Radio review: Uplifting memoir on healing

Nuala McCann

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke Radio 4

The worst of times can also be the most illuminating - a sharp focus on what matters most in life, says Rachel Clarke.

She is both a doctor and a beautiful writer. In Dear Life – a serialisation of her book, she speaks with clarity and sincerity – her words are a meditation on what life means.

This is an uplifting memoir on medicine and healing.

She brings us back to 1994, when, as a young woman in her 20s, she sat down with her physician father and watched

playwright Dennis Potter give his last public interview.

He had pancreatic cancer. He set down a hip flask on the table, containing not whiskey but morphine. Every so often he took a swig from the flask as he continued his interview with Melvyn Bragg.

His message is one that has resonated with everyone who ever watched that interview or who has read his words.

It is not about the terrible pain of dying but rather about the wonder of living. This was one of the greatest interviews of the 20th century.

Potter got the news of his diagnosis on Valentine's Day ... “a gift, like a little kiss,” he said.

But he talked about the perspective that imminent death gives... seeing the blossom on a tree and suddenly “it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be.”

The only thing you know is the present tense, the now-ness of everything is absolutely wondrous, he said.

Rachel Clarke was a young woman in her 20s back then ... but that interview struck a chord with her and she made her way as a doctor specialising in terminal illness.

“I've made dying my day job,” she said.

Dear Life is one of many memoirs written by doctors and nurses.

She asks important questions about the emotional toll of medical work.

It's a profession that must temper empathy with detachment – no-one wants a doctor weeping at their bedside.

And can you end up immune to other people's pain precisely because you start off with such compassion?

It's clear that this writer has not.

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