OPINION | ON BOOKS: Love, grief highlight new Runcie memoir

"Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death, and Marriage" by James Runcie (Bloomsbury, $27)
"Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death, and Marriage" by James Runcie (Bloomsbury, $27)
  • It's knowing that this can't go on forever
  • Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
  • Maybe we'll get 40 years together
  • But one day I'll be gone
  • Or one day you'll be gone
  • — Jason Isbell, "If We Were Vampires"

We are the animal that sees the future.

We are the animal that imagines a hereafter, and alternatively, the numbness of nonexistence. We can foresee and foreshadow. We can create universes in books, out of ones and zeroes. We have our magic and our mystery. We have our delimited spans of sentience, when blood and breath conspire to keep us in the world.

We are the animal that understands our own fragility.

There are a lot of books about death, and dying, and being left behind by those we love.

On the first page of his memoir "Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death, and Marriage" (Bloomsbury, $27), James Runcie questions the utility of adding to the "countless tributes, biographies and laments written by the recently bereaved. Grief is a universal experience, and sometimes it seems all human enterprise is underpinned by its low hum, a bass note that roots us to the reality of our world. Without death, there is no urgency, and ultimately no meaning, just a never-ending drift. As much as we worry and crave the infinite, we need the finite more."

Runcie is a Scottish novelist, broadcaster, filmmaker and playwright probably best known for the Granchester series of crime novels, which spawned a television series that in this country streams on Amazon Prime.

The protagonist of these books is a crime-solving Anglican vicar and former Scots Guards officer modeled on Runcie's father, Robert Alexander Kennedy Runcie, an English Anglican bishop who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991. So there is faith in his DNA, along with a leavening sense of dry morbidity.

He describes his own baptism, conducted by his father's friend Bishop Launcelot (though Runcie calls him "Lancelot") Fleming, an amateur polar explorer who was renowned for his "saintly absent-mindedness."

Runcie writes:

"He began my service of baptism thus: 'Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as if it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.'

"'Lancelot,' my father interrupted, 'that's the funeral service'."

So Runcie's life began with a funeral. Not necessarily a great start.

He went on to have an uncommonly happy marriage to Marilyn Imrie, a theater director esteemed and beloved by the theater community in the U.K., for 35 years.

In 2020, just as the covid-19 pandemic was settling in, Imrie was diagnosed with a motor neurone disease (MND), a rare kind of neurological obliteration. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease — is the most common form of MND.) It begins with sharp pains that come unexplained, manifests in a terrible weakness that makes it difficult to swallow, breathe, speak or walk, and often ends with the patient drowning in their own saliva.

Runcie and Imrie were aware from almost the beginning that MND was a possibility. Imagine hoping, as they did, that her symptoms would turn out to be "just a brain tumor" or perhaps multiple sclerosis, which for some reason is especially prevalent in Scotland. But the diagnosis was MND, what's sometimes called "the 1,000-day disease" though most patients can expect to live about two years after the first symptoms arrive.

Imrie got five months and 22 days. Her "journey," which was not at all "like a roller coaster," though that's what all the medical people kept telling them, was at least brief. She is gone by page 90, less than halfway through this strange and beautiful book, which takes its title from her habitual greeting: "Hello, gorgeousness. Tell me good things!"

But "Tell Me Good Things" is not primarily a memoir of illness — of an unwinnable battle to stay alive — but a love letter to the most important person in his life. Runcie spares us the graphic details of the mutiny of Imrie's body, alluding to her struggles mainly by cataloging the specialized equipment that arrives at their Edinburgh flat. He described these items — walkers, ramps, bath aids, hoists, specialized feeding equipment, ventilators — as props, and notes that the pitiless progress of her illness rendered most of them obsolete within two weeks.

While it's probably fair to think of Runcie's memoir as self-care, it also serves as an instruction guide for those wanting to be a good friend and caretaker to a terminal patient. Instead of asking "how are you?" — as a psychotherapist friend did upon learning of Imrie's diagnosis — it's better to simply text "thinking of you" because an honest reply to the question might come off as rude and the text requires no answer.

There is none.

Runcie is honest about his "visceral hatred" toward his elderly neighbors who casually mention that they are looking forward to receiving a covid-19 vaccine — he's angry with them for having a future worthy of protecting. He resents the druggies lining up at the local methadone clinic for having treated their bodies with a recklessness he finds insulting given that Imrie took no such risks with her health.

But the bitterness recedes. Late in the book, Runcie writes:

"Gratitude is part of love. I remembered my father's bold assertion in the Bible he gave us that 'love never fails' with its confident underlining. I looked up the promises of Christ in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

"Sometimes this is hard to hold onto. There's a grave near Marilyn's in St. Monans which has the inscription: 'If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.'"

The implication is that love can't save us. Not from death. Not from grief.

Love cannot keep us alive. It just gives our living meaning.

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