on January 29, 2014
I found this book from an opinion article about not being afraid of dying, authored by Menasche, that may or may not have been largely a plug for his book. I figured, "who cares if it is, because as he approaches the end of his life, what does he have to gain from money?" And for that matter, it was awfully gracious of him to write a book in his limited moments, so I felt it was worth a read, and I liked the premise.
I wanted to connect with someone who was confronting death head on. I recently lost my Grandmother very abruptly to complications from cancer. It is the first (and only) death I have ever witnessed up close and personally. I was given the privilege and pain of watching the entire process from her bedside without interruption. It was heart-wrenching and terrifying, the clinical way which it occurred and the jagged emptiness it filled me with to imagine that the end of my own life could be similarly awful has haunted me ever since. I wanted to find someone who could bravely stare death in the face and have an answer, because I couldn't. To that end, I am very grateful for this book.
I'll start my review by saying, this book wasn't exactly what I expected, and from a literary stand point, it's nothing spectacular. From a human standpoint, it's everything, and it changed my life in the subtle way that I think Menasche sets out to. As I began reading, there were many times where Menasche would point out some of the teaching techniques he would try, and the impact it would have, and I found myself rolling my eyes a bit - like he would say how he would respect his students, and in return they respected him, and as a maxim that works just fine, but the way he gets from a to b without any points in between was a bit ridiculous, as I've seen teachers who have tried to take the same route with their students and not even get a tenth of the traction. However, in time, I found myself excusing this, because surely this is not a book written to describe his teaching methods in depth (which, would actually make for a great sequel), and as he met with his students in the latter-half of the book, specific stories helped change the "I did this, then, MAGIC HAPPENED!" impression of his generalizations into something more understandable.
My problem was that I wanted him to be superhuman, someone I could idolize, someone who had these epic words of wisdom that nobody else could offer me who didn't walk in his shoes. He does not represent that ideal. I think he wishes he did - but I do not believe he thinks it of himself either. Rather, once my expectations were appropriately re-calibrated, I grew from liking this book to loving it. It is in his inescapable humanity that his story becomes believable. He isn't trying to be anybody but himself, and he's just trying to get the word out on his experiences before he can't any longer. At least, that's my impression.
I find solace in his unedited honesty. His book may in part be to prove his worth to himself, to apologize to his wife, and to establish a legacy where others who were not his students can see him through ideal eyes. I can't blame him for any of these things, and are the exact things I would want to do if I were in his position. He doesn't hide it, he doesn't mince words - I don't think there's time to; this book is what it is, and that is what makes it beautiful. I can feel him reflecting on himself, I can feel the tug of him drawing on his prior students to build himself up inside as his cancer drags him down. I am enamored with a man who both figuratively and literally runs from the reaper, denies and ignores it in a sense, while embracing that some day, he will no longer be able to have any control over his fate and will eventually, willingly or not, submit. This isn't a heavily refined autobiography, this is a blog in paperback format, the necessarily hastily edited thoughts of a dying man who has little time to weigh each word and just wants to go out knowing he made a difference. Don't we all.
I read this book in several hours one early morning when anxiety and insomnia kept me from my dreams. I cried nearly the entire way through, from watching a disease destroy a wonderful life, to watching a man refuse to be defined by that disease, to seeing the outpouring of love and support toward him, to watching him slowly and (albeit with documented difficulty) graciously lose a strong measure of control over his life and faculties. I wish I could have found the easy answers in this book to my consternation regarding death, but, I think with hard problems come only the hard answers - the ones we don't want to accept or the ones that only fit the person giving the answer. There is no right way to go about dying, but watching one man confront the issues of a fading life with honesty gives me a sort of strength and hope and also re-illustrates the importance of living the life I want to grow into right now, this day. I wish this book could have been longer and spent more time delving into the intimate details of each interaction he had, but I am happy with the glimpses I've got.
I tip my hat to Mr. Menasche. It is with great courage that he stopped his treatment and accepted his fate and the adventure that would govern his final days. I hope I too can find my own path to self fulfillment, for whatever it is worth when a fate becomes imminent and inevitable.
If you ever read this Mr. Menasche, thank you for sharing your story, and know that you've made a connection and impact upon yet another stranger whose path you'll likely never cross. You're a great teacher indeed and I wish I could have been one of your students, at a minimum just to see what it was all about. But, in a way, I guess that now I am.