Thursday, August 27, 2020

Is the "good death" elusive or impossible? Consider ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS, Alison Lester's Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying

 The “good death” may seem elusive, or even impossible, but novelist Alison Jean Lester chronicles just that in her new memoir, Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying (Bench Press, 10/22/20).  

Lester reports surprising facts:  "My mother, Valerie Lester, died on the morning of June 7, 2019, of metastatic melanoma. I’m driven to write about it because her death was, by all the standards I can imagine, a good one. Not only was the moment of her death good; the weeks of decline leading to her death were good. And not only that; the eighteen months between her first dire prognosis and her death were some of the happiest months of her life. Her final moment was, I suppose, ordinary – she drew a last breath, devoid of drama, when her body could no longer maintain itself. Her approach to dying, though? That was amazing"

Valerie, a Pan Am hostess, met Alison's father on a plane, returning from the first American expedition of Mt. Everest. She later became a biographer of Pan Am, among other topics and at age 40, a poet, after years of studying work that moved her. She was, says Alison, a woman of who took great enjoyment in nature, food and people she loved. 

ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS shows Valerie's process accepting her terminal illness and deciding to forego treatments that might have prolonged her life but ruined her death. Instead, she moved to the residential hospice where she chose to live her final weeks. She decided where she wanted to be, what she wanted to do, and with whom. And Alison relayed this to family and friends, who honored her wishes.

This singular chronicle is told from three perspectives; Alison's narrative and haiku poems, drawings by Valerie's friend Mary Ann Frye, and Valerie's own poems and ones she studied to come to terms with death..  

 In the title vignette, a nurse asks Valerie if she’d like a gin and tonic.


I can’t remember if Mum actually said yes in answer; all I remember is that she sparkled. The yes was clear to us all.… She didn’t talk, just drank a glug of cocktail and then opened her mouth for more crackers … Taking the glass from her mouth after a few minutes of this I asked, “Is that nice?”

“Absolutely delicious.”

After a few more minutes … we realized she was chewing with her eyes closed. We told her we were going to lay her back down again. She slept.

So that was her last meal. And those were her last words.

But there were still a few days to go.

 In writing Absolutely Delicious, Alison’s goal is to inspire conversation about end-of-life choices in people who haven’t yet broached the subject: “If you are dying, or are supporting someone who is dying, I hope the experiences in this book will encourage, enable, and even entertain you.”

Death, especially in this time of plague, is a fearful specter. It may also be a time to think of the possibility of a death consistent with a life lived. There's a sense of continuity, when mourners meet to dedicate a gravestone months after a funeral. The Balinese, six months after a death, burn a mythic paper animal to celebrate the spirit, as it ascends with smoke to heaven. 

This book is recommended for all mortals. 


Alison Jean Lester was born in LA and grew up in St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, London and Massachusetts before attending Indiana University, where she earned a B.A. in Mandarin and French. After an M.A. in Chinese Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, she worked for the U.S. Commerce Department, before moving to Japan. She worked as an editor, journalist, and voiceover artist before moving to Singapore, where she developed a successful coaching and training business, performed improvised comedy, and continued to write. She currently lives in Worcestershire, England. She is the author of novels Yuki Means Happiness and Lillian on Life, poetry, short stories, plays, and non-fiction books on communication.

Mary Ann Frye has been a designer of exhibits for science and history museums, a faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design and Head of the Graphic Design Concentration at Northeastern University and of the Printmaking/Graphic Design Program at the Massachusetts College of Art. One of her current projects is to paint a portrait daily, the total approaching 1500, “of people I admire or love.”