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Getting to Know Death

This week, Don reviews "Getting to Know Death: A Meditation" by Gail Godwin.

Gail Godwin was born in Birmingham in 1937 while her parents were visiting family, but I am claiming her as an Alabama writer anyway. Godwin has had a good many successful books—my favorites were “A Mother and Two Daughters” (1982), and “A Southern Family” (1987). Godwin published steadily; like many writers her sales went up and down. In 2017 and 2020, she published her fifteenth and sixteenth novels, “Grief Cottage” and “Old Lovegood Girls,” to considerable acclaim; these are first-rate.

On June 6, 2022, a few days short of her 85th birthday, Godwin was in her garden in Woodstock, New York, watering a young dogwood tree. She slipped, fell forward and broke her neck, C2. Godwin was forced to wear a stiff neck brace, up to her chin, for six months. Any movement forward or back MIGHT cause complete paralysis or death. That could get you thinking! As Dr Johnson famously said to Boswell: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” This accident concentrated Godwin's mind wonderfully, resulting in this short, powerful meditation on death, considered from many angles.

To begin with, she tells us of her experiences in the hospital, in rehab, then home as a patient in need of care. She came to know fellow patients and nurses and therapists, many wonderful, kind, interesting people she would otherwise have never met. For a novelist—one who pays close attention to the events around her—this was a gift.

Her near-death experience also brought flooding back to mind the death of her long-time partner, Robert, who had died in the same house. He was a composer, and Godwin had written prize-winning librettos for his music. Godwin happily remembers her life-long best friend, Pat Verhulst, and even writes her a letter to bring her up to date, although she is deceased. Her mind took her farther back to the death by suicide of her father and brother and to her own dark moments, when leaving seemed like the answer. She considers what she calls “the desperate place” in which one feels: “I can’t see a way out of this. Things will not necessarily get better. This is my life, but I might not get to do what I want in it.”

Of course, being a highly literate and literary person, Godwin read widely in what others had to say about death. There are quotes from e. e. cummings, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Tolstoy, Henry James, presenting a wide variety of conclusions and attitudes and often apocryphal last words. Who has NOT had an opinion or speculation, about death? Ingmar Bergman, she tells us, advised writers to always have “one work between himself and death.” Godwin is the middle of writing another novel.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.