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Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2008

    A reviewer

    Memoirs written after the death of a loved one can either be elegies radiant with poetic inspiration or they can be self-serving eulogies. David Rieff, a thoughtful and intelligent writer, happens to be the son of Susan Sontag, one of America's most brilliant authors and essayists, a woman of great courage with the gift of exploring concepts of our society that she found in need of our attention while at the same time a being novelist able to spin meaningful tales about the indomitable human spirit. SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH: A SON'S MEMOIR is far more than a rehash of an artist's life and exit from life: this book is a work of sensitive evaluation of not only a great woman but also of the myriad aspects of our healthcare system, both good and bad, and the delicate yet coarsely bumpy path that begins with the diagnosis of a terminal disease and ends with the sigh that completes mortality. From this book we learn not only the trials of Susan Sontag's battle with three attacks of cancer (breast cancer in 1975 with radical surgery and chemotherapy, uterine sarcoma in 1998, and Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2004), but we also learn about the relationship of a son and mother and the challenges to each in coping with threatening diseases and ultimately death. What makes this 'memoir' so different is the frank honesty of the author David Rieff. He reflects on the avid love for living that ruled Sontag's life, her refusal to give in when she felt that fighting the odds was better than the alternative of doing nothing. Rieff took on the role of supporting his mother's belief that all of the chemotherapy, mutilating surgery, radiation, bone marrow transplantation - all accompanied by severe physical and psychological pain - was worth the effort if the methods of attacking the disease process held any degree of hope of remission. It is a lesson for all of us who have dealt or are dealing with being there for loved ones who face medical decisions, times when the patient needs the support of those who care and are willing to accept the fact that the patient is very much alive - until life is no longer an option. The reader comes away from this book with a profound respect for the spirit of Susan Sontag, the courage of her various physicians who respected her participation in her decisions, and the quiet and gentle love of a son who can now see the giant who was his mother as he passes her grave in Paris. Toward the end of this book Rieff quotes form Sontag's journals: ''I write the way I live and my life is full of quotations.' Then she adds: 'Change it.' But she never did.' This memoir is an Elegy. Highly recommended reading. Grady Harp

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