Brand building through storytelling

Catching courage

When you stay at an inn like the ones we visited on our recent summer road trip, you know you’ll never run out of reading matter. There’s always a bookshelf lined with paperbacks left by other guests—their spines worn, their pages turning brown at the edges or crinkled by by water from the pool. Someone chose to abandon every one of those books, if only to lighten a suitcase. And someone could give any one of them a second life. Or a third, come to that.

I had just polished off a mildly disappointing novel when I found, on a typically laden inn bookshelf, a copy of Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. It stood at the end of a half-full row, its cover fully visible like a banner waved for me alone amid the blur of here-and-gone thrillers. I had always meant to read that book, and I have a big birthday coming up.

Ever since its publication a dozen years ago, The Last Gift of Time has been one of those touchstone books women recommend to friends in search of possibility and purpose to infuse their approaching old age. It consists of 15 essays–elegant, acerbic, defiantly unsentimental–on the unlikely pleasures of the author’s seventh decade, one she hadn’t planned to see through. A feminist scholar and prolific author whose works ranged from a biography of Gloria Steinem to a mystery series (published under the pseudonym Amanda Cross), Heilbrun had intended to commit suicide at 70. Her 60s, she assumed, “would be downhill all the way.” Then she welcomed a rambunctious dog into her orderly life. She swore off dinner parties and bought a country home of her own (never mind her husband and beloved adult children). She committed to doing exactly as she chose. Oh, freedom!

Heilbrun’s story has a postscript both achingly sad and monumentally perplexing. One October morning nearly six years ago, she met a friend for their customary walk in Central Park, then went home and put a plastic bag over her head. She was 77, neither ill nor depressed as far as anyone knew. She had a husband, children, grandchildren and devoted friends. Her suicide note, pithy almost to the point of cruelty, read, “The journey is over. Love to all.”

Many fans felt betrayed by her death. One of them, writer Judith Timson, grappled with her outrage in a column for Chatelaine, poublished during my last year as Editor. I remember nodding in disgusted agreement at Timson’s comment on that suicide note: “She might have been penning a postcard from Tuscany.” Timson went on to ask, “Why throw it away when there are people out there who aren’t given the choice? And what gave her the right to walk away from the downside of growing older while so many others soldier on?”

Good questions. But here I am—a woman creating a life with no paycheque, name plate or departmental meetings, no web of obligations to a growing family. I want to understand this great project, so I look for mentors. Recently I turned to the luminous Diana Athill, the late-blooming British memoirist who’s now launching a book at age 91. But something compels me not to overlook Heilbrun—the thorny searcher she was in her 60s, before she lost hope and heart.

In Heilbrun’s essay on writers as “unmet friends,” I find this: “Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires a reader had hardly acknowledged—desires that now seem possible. Women catch courage from the writers whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.”

Thank you, Carolyn Heilbrun. I could never choose to end my story as you did. But this does not diminish the power of your insight as I shape these next chapters in my own fashion.

Click here to read my post on the suicide of Sylvia Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes. 


Posted by Rona

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