“See me safe up,” Sir Thomas More is said to have told his executioner as he approached the scaffold on which he was to be beheaded. “And for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” By the sixteenth century, philosophers had long been obsessed with well-executed deaths. A few moments before drinking the hemlock that acquainted him with his, Socrates proffered an off-the-cuff, in extremis redefinition of his vocation: philosophy’s task, he said, is to prepare us “for death and dying,” and all our dalliances with truth come to naught unless they teach us how to die well. And how well Socrates died, marching up and down, discoursing about the immortality of the soul, laughing dry the tears of his well-meaning disciples and cracking jokes at the authorities’ expense. Classic Socrates, we might say. With this death and the words that preceded it, Socrates inaugurated a long-standing tradition where death is not simply another topic for philosophy, but its very life-force.
The following centuries saw many variations on this Socratic theme: both from a theoretical perspective, in the writings of philosophers, and (with varying degrees of success) from a practical perspective, in the deaths of those philosophers. To die “well,” then, with philosophy by one’s side, is to die wholly and unmistakably oneself, to “have a death of one’s own,” as Rilke’s Brigge put it two-and-half millennia later; it is to exercise autonomy to the last and to run headfirst, collar straight, laces tied to meet one’s maker.
These are truly lovely thoughts, but they lie.
When my nan, Kathleen, died of the cancer that she had plenty of time to become acquainted with, she did not, as far as I know, crack jokes. I don’t think that she was humourless. And when my aunt Deirdre died in her sleep, many, many years before anyone thought possible, we did not think that it was “classic Dee.” And when you die with dementia, as you probably will, in a bed that is not your own, your character stripped bare as the walls (read: curtains) that surround you, I would not dream of suggesting that you try harder to personalise proceedings.
Following Socrates’ lead, philosophy typically tries to understand death by bringing it under control—by making it an object of the will, a skill to be learned, maybe perfected. But death is shifty, always mirthlessly mocking our attempts to master it, always giving us the slip. Despite philosophy’s idealistic preoccupations it is matter, not mind, that has the last laugh. And when death comes—sooner or later it always does—today, advances in medical science mean that it usually comes slowly, beginning its work well in advance of completing it, leaving us radically disempowered and less, not more, like the selves that we were. (If you want to be disabused of the idea that there is some special skill involved in dying, visit a hospice.)
“We should be punished for thinking we can control everything, even death,” writes Portuguese journalist Susana Moreira Marques in her slim new volume Now and at the Hour of Our Death. Indeed, often we are. Socrates’ words do bear some truth; but in reality our death is never truly “ours,” is never something we “do.” How can we prepare ourselves “for death and dying” while avoiding this fantasy of control which may simply serve to increase the height from which we fall? Moreira Marques’s book—translated into sharp, spare English by Julia Sanches—provides more than a few clues. Systematically rejecting every rhetorical and psychological trick we typically use to make light of death or gain a foothold in it, Moreira Marques nonetheless avoids stumbling blindly into pessimism. By turning a journalist’s unblinking eye to the concrete realities of dying, she allows something fragile, utterly realistic and quietly affirming to come to the fore.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death is the result of the five months its author spent following a palliative care unit through a remote rural region of northeast Portugal called Trás-os-Montes (“behind the mountains”), a moribund but beautiful area “from which the children have disappeared.” During her stay, Moreira Marques spoke to the terminally ill and their families about life, death, and about what it’s like to exist in the twilight region behind the mountains which marks the border between the two—creating, from these meetings, a collage of portraits and transcripts, bookended with her own aphoristic sketches, reflections, and vignettes.
Strikingly, much of the book is given over to those who are themselves facing death. How do these ailing, dying people speak? In banalities, mostly. “Life changes completely from one day to the next . . . there’s no use getting annoyed—life’s too short,” says one; “Now I always think about how anything can happen, at any moment, so you’ve got to make the most of it,” another. In this context, though, you can hear the breath beneath these threadbare phrases, and this gives them a kind of misty beauty, a renewed urgency—like coins, worn away by repeated exchange, which once again bear human faces.
Moreira Marques is (sometimes painfully) honest about the shortcomings of the people whom she encounters. “The hunter who liked flowers also liked his wife to feel like his prey: frightened and cornered . . . The last time, using only his eyes, he had made his wife feel as if she should be the one to die first.” And, “He has stopped eating, which is perhaps another way of hurting her. Or, perhaps, in his dementia, he knows she has more than enough reason to poison him.” Death does not make saints of us—why would it?—and Moreira Marques feels no need to pretend it does, describing these characters full of tender contempt and writerly good grace. Neither does death provide the occasion for redemption, reconciliation, or revelation. “He died in bed having said no meaningful last words,” she writes of one man. For Moreira Marques, death is untimely and unseemly—always coming too soon or taking too long; always full of nasty surprises. “We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.” But often there is little that is meaningful in our last days, preoccupied as we are with the grim effort of dying: “Articulated beds, diapers, morphine, gaze, creams for cuts and abrasions, serum drips, tubes, needles.” “The sick suffer,” she writes, “and then have no strength left to think or to ask themselves . . . moral questions.”
Now and at the Hour of our Death bears no hint that anything spans the gap between life and death. Even love, far from surviving death, might not survive life. “She no longer asks about him,” she writes of a woman with dementia who, not so long ago, had refused to sleep apart from her husband, despite the advice of doctors, which resulted in him falling out of bed and seriously injuring himself. She has been “madly in love” with him for six-and-half decades, but now, “when asked . . . [she] answers she was never married. When he dies, she might not even realize and might not even cry.” Later, Moreira Marques describes another scene: a man playing guitar while his wife, many years his senior and with her memory ailing, taps along. He started playing the guitar again while she was in hospital, dying of leukemia. But against all the odds she survived; and now here she is, tapping. When he sings on the radio, he dedicates his songs to her. In a lesser work, the pathos of a story like this would be redeeming. For just a moment it would allow us to believe that some things last forever. But not here. Because now it is the husband, all those years younger, who faces death, and his wife who faces abandonment. And whatever happens, before too long one of them will die, and one of them will be alone; and then the solitary one will die too. This is inevitable; it just depends where we stop reading. Elsewhere a husband and wife both make the tragicomic confession that each selfishly hopes they’ll be granted the luxury of being the first to die—because life without the other would be unbearable.
Despite presenting these ugly realities denuded of beautifying lies, Moreira Marques’s book is not pessimistic; and she repudiates the repose of dwelling on these naked facts just as thoroughly as that of denying them. The ethic of this work seems to be the same as that which traverses Gillian Rose’s magisterial Love’s Work, written while she was in the throes of fatal ovarian cancer, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”
Like most books about death, Moreira Marques’s has much to teach us about life; and in the final chapter, which is only a few lines long, she braves to try to salvage a little wisdom from the wreckage. These cautious lines—which I will not quote, for they should be read last—are shot through with the sense that inevitably they will over- and understate what they wish to say; that words are both under- and over-equipped to deal with death, always saying too much, too little. Thus Moreira Marques’s conclusion has no pretensions of profundity, but is written instead in the mode of cliché confirmed and refined by experience.
Ultimately, for Moreira Marques, death marks the end with a full stop’s quiet insistence, and the book’s encounters take place in the space between the final letter and the full stop. But this interlude, she shows us, is anything but empty; in fact, like the area around a seabed hydrothermal vent, it is teeming with life lived furiously, and painfully, against the odds.
Instead of philosophy’s model of the solitary individual bravely facing his or her own death, Moreira Marques’s book gives us something much more precarious, realistic, and human: men and women—some professionals, others not—bravely facing the deaths of others and looking after them when they can no longer look after themselves. There “is little that is literary about death,” she writes. But if there is beauty in death, she shows us that it lives in the small, generous gestures performed by those who will one day perish for those who are already doing so. Now and at the Hour of our Death offers nothing as straightforward as despair or hope; instead, it describes those final moments and finds, amid the horror, a little beauty that isn’t separable from it. Moreira Marques shows us that to prepare oneself for “death and dying” does not mean to try to control what cannot be controlled, but to be ready for that inevitable moment when control will no longer be possible; that a “good” death isn’t one which is “one’s own,” but one that is shared with others. One could call this conclusion banal. It certainly seems modest compared to the pomp and grandeur of the heroic, philosophical death. But Susana Moreira Marques’s triumph is to show that it is precisely here, amid, rather than above “the pajamas, the diapers, the drool,” that fleeting glimmers of transcendence exist. By giving lie to the philosophy’s myth of mastery, while ushering us away from despair, she breathes new life into a topic that has long been marked by what had seemed like a terminal lifelessness.
Will Rees is a writer and editor. He lives in South London, where he is a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths. His work has appeared in the TLS, the LA Review of Books, and the Quietus.