What We Wish Were True: Reflections on Nurturing Life While Facing Death

Beth Waltemath reviews Tallu Schuyler Quinn's memoir, written in the 18 months between her sudden diagnosis with glioblastoma, a terminal brain tumor that affected her sight and speech, and her death at age 42, in February of this year.

Tallu Schuyler Quinn
Convergent Books, 208 pages
Published April 19, 2022

On Easter Monday, my 5-year-old asked to stay home from school. His sister and father were in a specialized children’s hospital nine hours away having her reconstructed airway evaluated. Even the young sense the gravitas of Holy Week, especially those who live in homes with the chronically ill. He said he too needed “time to breathe.” I had just finished reading What We Wish Were True: Reflections on Nurturing Life While Facing Death, and I was sympathetic to his wish to skip school and shadow me in a day of ministry. Tallu Schuyler Quinn wrote her memoir in the 18 months between her sudden diagnosis with glioblastoma, a terminal brain tumor that affected her sight and speech, and her death at age 42, in February of this year.

“How can these things I’ve been through before help me now?” Quinn asks as she grapples with the reality of an early death and fears about what her children will or will not remember about her time being their mother. With the attention and language of a poet, she reflects on her happy childhood raised in the Disciples of Christ, her Bachelor of Arts in textiles and bookbinding, her seminary education in theology and social justice and her vocational path in food justice as founder of The Nashville Food Project. Every chapter has a lesson to offer those who wish to live intentionally and to let go of life gracefully.

“Even as I rage through this present sorrow to the unknowable future that will be my early death, I look into the past and see all who have loved and supported me,” Quinn confesses as she finds how often the intensity of present grief leads to timeless joy and vice versa. “What pulls me out of aloneness is gratitude.”

Gratitude for the cloud of witness that accompany her in her
final days:

… a husband who reads to her when she loses her sight

… a father who edits her writing when her thoughts feel jumbled

… a mother who steadies her gait when they hike to choose a green burial site

… a cousin who certifies as a death doula and weaves her a rainbow funeral shroud

… a friend who drops off fresh bread every week

… her 10-year-old daughter who takes over for her in the kitchen

… and the 6-year-old son whose snuggles remind her what a friend our bodies can be.

A seminary friend recalls how Quinn once described her life, proclaiming, “I won the goddamn lottery.” This is a sentiment she does not willingly give up, even as she faces the decline of her physical and mental capabilities. She recalls the family of farmers that hosted her in Nicaragua as she learned the ropes of food justice, comparing herself to their possessions, which were held together by knots: “Making it through one day is tied up in having made it through the day before.” As Quinn loses the ability to read or to compute simple math, she does not dangle dangerously in the frayed fabric of despair. There is always a tender moment close enough to bless the tie that binds her dying back to living deeply. Even the limitations offer an invitation to give up breadth for depth – less energy, dimmer eyesight, fatigue and mental fog – draw Quinn away from an ambitious life of serving others and into a restful practice of simply being sheltered by close family and the recorded messages of friends. “Embracing the gifts of this shelter is a result of having to say no to a lot more so we can say a deep yes to much less,” she concludes, wondering if death is not as bad as living a life devoid of reverence for what this earth has to offer.

The imagination of the dying is not limited by nostalgia; gratitude imbues the future with visions of potential glory based on beauty we’ve already known. Quinn’s final chapter is a poem entitled, “Some of What It May Be Like,” in which she imagines what her embodied life may become when she leaves it behind — “a waxy leaf, rushing downstream” or a “cosmic, ball of light.”

I hold a copy of her poem in my left hand as I take my son’s hand in my right, guiding him to a rustic amphitheater in a public garden where a dozen family members will gather later that week to inter the ashes of a woman from my congregation — a mother of two who also died in her 40s. With the eagerness of a new reader, my son stops at every sign to read the genus and the common names of the trees and flowers growing along the path: American holly, tulip poplar, Lenten rose, and the “champion” devil’s walking stick. He asks me how these ordinary living things got such prestigious names and why a champion devil has a limp. I respond that words aren’t always literal. They are sometimes signs and seals of our origin in an imagination larger than ours.

Although I didn’t plan my day’s work this way, as we walk in search of a good burial spot, I am grateful to have this playmate and this poem as companions in planning the interment of another mother’s ashes.

“It might be I am … some tenacious perennial herb, comfrey maybe, driving its deep taproot into the soil, devoting my energy to make a flush of new dark leaves and purple blossoms, medicine for the earth.”

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