“We carry them with us.” An interview with Eve Joseph

Posted on April 23, 2012 by

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Eve Joseph is an award-winning Canadian writer whose most recent book is “The Secret Signature of Things.” Her essay “Yellow Taxi” was a runner-up for Creative Nonfiction’s Best Essay Award. In it, Joseph reflects on deaths she has witnessed—both in her personal life and in her years as a hospice worker—and the ways we talk about dying. “Without metaphor how could we understand the man on his deathbed who tells you a yellow cab has pulled up outside his house, and even though the taxi has the wrong address, he says he’ll go anyway?” Interview conducted by Robyn Jodlowski.

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We often think of death in terms of war and battles, even though it’s a fight we all eventually lose. Why do you think our culture fights so hard against death, rather than accept it? For instance, why don’t (as you mention in your essay) kids play with death kits anymore?

I think, on some level, we have always fought death. The instinct to survive is powerful.

In the past, death was a part of everyday life; it wasn’t removed from view. People died in the homes and communities they grew up in and, when they died, their families prepared them for burial. We were on more intimate terms with death. Today, it is much more hidden. People die in care homes or hospitals; funeral homes prepare the bodies and we have come to expect miracles from modern medicine. In “Illness as Metaphor”, Susan Sontag writes about how the language we use in relation to disease has a military flavour: “In radiotherapy, patients are bombarded with toxic rays. Treatment aims to “kill” cancer cells.” We are told we must “fight” against illness with everything in our arsenal. Our very language is a call to battle.

In the past, kids played with death kits—dressing dolls in mourning clothes and practicing funeral marches—as a kind of preparation for loss. When I was young, we dressed Barbie dolls for beach parties and played as if death didn’t exist. These days, I watch my grandson play with action figures who defy death and, if hit in the heart with a death-ray, simply get up and fight some more.

Mostly, I think, we fight against what we fear.

There’s a funny moment in your essay when a dying patient asks if you do “anything useful” and you lie about baking bread. How did you decide when to lie and when to be honest with your dying clients?

Probably best to never lie to your patients—even about your culinary skills.

Do you feel a duty to remember every death you witnessed?

It’s not possible to remember every death. Over the years I worked with hundreds of dying people. There are some deaths I will never forget and others I have forgotten. I don’t remember whole stories, I remember small fragments—moments, images, smells; the look of death itself. I was present to each person I met as fully as I could be at the time. When you work with the dying you form new attachments only to have them broken over and over again. My friend Michelle, who still works at hospice, says, “It’s almost as simple as a child’s game. If I hold onto the old, I cannot catch the new.”

In a past interview you said that in speaking about death, “we don’t have a language of ongoing relationship, a language that embraces our loved ones and lets us maintain a relationship with them.” Have you developed any way to speak outside the usual terms of “closure” and “letting go?”

I don’t use words like “closure” and “letting go.” A good friend of mine said, “Closure’s a crock,” and I agree with him. We don’t leave the dead behind, we carry them with us. At least, that’s how I see it. I’m not afraid to lean on the dead: to talk to people I’ve lost, to seek their counsel, to say how grateful I was and am for them. The thinking behind these terms is that we can’t move on unless we let go of the old. I disagree.

How do people react when you tell them you’ve worked in hospice care?

Most often people say things like, “Oh, I don’t know how you did that.” Or, “You must be an angel.” People who work with the dying are not angels. In “Jewish Pastoral Care,” Rabbi Dayle Friedman writes that estrangement is at the root of suffering. Caregivers, he says, must find the stranger in themselves to understand what it might be like for the dying who are becoming estranged from all that is known. To me, this is a much better description of those who choose to work with the dying. It is work best done by people who have hovered on the outside edges of comfort, by choice or circumstance of temperament. Angels we were not.

What do you think is gained for yourself or for readers by telling end of life stories?

I think telling these stories is a way of demystifying death and dying. We are infinitely curious about death; stories provide us with details we don’t ordinarily hear, and they engage our imaginations. Think about how sitting around a campfire as a kid, telling ghost stories, brought everyone closer. End of life stories are a version of grown-up ghost stories … as if the telling can somehow keep us safe. At least for the moment. As Ernest Becker said in “The Denial of Death”: “one of the main reasons it’s so easy to march men off to war is that each of them feels sorry for the man next to him who will die.”

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Robyn Jodlowski is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s nonfiction MFA program. She tweets @RoJoOhNo.

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