I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's newest book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. I saw it at the library and remembered her article that came from the book.
It's one of the more interesting parts of the book, but the rest of the book has merit too. She's often most interesting to me when she's looking at the sociology of a subject, but in this book, her discussion of cell biology covered material I didn't know.
And some of it was newer information. Until recently, we didn't have much knowledge about the role of macrophages in spreading cancer throughout the body. We still don't have as much knowledge as we will, but it's a different way of thinking about cancer, that there are cells that help blast openings in blood vessels that allows the cancer to travel.
I kept waiting for her to dive a bit deeper into the societal fear of dying, but that was not the focus of this book. This book explored our desperate wish to stay mentally sharp and physically flexible into old age--also a worthy topic.
As I flipped through the book this morning, I came across the list of books that she's written--what an amazing assortment. Most of us will remember her work documenting how the working class live and barely survive (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch). But she's done a lot of work on the medical profession, especially historical and feminist work.
Her current book doesn't explore the hospital as much as I thought it might. If you read the article back when it appeared in April of 2018, you've read about as much as she discusses.
I think that our fear of aging and death is rooted in our fear of hospitals. I remember when my mother-in-law was in the hospital for months as she died, and I thought, well, my fear of hospitals is not very irrational at all. I was reading a lot of Beckett at the time, but I can't remember why.
Out of that time came this poem:
Good Friday in the Telemetry Ward
And so we wait in Beckett’s world.
We don’t know exactly who will come
or what the news will be.
We’re stuck together in this grim
room with molded furniture that doesn’t quite contain
us and rows of machines which offer
dietary diversions but no nourishment.
Day after day, we appear.
Have we done our duty?
Can we do no more?
We hope to see the ones who can explain
the medical mysteries, but instead we meet
fools and madmen who speak to us in a language
we can scarcely comprehend. Bad
news or good? Who can tell?
At least in an apocalyptic
landscape, the TV might mute
permanently. Now we live in a low
grade hum: the background noise of multiple
channels, machines that monitor,
machines that must take over.
No true night in the telemetry ward.
I study for my final exams,
my mother-in-law studies for hers.
Post-war literature, a coma-like state,
the limbo-like suspension between worlds.