Seize the Day
Maggie O’ Farrell is a wonderful writer of fiction. Here, she shows herself to be an equally wonderful writer of something more obviously personal – recounting various times in her life where she came close to realising her mortality, through the potential of dying. Near misses, one might say.
O’Farrell has divided each potential encounter with not being, by time, and by the part of the body or psyche where vulnerability struck.
Perhaps it is the large number of close shaves, of different kinds, which have made her fiercely embrace her ‘I Am’
The first near brush is a horrible encounter, as a young woman on a holiday job, with someone later convicted of murdering young women. Some kind of instinct took Farrell to take exactly the right kind of evasive action which kept her safe:
I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence. That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood. If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath. That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody
O’ Farrell has that ability a writer must have, to be within a situation and able, simultaneously to reflect on it, to see wider contexts
Making a plane journey which turned somewhat hazardous, and which had only happened because her journey through academia had failed to deliver the expected results, and so led to a changed career path, made her aware, later
That the things in life which don’t go to plan are usually more important, more formative, in the long run, than the things that do.
You need to expect the unexpected, to embrace it. The best way, I am about to discover, is not always the easy way
Brushes with mortality have been her own, and also, more heart-breakingly for any parent, anguish over a child’s health. Maggie O’ Farrell, by virtue of surviving her various own ‘near death’ encounters, had almost felt a kind of invulnerability
The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it could so easily have been otherwise, skewed my thinking. I viewed my continuing life as a bonus, a boon: I could do with it what I wanted
That sense of having control over your own destiny, if one has it, crumbles in the face of a child’s fragility:
Holding my child, I realised my vulnerability to death; I was frightened of it, for the first time. I knew too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.
Maggie O’Farrell has a daughter born with an immunology disorder. She is both more prone to weakened immunity from common pathogens, and extreme over-reactivity to various foodstuffs to the point where she will go into anaphylactic shock – nuts, sesame, eggs, bee or wasp stings – even to the extent that if she comes into contact for example with crumbs from a nut cookie on an improperly cleaned café table. She, and her family, have to live in constant vigilance
It might sound as if this is a dreadfully depressing book, a catalogue of woes – of course, it isn’t.
In its strange way, this is celebratory, a reminder to cherish the wonder of our fragile, strong, livingness