"Before I Say Goodbye"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark OCT 21, 2000)
When Ruth Picardie was diagnosed with having breast cancer, her twin babies were just over a year old. Although, she had found one lump in her breast shortly after her and Matt Seton were married in August 1994, the results showed that the lump was benign and they more or less forgot about it. Ruth under went in vitro fertilization, and in August 1995 their twins, Joe and Lola, were born. The lump started to grow again, and in October 1996 she received the diagnosis. And it was only a matter of months before it became clear that her disease was terminal.
Ruth's older sister Justine, an editor at the Observer magazine Life, suggested that Ruth write a column about her condition. As it turned out, she only had enough time to write seven columns, each, fortunate for us, republished in this book. Picardie's articles are funny, despite the subject and notwithstanding what it is happening to her. She seems to be able to say what most won't about this disease, shedding a new light on some of the aspects that we wouldn't expect. For example, she writes "Everybody thinks cancer makes you thin. In fact, I'm getting fatter and fatter." There's something more moving about this ordinary concern than if she had written from self-pity or fear. Included in the book are responses from her readers and it is clear that she had a strong following even before she started to write this column.
To fill out this book, Matt added e-mail correspondence that Ruth managed to exchange with a select group of friends. What's obvious from the e-mail correspondence is just how fast she is deteriorating As her friend Jamie, who is dealing with AIDS, points out; "So typical of you... never doing anything by half measures. You don't have some normal little cancer; you have a Terminal machine." At first you can sense that she likes "talking" to Jamie, since he can relate to what she is going through. But this changes. After all, ten years after original diagnosis he is still alive. It is only four months after her diagnosis, despite chemotherapy, they find that she has secondary bone cancer. Two months later it is evident to her (not her doctor) that it's traveled to her brain. "Finally in May, seven months after the original diagnosis," she writes in her first column, "and five days after your 33rd birthday, you learn that the disease has spread to your liver and lungs. Abruptly, you enter the bleakly euphemistic world of palliative care. Pollyanna commits suicide.
"In her correspondence, Ruth bounces back and forth between the bleakness of her condition and the just plain ordinary events, like watching ER episodes, attending magazine parties, and looking forward to mini-vacations. She gets totally obsessed with cosmetics, clothing, and expensive underwear. As Ruth puts it, she is "finding my inner Shallow Fashion Bimbo before I die." After she gives up on all conventional medicine and non-conventional nostrums, she discovers the facial as the one thing that makes her feel really good. What a grand irony to have pleasure pampering the body that is betrays in every way.
Ruth's last column in Life is finished by Justine Picardie. This is when the emotional impact hits. Then there is the afterword written by Matt in which he shares his own thoughts and observations of Ruth's last year. Justine's finishing words and Matt's afterword are the hardest part of the whole book. Up until this point, Ruth is able to convey her anger and frustration, her good and bad days, and her true anguish at not being able to be there for her children. But the survivors let us know about the true selfishness of any terminal disease and the impact on the living. There were many days that Ruth was not able to write. Matt fills in the details, the things that Ruth couldn't say.
When this book arrived in the mail, I decided to read it because it was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But how does one go about reviewing an almost personal book that is based on the last year of one woman's life? To say it was enjoyable seems wrong, but there is something about this book that made me read it to the end. I think it is because Before I Say Goodbye gives a good sense of who Ruth Picardie was when she was alive and she was very alive even when dying. Ruth's personality and communication skills, brought me more comfortably close to the world of the terminally ill cancer patient, an area that I, like most people, have an aversion. The interesting thing is that I found myself thinking in a new way. I've always said that I'd rather die suddenly in my sleep or a quick plane crash. Right after I finished this book, Carl was told of a young guy we know that suddenly died in his sleep from undiagnosed diabetes. I realized, due to this book, that that my attitude has changed significantly and that I'd feel robbed of an important life experience if I didn't know I was dying before I died. So, thank you Ruth Picardie for sharing.
- Amazon readers' rating: from 13 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Heavy Fiennes an article by Ruth Picardie (1996)
- National Breast Cancer Awareness
- National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations
- Healthopedia.com on Breast Cancer or general index
- Reading Guide for Before I Say Goodbye
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About the Author:
Ruth Picardie was born in Reading in 1964. Ruth's parents were South African émigrés, part of the wave of liberal intelligentsia that left in the aftermath of Sharpeville. Ruth was brought up and educated in London, Oxford and Cardiff. She went to Cambridge University where she studied social anthropology. She was a former editor at the Guardian and Independent newspapers and a freelance writer for numerous magazines and newspapers. She died in September 1997.