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Death & Dying

by Susan Wicks
Basic Books, 1995
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 9th 1998

Driving My Father Susan Wicks portrays the final years of her father, after the death of her mother. His mental and physical abilities gradually decline, although it is never made entirely clear what his diagnosis is. He doesn't respond well to different treatments, and his fading from life is slow but sure. So inevitably this is a sad story, full of loss and grief. Her father cannot get over the loss of his wife, and his eyes fill with tears at every thought of her. One of the hardest things for Wicks to bear is her father's keening, the loud crying that expresses his pain. What is so distinctive about Wicks' approach to this well worn topic is her poet's touch. Her previous work has been a couple of well-regarded volumes of poetry, and this short book is in some ways more like a long prose poem than a traditional narrative of a family coming to terms with change.

 Blake Morrison is another British poet who described his relationship with his father in prose. And When Did You Last See Your Father: A Son's Memoir of Love and Loss also relates the experience of grief at the loss of a parent. But Wicks hardly tells a story at all: instead she uses a series of images, dreams, carefully described moments, feelings, and even anticipations of the future. Some of the moments described did not occur at all, but are just how she pictures them. For instance, she talks about how it will be to discover her father collapsed at home, but he moves into an adult home where he is closely supervised as he loses his ability to care for himself. But the description of the fantasy plays as important a role as the description of her father helping her to fly a kite. Even some of the descriptions of the past may not be as they happened, but are rather depictions of how Wicks wished it had happened. The stream of images does not make much attempt to discover the truth of what her father was really like, nor to describe the effect on her family of her father's decline. What she conveys is a sense of the thoughts, experiences, worries, memories, wishes and questions that she has as she increasingly takes responsibility for her father. There are repeated refrains, especially the line, "When people asked me which of my parents I preferred, I always said my father." She never says that she has changed her mind about her preference, but clearly seeing her father become childlike and forgetful changes her relationship with him and makes her reconsider her past experiences.

 While Driving My Father is not confessional in the way that many tales of personal grief tend to be, it does provide a great sense of intimacy. Maybe that's because it gets closer to the author's stream of consciousness: we are not seeing her carefully considered verdicts on the difficult experiences she has undergone, but rather the more raw material of what goes on in her head. It is a powerful, understated book with many layers of meaning, which makes me want to read it again.