(Published in the Raleigh News and Observer 5/22/16)
Last month a dear friend lost her husband, and though I’d lost a string of friends in my 40s, this hit me differently. Those earlier deaths, painful as they were, seemed random, premature and remote. This recent death struck me differently. I am at an age where my own death and that of my husband and other friends don’t feel so arbitrary.
And then, a month later, something far more confusing and unexpected happened. Another dear friend lost her son who was dear to me as well. He lived boldly and colorfully and, like me, made lots of mistakes and learned to apologize gracefully.
The week he died, I was haunted by memories that had deepened my love for this boy and now deepened my sorrow.
I turned to audiobooks for comfort, thinking first of familiar characters who seemed to me like old friends, our past history soothing.
I first escaped into Olagh Cassidy’s engaging narration of Jacqueline Winspear’s engrossing “Journey to Munich” (HarperAudio, about 9.25 hours). The 12th mystery starring the historical socially conscious sleuth, Maisie Dobbs, takes place in 1938 as the heroine travels to Germany to free a man from Dachau. Cassidy, who has narrated all the audios, transitions easily between English, Scottish, German and American accents, sometimes within one dialogue. With ease, she captures Maisie’s moods, prevailing plot tensions, and relationship turmoils. Maisie still grieves losses suffered during the previous title, “A Dangerous Place” (HarperAudio, 9.75 hours), and while these mysteries always involve an emotional component, I found the themes of grief and children particularly poignant.
I found literary liberation next in Alexander McCall Smith’s “The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine” (Recorded Books, 8CDs, 9.25 hours). The 16th mystery featuring detective Mma Precious Ramotswe, has the usual soothing warmth for listeners, though not for the heroine. She is convinced by her second-in-command, Mma Makutsi, that she needs a holiday. Mma Ramotswe is restless, unsettled when she finds a boy who has been deserted, then worried when she hears about an important political case troubling her colleagues. Lisette LeCat rolls R’s like no one else and her accents transported me so quickly into Botswana world that and I basked in the sturdy comfort of the traditionally-built protagonist whose wise “Ramotswe-isms” are so nurturing.
I wore my feelings close to the surface. Repulsion bubbled up at any sign of insensitivity and superficiality, and I looked for meaningful moments in life. From an early age, this was the driving force for Paul Kalanithi as one learns from his memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air” (Random House, 5 hours, 35 minutes). Sunil Malhotra’s narration is even and tranquil until Kalanithi’s thoughts turn to questioning, or marveling as he so often does. Then Malhotra’s voice encourages the same in listeners. Kalanithi studied literature and philosophy “to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in an MRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world.” He applied all he learned to terminally ill patients who struggled to understand. Then, at 34, after completing his residency in neurosurgery, he was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Instead of the luxurious catamaran and more “manageable” life he’d imagined, he was plunged back into searching for “what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”
Cassandra Campbell reads the epilogue written by Kalanithi’s widow, her voice soft and slow, conveying details of Kalanithi’s death, the joys of their child and a very personal view of her extraordinary husband.