physical, legal, and logistical aspects of the end-of-life journey.

The book opens with a reminiscence of Overton’s early healthcare career as she shares a story from her first clinical rotation during her third year of medical school. Working with a 102-year-old patient named Esther, Overton admires her “quiet aplomb” and approves of the do-not-resuscitate order that would keep doctors from undertaking any emergency rescue measures to keep her alive. This, Overton thinks, “is the way to go”—death without extraordinary intervention to extend someone’s life. “A quiet death without fuss or muss.”

It is through this lens that we follow Overton on her dual journey, one of a healthcare professional, one of a daughter watching her parents come to the end of their lives.

Her father was the first of her parents to go. An orderly man, Carl “had an obsessive interest in end-of-life planning.” Here was a man who, every day for forty-five years, “timed his four-and-a-half-mile drive to and from work.” In 1997, Carl’s health went into decline. Over the next several months, Carl would be in and out of the hospital for various check-ups, surgeries, treatments, and chemotherapy. By Autumn 1998, he had died.

Twelve years later, Overton’s mother passed away, also after a period of declining health. Dementia set in, and during her last year of life, she succumbed quickly, a difficult death wherein pain “just gripped her and then let her go.”

During the twelve years that intervened between the passing of her father and her mother, healthcare had evolved such that hospice had become big business. While her father lay dying, Overton’s family dealt with one hospice nurse who took care of Carl for nearly three weeks. For her mother, seven different nurses cared for her over the course of nearly a month. It was an unwelcome change in Overton’s eyes, a transformation to a less personal, more clinical process that extended life without necessarily making end of life any better or any easier.

Margaret Overton by John Reilly

Margaret Overton

While we watch Overton deal with the deaths of her parents, we also see her grow in her career as a physician. We see her treat various patients, some of whom make it, some of whom don’t. We see her attend a program called “Managing Healthcare Delivery” at Harvard University, a course in which she quickly loses interest as she ponders the gulf between healthcare providers and patients, between for-profit and not-for-profit care, between easing death and extending life.

There is much to ponder in these pages. End-of-life planning—how we want our wills and finances to be structured, how we want our lives to end, how much medical intervention we wish to endure—is a tricky, personal issue. It’s one most of us don’t want to think about, not for ourselves, not for our parents. And, yet, with the rising cost of healthcare and with the expansion of life-saving measures, it’s something we must think about.

Overton’s story is interesting, if not perhaps somewhat fragmented. Told in a non-linear fashion, Hope for a Cool Pillow jumps around from topic to topic. It’s a little messy and convoluted. It feels a little foggy, as though Overton was struggling to come to grips with the various issues that she confronted during the decade or so covered in the book.

That might be a turn-off for some readers, but it’s not necessarily a flaw. In fact, one could argue that the wandering, choppy approach is just about as real as real can be: It mimics life.

Few of us have the luxury of dealing with the death of a parent in a bubble or a vacuum. The rest of life doesn’t stop while a parent is struggling with cancer or Alzheimer’s or heart disease. The world doesn’t stop turning while we endure the hefty tolls exacted by the process of dying and the aftermath of death.

Death is, for most of us, an uncomfortable topic. In Hope for a Cool Pillow, Overton has shared an intimate insider’s view of different sides of the healthcare equation. As such, it is a thought-provoking read. Perhaps not a comfortable read, but one that provides an opportunity to think about the unthinkable, opening the door for those discussions we know we ought to be having with the people we love.

Three-Star Review

March 2016, Outpost 19
$16, paperback, 181 pages
ISBN: 978-1-937402-90-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the author and the book.



Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction

A Life Lived Thoroughly

CBR_Logo2Black Dove:
Mama, Mi’jo and Me

by Ana Castillo

Best known for her fiction and poetry, Ana Castillo takes a retrospective look at her life in Black Dove: Mama, Mi’jo and Me, a collection of essays. While some of essays were previously published throughout the years, most were written specifically for this collection. All of them weave together to tell Castillo’s life story and that of the two people who have changed her life the most: her mother and her son.

castillo black doveUnsurprisingly to readers familiar with Castillo’s work, she devotes much of this collection to the strong women in her family. Readers get a glimpse of Castillo’s migratory origins, starting with her mother, who was born in Nebraska but forced to move back to Mexico in poverty. Castillo’s own Chicago upbringing goes back to a time of youth protest (e.g., the Vietnam War), Martin Luther King’s murder, and Iceberg Slim novels. We learn of Castillo’s humble, working-class roots, her early will to explore worlds outside of herself, and parents who, despite wanting the best for their children, remained distant after their long days as factory workers.

A few essays later, following Castillo’s turbulent entrance into young womanhood, she discusses her struggles as a single, feminist mother raising a son. The journey to nurture a child in a world hostile to black and brown children proves to be a rocky one. Moments of pride mingle with moments of fear and anguish, the culmination of which is revealed when her son, whom she affectionately calls Mi’jo, is sentenced to jail time. Castillo ends the book by coming full circle with the end of her mother’s life and the end of her role as a daughter.

Black Dove is equal parts memoir and family portrait. Castillo narrates her full life with humor and a touch of self-deprecation. Describing a near-death experience in “When I Died in Oaxaca,” Castillo writes, “I may have just suffered the humiliation as a Mexican American not knowing who the Mexican president was at the hour of my death but that didn’t mean my lover had to start treating me like a total gringa.”

If Castillo can’t make sense of life’s events, she can at least make some light of them. Her essays describe injustice in its many forms (e.g., the immigrant’s exploited labor, police surveillance, the prison industrial complex). Castillo also navigates her many identities, each one with its own triumphs and heartbreaks. As a daughter, Castillo reflects on her yearning to know and be close to her mother. As a mother, Castillo reflects on her yearning to prepare and protect her son—now grown with a family—as she knows how, and whether that is enough. As a Chicana, Castillo reflects on her own breed of American. Those identities merely scratch the surface of a complex, dynamic individual.

black doveGiven the largely chronological order of the essays, a few of them seem a touch out of place, such as the piece about Castillo’s near-death experience and a piece toward the end of the book in which she reflects on religion. A few essays may take readers out of the natural flow of Black Dove, though they probably read well on their own.

Even while Castillo writes to us as a woman of many identities, the one she emphasizes most is that of a singular person with a story—a story not necessarily worth more or less than anyone else’s, but one that hopefully stays with people similar and different from her. In the book’s introduction, Castillo addresses other Americans and insists that, in spite of differences in origins or politics, as countrypeople we have more in common than we like to believe.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing that makes Black Dove worth while, but the sincerity in these pages makes Black Dove an accessible read, both for those familiar and those unfamiliar with Castillo’s work.

Three-Star Review

May 2016, The Feminist Press at CUNY
$16.95, paperback, 350 pages
ISBN: 978-1-55861-923-4

—Reviewed by Ola Faleti

Read more about local poet, novelist, and essayist Ana Castillo.



Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction

Inside of a Dog …

CBR_Logo2There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard:
A Life in Pets
by David W. Berner

It’s interesting, the events that end up punctuating our lives, shaping our memories and becoming the stories we tell again and again. For author David Berner, those events are connected by animals, a series of pets in his life from boyhood through his adult years.

hamster dashboardBerner, an award-winning writer from the Chicago area, shares those stories in There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, a collection of eighteen essays that illustrate his “life in pets,” from the collie named Sally he got for his first birthday to a wolf spider named Ralph to a yellow lab named Mike, Berner traces the years of his life through stories of love, loyalty, and loss. He also shares stories about the pets he has shared with his parents and with his own wife and their two sons, from a gecko to a hamster to a turtle. Cats, dogs, rodents, amphibians—Berner’s life has been punctuated with all manner of animal—all of which had lasting effects.

Those who keep pets and those who wish they did will be able to identify with many of the happenings and feelings in these pages. We hear about how Sally the collie may have saved Berner’s life when, as a toddler, he wandered out of his house and down the street in his neighborhood before his dog chased him down, turned him around, and nudged him home, much to the relief—and delight—of his mother. We see as he nurses Nicky the squirrel after finding the bushy-tailed rodent with an injured leg. We learn how toting a turtle home in his golf bag changed his outlook on zoos. Each of these stories serves as a brief vignette that illuminates Berner’s evolution from boy to teen to adult, from child to father, each instance serving as a lesson that taught Berner about life and about himself.

Photo by Patrick Ryan

Photo by Patrick Ryan

Breezy and light, some of the essays in the collection are more touching than others, some more amusing than others. The preface might well be some of the best writing in the book, perfectly capturing what it’s like to own—and love—a pet, regardless of breed or species. All of the stories are thoughtful, going well beyond the ins and outs and highs and lows of pet ownership to consider what our experiences with pets teach us. Two of the best essays bookend the collection. “The Intelligence of Dogs” makes us appreciate what might well be wisdom or nurturing of the animals we care for while “The Real Thing” makes us grateful for the love and loyalty of the pets we share our lives and homes with. The middle of the collection is graced with “The Last Bite,” a poignant reflection on life and death and what it means to lose someone you love, whether two-legged or four-legged. Some of the essays are not as strong. “Piranha Envy,” for example, smacks of one of those you-had-to-be-there stories that isn’t quite as funny or touching in the retelling on paper.

That said, the book features many more hits than misses. As such, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard is easy reading, a short book that, although a quick read, is full of stories and emotions that linger, making us think not just about Berner and his life with pets, but of ourselves and of our own lives with the pets in them and of the deep value and lasting lessons these beautiful, wonderful, loving creatures share with us.

Three-Star Review

May 2015, Dream of Things
$10, paperback, 126 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9908407-1-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the book.

1 Comment

Filed under nonfiction