To be perfectly honest, I was prepared not to like Kerry Egan’s “On Living,” despite it’s unfailingly positive reviews. I am not a religious person, and I fully expected a book written by a hospice chaplain to be brimming with off-putting references to monotheism, spiritual redemption, and communion with God.
But that’s not what happened, and that’s not what Egan’s book is like at all. In fact, it’s neither preachy nor religious. It’s simply a moving, inspiring, and totally unchaplain-like look at life, death, love, loss, and the twin demons that haunt us all — shame and regret. Most importantly, it’s about hope.
“On Living,” is a collection of stories interspersed with Egan’s personal insights into what it’s like to be human in a difficult and often tragic world. The stories she shares are those of the dying, but they are not stories about death. Rather, they are stories about ordinary people looking back on their lives, trying to make sense of the chaos and find meaning in what they have endured. Egan tells them with extraordinary skill, managing in a just a few short paragraphs to convey the full spectrum of emotions that people shared as they spoke with her.
“On Living” is also autobiographical in that Egan shares with her readers her own terrifying ordeal and her struggles to overcome her shame and fear. Told in small tidbits throughout the book, the story is both heartbreaking and filled with hope. During a difficult childbirth and unplanned C-section, Egan received ketamine, an anesthetic that produces a temporary dissociative state. Sadly for Egan, this state persisted when the medication wore off, leaving her psychotic and unable to care for her infant son for many months. She was even convinced, despite the child’s physical presence, that her baby had died. In the throes of her psychosis, no amount of objective proof could diminish her grief.
Egan uses this experience as a springboard to speak to us frankly and objectively about what “living” is really like. As she shares the stories of her patients, she weaves them together with her own, helping us understand the fundamental truth that we are all damaged and all suffering, and that absolutely nothing in life is black and white. She poses hard questions about the nature of reality, the nature of acceptance and the nature of love. And in doing so, she invites us to explore our own relationship with the world and ourselves.
“On Living” is a short book, just 200 pages long. It’s superbly written and incredibly engaging: I’m a slow reader, and I read it in one day. And though its stories are about people at the end of their lives, its overarching message is that hope and meaning are possible no matter where in our life journey we are. And that it’s never too soon — or too late — to start living a great life.