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Say 'Aaah' | MEDIA MIX

Humorous and Heartfelt Moments at the End of a Life

BEFORE I SAY GOODBYE, Recollections and Observations From One Woman's Final Year; By Ruth Picardie; Henry Holt & Co.; 131 pages, $13

October 23, 2000|Jane E. Allen

Ruth Picardie, a writer and an editor, invited a nation along on her losing fight with breast cancer, and millions followed through her columns in England's Observer Life magazine. For those who never read those marvelously witty, funny and disarmingly frank looks at coping with approaching death, her husband has brought them together in this slim volume, along with her e-mails to friends and correspondence from readers touched by her writing. He also publishes letters Picardie wrote to their twins, Lola and Joe, so they would know something of the mother who barely survived beyond their second birthday and her 33rd. After she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, Picardie opened her life to readers and friends alike, taking them through the tests, treatments and maddening delays in Great Britain's national health system. Like many seriously ill patients, Picardie often recognized grave complications before her doctors. She sensed that a "neurological condition" doctors kept insisting was unrelated to her breast cancer was brain cancer and that the illness had spread to her bones. It also ravaged her liver and lungs. Although it's easy to feel frustrated and sad while reading this book, Picardie's ebullient spirit and black humor make the experience easier. Her love of pop culture was unabashed--she was an ardent fan of television's "ER," even as she was spending hours each week as a patient in hospitals and medical offices, and frequently referred to her inability to land "my longed-for George Clooney interview (and subsequent elopement)." She discovered that indulging in expensive beauty creams, sexy underwear, pedicures and fattening cookies as her hair fell out and her body swelled was "more effective than therapy." Like many cancer patients, she experimented with alternative medicine, hoping that shark cartilage, linseed capsules, homeopathy, visiting healers and being wired to a laptop for something called "Bicom therapy" might help even as her condition declined. "The panic and desperate hope of a girl with cancer knows no bounds," she wrote. What's striking is that Picardie never wallowed in self-pity, and her candor brought out the best in well-meaning strangers who wrote in to offer their advice, support and thanks. As one reader struggling with breast cancer put it after thanking Picardie for giving her back the ability to laugh: "If we don't meet this time around, I sure . . . hope we do the next time."



Reflections on a Life With Diabetes

By Lisa Roney

Henry Holt & Co.

297 pages, $13

Diabetes has ruled Lisa Roney's life since 1972, when at age 11 a compassionate hospital candy striper taught her how to inject insulin. Along with the usual anxieties of pre-adolescence, Roney's illness brought additional isolation. She recalls the time before her diagnosis, when as a 10-year-old she happily baked her step-grandmother's golden chess pie in her family's Tennessee kitchen. From her mostly carefree existence, she entered a world of daily regimens: blood monitors, insulin injections and dietary restrictions.

In her teen and college years, she was lucky never to meet the kinds of diabetic girls who deliberately skip some insulin injections to keep their weight down. Many of them go on to suffer premature eye, heart and kidney damage because the excess sugar in their blood slowly poisons their bodies. Details like these, woven into the narrative, along with frank discussions of how the illness constrained her ability to rebel and limited her career choices, make Roney's first book compelling. She recounts how relationships with lovers gave her self-confidence and made her feel less alienated from her body. Yet those relationships also brought her sexually transmitted diseases, because the diabetes lowered her resistance to such infections. At book's end, living once again in solitude while struggling with rejection and self-protection, she says that she wrote the book in part to give up some of the invisibility that she had long sought. But she recognizes the need to do that away from the book's pages as well.

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