Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

before i go

by John Ellis

My mom was in her early sixties when she passed away from cancer. Unfortunately that statement is not unique; most of you reading this have lost a loved one to cancer. I don’t know if cancer is more ubiquitous than it used to be, but is sure feels like it. And not just in the devastating personal stories of fights with the dreadful disease; cancer has frequently been cast as the villain in popular culture expressions – novels, movies/TV shows, and even songs[1]. Parenthood, one of my wife’s and my favorite TV shows[2], featured cancer as a major plot point beginning in season four. The character Kristina battled breast cancer, and there were several episodes that elicited the amount and type of tears usually reserved for Hallmark commercials, A Walk to Remember[3], and certain Celine Dion songs. And hopefully you can already see the problem with the portrayal of cancer on Parenthood; to blatantly steal a phrase that a good friend of mine frequently uses – unearned sentimentality[4].

My experience with my mom’s cancer and her eventual death bears little relation to many of the portrayals of cancer in pop culture. There were definitely “sentimental” moments; one being watching my mom and her sister embrace for the last time, and my aunt whispering, “Tell Dad I said ‘hi.’” referencing their father who had passed away from cancer several years earlier. But mostly it was untidy confusion and misdirected anger that was never neatly resolved[5]. But then again, most of real life is much less tidy than the cleanly and falsely crafted narratives found in pop culture. It takes incredible talent to tell a story centered on the worst of our fears and weighed down by our most profound losses, and not sink into either utter despair or land somewhere on the scale of saccharine resolutions. However, I’m happy to be able to state that with before i go, Colleen Oakley exhibits that incredible talent.

 before i go, Oakley’s first novel[6], is the story of a twenty-seven year old cancer survivor named Daisy who is confronted with the reality that the adjective “survivor” will not apply to her in a few months. As Daisy navigated the revelations of the consequences of her returning cancer, at times dizzyingly and at times ploddingly, I was often struck with the overwhelming need to colleen oakleystop reading and pray for faith – faith to trust in God’s sovereignty. The book ruthlessly burrowed into my fears and past emotions about my mom’s death and threatened to undo me. I even set the book aside for about a week, eventually picking it back up; I’m so glad that I did.

After receiving the prognosis that she only has six months to live, at best, Daisy becomes consumed with the fear of what her death will do to her doctoral candidate husband. She has become, after all, his gravitational pull; her efforts allow him to be successful because she keeps the center, well, centered. Mundane things like how will he remember to put his dirty socks in the laundry haunt Daisy. She imagines “the pile of socks growing exponentially until it teeters dangerously toward the ceiling and spreads like a fungus to each corner of the room. Jack would fall asleep every night in a sea of socks, until the one night he’d choke and sputter on the noxious odors and eventually suffocate under the oppressive weight of thousands of pairs of knitted footwear.”

The solution, Daisy believes, is to pick someone out for her husband to marry after her funeral. Easier said than done, of course. But not because good wives are hard to find. But because as those six months roll on, Daisy finds that preparing for death isn’t simply a matter of finding her replacement.

Colleen Oakley has written not only a harsh book that rips at the edges of the reader’s fragility, but she has also managed to simultaneously write a softly beautiful book that soothes that exposed fragility. Daisy Richmond was my proxy in a story that I don’t want to live, but I know that eventually time will win out and some variation of Daisy’s story will come home and I will be forced to own it. Daisy’s struggle to own her story; her fight to push through to some kind of equilibrium within her own tragic story, was the catalyst for an earned emotion from me. Earned because it cost me something, but I believe that I walked away with more than I spent.

Learn more about Colleen Oakley and her writing:

[1] “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens, “The Remedy” by Jason Mraz, “Mission” by Lupi Fiasco, and “3AM” by Matchbox 20 – and you thought “3AM” was a sappy break-up song, didn’t you?

[2] The words “me and my wife’s” should provide some context to the “favorite” part. Parenthood isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, even close to threatening to break into my list of ten favorite TV shows – make that top-twenty. … Great! Now I’m distracted from writing this book review by my desire to figure out what my twenty favorite TV shows are.

[3] I’ve never seen it.

[4] This is already the second time in the short life of A Day In His Court that I’ve referenced Chris’ disgust with unearned sentimentality. At some point, he’s going to begin demanding royalties.

[5] To be clear, I’m speaking of my responses. As far as I could tell, my Mom navigated those months with grace and in full faith that God was in control. After she passed away, I did discover some journals in which my mom confessed fear of death, confusion, and anger. In an odd way, that journal was a blessing to me. It made her faith even more palpable for me.

[6] She’s working on her second novel, and according to her website, she needs babysitters. If any of my Atlanta area readers are babysitters, hit Colleen up.


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