Health: Miles To Go Before I Sleep by Claire Gilbert (Hodder, €20)
What we do with the bad things that happen to us — a diagnosis of incurable cancer, say — is entirely unique. For some, knowing death is close takes joy from the world; the late Nuala O’Faolain said: “As soon as I heard I was going to die, the goodness went from life.” For others, knowing life is short brings an intense desire to live.
For Claire Gilbert, being told she had myeloma, incurable cancer of the blood, at the age of 54, and that she could hope for perhaps 10 more years, with heavy doses of chemotherapy and other frightful treatments, made her understand some things: “it is … worse to be the loved one of the ill one, rather than the ill one herself.” And to vow: “I am going to remain beautiful until I die.”
Gilbert is director of Westminster Abbey Institute, and Miles to go before I Sleep is her record of 18 months of despair, determination, misery, hope, many strange kinds of joy and all points inbetween. In January 2019, just after her diagnosis, Gilbert began writing to family and friends, her “Dear Readers”, to keep them up to date on what happened to her as it happened, and how she felt, so they could travel a little along the way with her. She continued until March 2020 at which stage she was told that she would be required to self-isolate for 12 weeks. She has now collected 44 of these letters together for an intimate, honest and beautiful record of a year like no other.
There is the diagnosis, the treatment plan that started with chemotherapy then took a diverging path because she accepted a clinical trial that saw her randomly allocated to a stem cell transplant or more chemotherapy, and the aftermath, with all the traumatic indignities of heavy medicine along the way.
Inbetween are meditations on life, death, and love, along with poetry – everyone from Gerald Manley Hopkins, DH Lawrence to Ted Hughes – and prayers. The books comes with plaudits from Emily Watson, Maurice Saatchi, Miranda Hart, and rightly.
Gilbert is a wonderful writer, who can make constipation, collapsing veins, even the daily intake of steroids, somehow as absorbing and resonant as, say, early-morning horse rides and the astonishing kindness of strangers. She can write about the clumsy actions of a doctor or nurse and how their fumbling hands cause her even more pain than is necessary – and she can do this in a way that is forgiving and almost funny.
She has a deep faith, and writes about God with a quiet familiarity and an expectation of comfort that would make you envy her those beliefs. But she doesn’t shirk the awful stuff either, at one point asking: “How can anyone feel like this and keep on being alive and human?” Through everything she never stops picking herself up again and again, resolving that this “will motivate me to make who I am a work of art”.
This is a book for anyone going through cancer – reading Gilbert's descriptions of the painful side-effects of her treatment brought me back to that time in my own life more surely than anything except my own diaries has done.
Because of the intense nature of what she discovers – “Life wants to live” is the kernel of truth she takes from the intensely testing forge of her experiences – the book is for anyone facing unavoidable hardship of any kind. And for anyone who has a loved one going through major illness.
When that happens, friends wonder what they can do. Well, Gilbert has many answers.
She records the lovely things her own friends and family do – including sending their musical choices to make her a playlist she can listen to when she is too weak and sick to read – and in doing so, she provides suggestions for anyone who has ever wondered how to show their love and concern when someone they care for disappears into a world of hospitals and treatment where they cannot be followed. Seen from the patient’s point of view – Gilbert’s – you realise just how important is that invisible network of care, and how those who feel impotent are actually indispensible.