The old brag of my heart

Dear Maggie,

I Am, I Am, I Am (2017) reads like a reliquary of the string of moments your bragging heart, in a way or another, snatched away from death.

The book comprises seventeen essays, organized in non-chronological order, that explore your close encounters with death. Each chapter is named after the part of the body – neck, bloodstream, lungs, head, abdomen, and so on – which was, at that time, most in danger.

For instance, in “Neck: 1990”, you recount a chance meeting on a hike with a birdwatcher who would have strangled you with his binoculars’ straps. You go on to remember a near-drowning experience, after an ill-advised night dive off a harbour wall into black water, when you were a teenager.

This will be followed by a thief holding a machete to your throat in Chile; the life-threatening amoebic dysentery you caught in China; a plane suddenly plummeting downwards in a flight to Hong Kong; a participation in the show of a circus knife-thrower at a carnival; two strangers approaching your car while you were locked inside; another episode of near-drowning, this time in the Indian Ocean; a moment when you were almost getting run over by a lorry; the doubt whether an unfaithful boyfriend had contracted HIV; a severe haemorrhage during childbirth and, later, a miscarriage.

In “Cerebellum”, you recount the bout of encephalitis you suffered from when you were a child (“the hinge on which my childhood swung“), which were to have lifelong effects that spread throughout many of the chapters in this book. The string of near-death experiences culminates in the essay “Daughter”, which follows a frantic race along the Italian countryside, as you and your husband try to find a hospital for your daughter, while she is having an anaphylactic attack.

In one of the essays, you explain to your mother the project of what would become this book: “I’m trying to write a life, told only through near-death experiences“. That we build our whole lives around a single, ineluctable certainty – that of our death, and the death of our loved ones – is an irony that is not lost on you.

By confronting the moments when you almost died, you manage to paint a picture of what was lived around each of these episodes: your life in seventeen brushes. Your childhood, your teenage years, your time at university, your move to Hong Kong and back, your love affairs, your marriage, your pregnancy, your children. More than confronting death, in these essays you are confronting life – its mishaps, its pitfalls, its frailty.

Your voice is never too dramatic, and you refrain from being too precious about the episodes you are describing. Somehow, though, you still manage to strike a chord: we come back from each chapter as if brushed by that particular sadness of seeing something beautiful and knowing it will die. “A near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”.

The title of the book, borrowed from a line in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963) – “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am” – works as a key to what weaves the essays together: a kind of incantation, a heart-pounding song played along the thin thread from which life is constantly hanging: we are, we are, we are, our hearts bragging.

Yours truly,

J.


Pomegranate (Punica granatum), by Mary Daisy Arnold, 1932


“We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.”  ― Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death

“When he took my hand he taught me something about the value of touch, the communicative power of the human hand. I didn’t know, as I lay there, that I would think of him many times in the years ahead. When my son lay on a hospital bed, age four, with the raging fever of meningitis, I reached through the bodies of the attending doctors and held his slack, heated hand in both of mine. When my youngest child disappeared beneath the waves of the Mediterranean Sea and I had to leap in, haul her out, turn her upside-down so that the water drained from her lungs. Then all she and I could do was sit on the sand, wrapped in towels, contemplating what had almost happened, her small fingers wrapped in mine.”  ― Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

I remember that, as I swung back and forth, something shifted, or settled upon me, some extra depth of vision – a sudden recalibration or bifurcation of my perceptions took place. I could see myself both from above and from within. I had a sense of myself as miniscule, inconsequential, a tiny moving automaton in a wide scene, and at the same time I was acutely aware of myself as an organism, a human microcosm (…) I acquired a simultaneous sense of time as a vast continuum, and an awareness that my stretch in it would be short, insignificant. I knew in that moment, and perhaps for the first time, that I would one day die, that at some point there would be nothing left of me, my mittens, my breathing, my curls, my hat. I felt that conviction for the first time. My death felt like a person standing there next to me. ― Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death


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