While many of us can probably recall a heart-stopping moment when we narrowly averted a serious injury or even death – seventeen times? That is about sixteen more close calls than any one person should have to endure. And yet, that is how many times Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell has dodged the bullet. Best known for her novels, O’Farrell ventures into new territory with her first nonfiction book, a memoir titled I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. With a title like that, and, I’ll admit, more than a little morbid curiosity, how could I not read this book?
I am, I am, I am’s seventeen chapters are each named after a body part, or parts, that correspond to one of O’Farrell’s near-death experiences. Neck for a close encounter with a murderer, Lungs for the time(s) she nearly drowned, Intestines for her life-threatening bout with amoebic dysentery. But if you’re expecting descriptive pulse-pounding escapes from the jaws of death, this book isn’t that. Instead, O’Farrell takes the unique tack of using her near-death experiences to illuminate and affirm her life. She sometimes switches to the second or third person viewpoint to describe herself as an observer to the events rather than a participant, writing about her near-death experiences with an air of detachment. The actual brushes with death are almost incidental to the thoughts that run through her mind during those final inevitable minutes and seconds – when she knows what’s coming but is powerless to stop the forces – and her reflection afterward on what led up to those crucial moments.
In Abdomen, one of the memoir’s most affecting chapters, O’Farrell writes about her experience giving birth to her first child. After a grueling three-day labor, she nearly hemorrhaged to death during the ensuing emergency caesarean. Aside from the surprising statistics of how common maternal death during childbirth still is, even in First World countries like the U.S. and U.K., the truly shocking part was O’Farrell’s interaction, months before the actual birth, with a hospital bureaucrat she refers to as Mr. C. Because of her complicated medical history, O’Farrell broached the idea of an elective c-section. Mr. C summarily dismissed her concerns as the nonsense of a hysterical female – interested only in a “fashionable” birth like the celebrities she read about in the gossip magazines – bullying, humiliating, and patronizing her, effectively silencing her voice and nearly resulting in her death. The final chapter of the book, Daughter (present day), also left me wrecked. Unlike the other chapters, it is not about one of O’Farrell’s near-death experiences, but that of her daughter who suffers from a litany of severe medical issues. It is absolutely heartbreaking.
I had my own close call a few years ago. My family and I were on the way to dinner when a car from oncoming traffic veered into our path. I can still remember thinking maybe we have time to swerve out of the way, maybe it’ll be okay, and then the moment when I realized… maybe not. Though our car was totaled, my family thankfully walked away from that accident with no major injuries. Whether it’s one near-death experience or seventeen, O’Farrell’s message still resonates: there is nothing like a brush with death to realize just how precarious and precious life is. How grateful I am.