The finality of the hospital bed arriving home and the patient’s sleeping quarters being moved onto the ground floor: “Dad will sleep downstairs now”; the not wanting to ask the dying person all the questions you want to ask them so as not to acknowledge (to them or to yourself) that your time with them is almost up; the exhaustion and dread at the prospect of another day spent with the ill person and the self-loathing that accompanies it.
These are realities that only someone who has watched someone whom they love dearly die from illness can articulate, and Freddy Taylor articulates them astutely and poignantly – and with disarming moral honesty – in this little memoir. Only 192 pages long, the book is made up of a series of diary entries which recall how, over the course of two years in his early twenties, the author lost his father to glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive type of brain cancer.
Taylor’s entries are punctuated by his step-mother’s medical diaries, a format that works really well to maintain suspense throughout; it is so engaging that I challenge anyone to read the book in more than one sitting. The point of the book, Taylor says, is “to try to show the power that humour and laughter held in some of [his] darkest moments”. If this was his aim, then he has been hugely successful. The author is an excellent raconteur, and many of his anecdotes are extremely funny.
One particularly amusing chapter includes a blow-by-blow account of his father (who was an avid sports fanatic) watching Andy Murray play Novak Djokovic on the television. The patient becomes so agitated watching the match that he is taken outside to calm down, forced to be satisfied by his family shouting updates to him from the house. Murray is the victor, and “Dad in his sun-lounger is euphoric, ecstatic, drenched in sweat and shaking the nurse’s hand as if he personally had thrashed Novak Djokovic”. On another occasion, the author shaves his father, naughtily leaving just a small “Adolf” moustache on his upper lip.
Throughout the book, the author mocks himself appealingly. He writes about not wanting to break up with his girlfriend – even though he wants to – because she is likely to be the last girlfriend his father will have known. I actually know someone who married someone for this reason, and it has not turned out well; Taylor is funny because he observes the absurdity of human behaviour so accurately. But there are also moments of profound tear-jerking sadness, such as when he describes his rage and jealousy at seeing people a decade older than himself with children and parents, knowing that any future children of his will never meet their grandfather.
Religion creeps into the book, as can perhaps be expected when the subject matter is life, dying and death, but makes a swift exit again. The author, who admits that religion “has not [held] much significance in [his] life” is drawn to St Peter’s Church, which is opposite the flat he shares with friends in Edinburgh – where he is a student at art college at the time. He touches on the notion of the church being somewhere secure when a person is in the absolute depths of despair; he recalls listening to a clergyman speak of sickness as a burden, comparing it to a stone. “Take this pebble in your hand,” says the minister, “and think of the person for whom you are here, then drop it into the water.” Taylor does this and leaves, admitting that the ritual has had a cathartic effect.
The author refers throughout to his “gregarious”, “demonstrably kind” father, “more caring than any father I could have imagined”. His father’s love has clearly had a wonderful effect on this man who comes across to be as loving a son as any father could hope to have. When the dying man, who is at this point very confused as a result of his illness, calls his son “brother” by mistake, it seems an apt acknowledgement of a father’s pride.
Don’t Put Yourself on Toast is promoted by its publishers as “a bittersweet coming-of-age memoir which shows how the power of humour and laughter can provide, even in our darkest moments, sustenance, comfort and hope”. Above all, however, this is a book about love; which is why, despite its deeply depressing subject matter, it is so readable and uplifting.
Olenka Hamilton is Special Reports Editor at the Catholic Herald
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