Back in the Land of the Living
By Gail Bambrick
Michael Downing’s memoir recounts his brush with death and how it remade his life
When Michael Downing was three, his father suddenly dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. That moment was more than a tragedy for Downing: it became a defining piece of who he was and how he would live his life. His father, it turned out, had a genetic predisposition for heart failure, and Downing grappled with the awareness that he might have inherited that potentially fatal DNA.
In Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure (Counterpoint), which came out in paperback on October 1, Downing weaves his childhood memories with his struggle about whether to have a defibrillator implanted to stave off the fatal arrhythmia that may—or may not—come out of the blue and kill him.
In his memoir, Downing, a longtime lecturer in creative writing in the School of Arts and Sciences, refuses to follow the traditional trajectory of many autobiographies from learning to enlightenment. Instead he tells stories, many of them humorous, shares memories and paints small vignettes from his life that draw a map of the human emotional landscape. His conclusion is not an affirmation of belief, but rather one of bewilderment.
“It had always been confounding to me that we daily live proximate to death and yet don’t think about it until it is time to make a life-or-death decision,” Downing says. “But now I see that you can’t be close to death. You are either alive or dead.”
His novels—he’s written four, including Breakfast with Scot, which was adapted for a play and a movie—“are not conventionally autobiographical,” he says, because “I felt excluded from my family’s stories. As the youngest of nine children, I was apart, almost exempted from the family,” Downing says, since he shared few memories of his father with his siblings and his mother’s emotional life and rigorous religious practice were informed by the loss of his father, whom he never knew.
But in his latest book, he’s embraced the stories of his own family. “It has been transformative in my writing life,” Downing says. “I am no longer restricted to writing other people’s stories.”
Patching a Hole in the Heart
In Life with Sudden Death, Downing retells his most cherished memory— a memory he clung to in the absence of any typical childhood experiences with his father he could remember:
It is morning in our big square kitchen. The windows are silvered with sun, and the fake-brick linoleum floor is warm, as if I am walking on the real brick hearth in the living room while a fire is crackling. I am two feet tall, and I walk into the kitchen wearing footed pajamas with rubber soles. My parents are seated at either end of the oval maple table. . . . I walk straight to my father, who balances his no-filter Camel in a clear glass ashtray, picks me up, turns my face to his, kisses me on the lips, and settles me down on his lap. His torso is broad and soft. . . . Everything that is happening is deeply familiar to us. We’ve been through this routine many times. We are still waking up, but we’re happy.
In the book, a teen-aged Downing shares the memory with his brother Joe, who proceeds to dissect the details, proving that it could never have really happened—the kitchen floor he described was wrong, and he wore different slippers.
The scene, and his brother’s declaration that it wasn’t true, is in the book because, as Downing says, “Don’t we all invent narratives to make sense of our lives?”
“This memory patched a hole in my heart, and also fulfilled my need to think that at some point we were ordinary—just an ordinary family not seen only through the lens of my father’s death. All of my experience was framed by this figure who had become larger than life because he died.”
When Downing’s brother Gerard died at age 52 from sudden heart failure associated with the same genetic condition, it catalyzed Downing’s feelings about religion. “I don’t really trust people who believe that everything has been, or will be worked out by some higher power or universal design,” he says. “It means that when it comes time to decide and act, you may hesitate, thinking it will all be taken care of, when you could save your own life.”
Downing describes his decision to take his life into his own hands following his brother’s death and have the surgery to implant a cardioverter defibrillator, which detects life-threatening, irregular heartbeats and delivers electrical shocks to control them.
But that decision leads to numerous “medical misadventures,” as he calls them. Infections, three defibrillators—one of them faulty— and four subsequent surgeries all call into question the ability of medical science to stave off death. These medical calamities and his need to depend on doctors changed Downing’s perception of himself and his relationship to life and death. As he writes:
The good news was I might soon be the electronic Lazarus, buzzed back to life every time I tried to die. The bad news was I’d have to put my life in the hands of doctors to achieve this miracle, and that bunch had a lot of other tricks up their scrubs. The sad news was that happy Lazarus story was just for kids.
His initial decision to have the defibrillator implanted altered his sense of self. “Even though it was my decision, there was a sense of loss of a certain independence. But as my long-time partner told me, if the clutch in your car was broken, wouldn’t you replace it? So for me it is very mechanical in that way, but it has put me on a new road in thinking about spiritual and bodily life and death,” Downing says.
“I feel fortunate to be healthy and enjoying my life,” he concludes. “The nagging question is, what if the genetic mutation never triggers sudden heart failure and I could have avoided all of this?”
Gail Bambrick can be reached at email@example.com.