I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler
Published by Simon and Schuster on October 25th 2016
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Women, Social Activists
Format: Electronic ARC
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Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in early 2014. She chose to die on her own terms in Oregon, one of the three US states that had enacted “Death with Dignity” legislation (California became the fourth in 2016). She used her situation as a platform to advocate for the rights of other terminally ill patients. In Wild & Precious Life, Deborah Ziegler writes about the daughter she loved so fiercely and the rocky path of coming to terms with a difficult reality.
My daughter did the best she could. I’m rock solid in that truth. She tried so hard to do what was right. This idea sounds simple, but it is not. Look around at those who disappoint you, hurt you. Are they doing the best they can? Are you? Does it make us feel safer to think our best is better than theirs? Now look at those who are terminally ill. Are they doing their best? How dare we judge them? How dare we tell them how they ought to die? How dare we impose our beliefs on them? How dare we try to manipulate them into fighting when they have no more fight left?
The chapters alternate between Brittany’s life before diagnosis and her life after diagnosis. Ziegler introduces the reader to a complex young woman: compassionate, impulsive, adventurous, and moody. As Brittany’s cancer progressed and the symptoms intensified, a perfect storm of tumor symptoms, medication side effects, and anxieties caused violent and angry outbursts. The mother-daughter relationship is also complex–close, but sometimes contentious. But no matter what, they always found their way back to each other.
What stood out most about Brittany is how much she wanted to live and how fully she lived in the little time she had. Brittany made her story public in hopes of educating the public and giving other terminally ill patients the same choice she had. While she had the flexibility and resources to move to Oregon, uprooting her life brought on its own hardships. Ziegler also describes the whirlwind of media attention when Brittany’s story went viral, as well as the misrepresentations and hurtful backlash that followed. She writes about how the situation and cruel comments from others affected her own faith.
Sooner or later, people experience something in life that they can’t control. We can’t be good enough human beings, or do enough research, or buy enough stuff, to be secure. Security is an illusion. Natural occurrences in life happen randomly to all kinds of people. Sad, horrible, senseless tragedy strikes for apparently no reason. Every journey begins without hope. It just begins.
While searching for more about Brittany’s story, I discovered that her husband Dan doesn’t endorse this book (his Facebook post). He states that “the scenes from the last 10 months of Brittany’s life obviously reflect Deborah’s own opinions, concerns, and thoughts. Deborah’s book does not speak for Brittany and there are numerous passages that are inaccurate.” I kept this in mind as I continued reading. Even without knowing any details, there are parts that I could see being heavily perspective based or events that someone might not want to be detailed for the public. However, I did find value in reading Brittany’s story from the perspective of a mother whose every instinct fought against accepting what was happening. She discusses the lack of support and education for caregivers. Brittany’s tumor was likely growing for a decade, so she reflects on whether there were earlier signs. Were Brittany’s thrill-seeking behaviors, impulsiveness, and intense mood swings symptoms of the tumor? I was amazed at the remarkable way in which the brain is able to adapt.
I urge Americans to think for themselves. Make your wishes clear while you are competent. Make sure that you have all the options spelled out for you if you are diagnosed with an incurable, debilitating, painful disease. Do your own research. Ask your family to research and face the harsh reality with you. Ask your doctor to be brutally honest with you. Then make your personal choice about how you will proceed. It is YOUR choice.
Wild & Precious Life is about a mother’s unconditional love and a family who was forced to come to terms with an impossible situation. No one is portrayed as perfect–they are all heartbreakingly human. Everyone did the best they could with the reality they were given. “We have lost sight of reality. All life ends. Death is not necessarily the enemy in all cases. Sometimes a gentle passing is a gift.” Like When Breath Becomes Air, this book made me reflect on my own views of death and see how important it is to make these difficult decisions while one still can. This book also educated me about the regulations that are put in place to protect the terminally ill patients who are making end-of-life decisions. For more information about Brittany Maynard or Death with Dignity legislation: Brittany’s opinion piece, the Brittany Maynard Fund, Death with Dignity FAQ.