Sunday, May 11, 2008

Facing Death With Grace

When Nuala O'Faolain was diagnosed with cancer eight weeks ago, she refused treatment and embarked on a last visit to her favourite cultural landmarks. Yesterday her journey ended when she died of cancer in Dublin at the age of 68.

The middle-aged Irish woman, one of the leading figures in modern Irish culture, was caught weeping last month as the curtain went up at the Berlin Opera was clearly moved by the opening bars of Verdi's Don Carlos. The strangers around her did not know that she had just weeks to live and had come to say goodbye to on the great loves of her varied and turbulent life.

Shortly after she received her unexpected terminal diagnosis in New York only eight weeks ago, O'Faolain, the author of the best-selling 1996 memoir Are You Somebody?, embarked on an extraordinary European odyssey in the company of a few close friends. This unconventional response to her illness transfixed listeners who first learnt of it in an intimate radio interview she gave with the prominent Irish broadcaster Marian Finucane.

Full of memorable and telling phrases, the interview has been hailed as a testament to the late writer's talent as a communicator. 'I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that's enough of you now, and what's more we're not going to give you any little treats at the end,' O'Faolain said of her reaction to the news that she was soon to die.

Refusing chemotherapy, the Dublin-born writer instead set off for Paris, Madrid, Berlin and Sicily in search of solace. As she told Finucane in her radio interview in April: 'Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy, it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.'

Dodd had travelled out to join his friend and former house mate in Madrid to help her to see some of the great paintings inside the city's Prado art gallery. 'I don't think she ever lost the capacity to take pleasure in things,' he said. 'She kept going. She wanted to live every minute. The trip was awful at times, but Nuala was often hilarious.'

One of the architects of modern Irish womanhood, she stood for many alongside figures such as former Irish President Mary Robinson and the journalist Nell McAfferty, with whom O'Faolain had a 13-year relationship.

O'Faolain was the second eldest of nine children and her father was a well-known journalist. Engaged more than once, the author did not marry and had no children.
'I was with her on the last night with her family,' said Dodd. 'In our culture that is a great privilege. We were all singing and talking. I am happy really, because she had the death she wanted in the end.'

Although the bleak honesty of her stance in the fast of death has sealed her fame in Ireland, she was recently comforted by the warm response of many listeners. She also had a robust sense of her own relative good fortune. 'The two things that keep me from the worst of self-pity are that everyone's done it so that ordinary people are as brave as I could ever be or as less brave as I could ever be,' she said.

'The second thing that really matters to me is that in my time, which is mostly the 20th century, people have died horribly, billions of people have died horribly, in Auschwitz, in Darfur, or dying of starvation or dying multiply raped in the Congo, or dying horribly like that. I think, look how comfortably I am dying. I have friends and family, I am in this wonderful country, I have money. There is nothing much wrong with me except dying.'

Finucane has revealed that O'Faolain was preparing to be interviewed again if she had lived longer, buoyed by the public response to her illness. As it was, she died in an Irish hospice just before midnight on Friday.

Ireland's Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism expressed his regret at O'Faolain's death and paid tribute to the 'searing honesty' about her illness which had a profound impact on many people. Martin Cullen said: 'Nuala O'Faolain, with her trademark frankness, spoke courageously from the heart and wrote with luminous clarity. A shining academic, she was a powerful presence on the literary scene.

'Her intimate memoir Are You Somebody? caught the imagination of the public not just in Ireland but around the world.'
Diary of a somebody
· Nuala O'Faolain fought with the publisher of Are You Somebody? to have as few copies printed as possible. 'Only a lunatic would read it, so what had I got to lose?'
· Every copy sold within five hours. It topped the best-seller lists in Ireland for more than five months.
· An account of her life, from childhood to a career in the media, it also charts her disappointments in relationships and the pain of confronting middle age alone.
· When the book came out in Britain in 1997, it was widely praised by critics and sold just as fast. 'Rare is the book that you really cannot put down, the one that seems as necessary, poignant, impossible and joyful as life. This short work of memory and desire by one of Ireland's most prominent columnists is one of them,' wrote Melissa Benn in the Independent.

1 comment:

Mike said...

She died on her own terms for the most part. That is how I want to go, being able to say goodbye before it all ends.