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August Farewell: The Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance Paperback – 21 Jan 2011
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How do you review a real life story? An account of facts? I gave "Searching for Gilead" four stars, so I'll give this five. Here's why. Where the novel didn't engage me emotionally until the final chapters, I was in tears before having ended the first chapter. The language is much less pretentious, the storytelling is more direct and matter-of-factly as befits this sort of story.
Now why would anyone read the story of the last few days in the life of a complete stranger? A painful couple hundred pages?
I did it to get a more rounded picture of David and his writing, to understand his driving force (and hoping he'll produce more), but more than that, the novel gives a very rare glimpse into the future of my own life, in fact, glimpses I've already seen (having already lost and buried four of our six parents - long story)
I'm really grateful to be twelve years Alex' senior. At the same time, this very prospect scares the hell out of me (pardon the expression, as the atheist doesn't believe in either hell nor heaven for that matter, the latter which seems to have brought Bill and David alike so much solace) The thought of ending up in Bill's situation with Alex having to care for me is hard to stomach, and while things seemed to have happened very quickly for them, it makes me think about our own future, how would we tackle that? Fly to Switzerland and make a discreet exit with Exit? Or hang on to dear life for Alex and the kids' sake? Eventually I hope that Alex gets to read this book so that we can start to talk about this.
I am having these discussions with my father, and I find it reassuring to find him open to talking about this. He seems to be searching for some sort of faith (which is an omnipresent topic throughout the book), having lost his many years ago, me replacing faith with rationale and my humanistic beliefs ages ago. We talk about services and what not, how he wants his farewell party to be handled.
"August Farewell: The Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance" is a great book for any couple approaching middle-age or maybe just having gotten through it. It should open up lines of communication about life, death and how to tackle it gracefully, compassionately and with love. Having said that, it's also a reminder to "carpe diem", to seize the day, to make the most of every single day we have together with our loved ones. Because even though sixteen days sounds like very little, sometimes we're awarded even less. Keep that in mind!
Thank you David for the intimate glimpse into the final days of your marriage to Bill, for allowing us to partake of the lessons and the wisdom of your journey together.
Presented in seventeen chapters, Hallman's portrait of a loving relationship built on respect, patience, judicious compromise, and `hard-kick-under-the-table lessons' (of the kind anyone who has navigated a long-term relationship will instantly recognize) engages the reader from page one. Lovers whose passions included deeply shared spiritual beliefs, as well as social activism--both were at the forefront of the international boycott of Nestlé in the late 70s and early 80s--and an abiding love of music and travel, it isn't surprising that the two men should be closely in tune throughout the slowing-down process of Mr. Conklin's final days.
One of the most moving vignettes, captured in Chapter Eight, presents the two men in a shared devotional; as Mr. Hallman accompanies his lover on the piano through the hymn, "Breathe on Me, Breath of God," Mr. Conklin, a music teacher whose tenor voice once soared, summons from dwindling reserves the wherewithal to complete the two-line hymn. Another milestone moment, detailed in Chapter Four, captures both men confronting the necessity of letting go:
"Sorry if it sounds harsh, but you've got to leave me alone so that I can slip away," Mr. Conklin starkly entreats. Who could help but be affected by Hallman's unspoken response: Do I love him enough to give him what he wants?
It is a reaction that will ring true for anyone--especially those who have struggled to maintain a respectful distance through arduous final hours and days at a loved-one's bedside.
Hallman's memoir is beautifully conceived and paced; but perhaps his greatest achievement is the transformation of a deeply personal loss into something inescapably universal in its implications and instructiveness. A primer for navigating the journey from life unto death (for who can claim expertise in that unfathomable journey), August Farewell offers lessons in grace and hope.
Jack Andrew Urquhart is the author of several works of fiction, including So They Say Collected Stories.