Getting to Know Death: A Meditation by Gail Godwin


Review by Brian Tanguay

Gail Godwin published her first novel, The Perfectionists, in 1970 and her most recent, Old Lovegood Girls, in 2020. In the years between, Godwin was prolific, publishing more than a dozen novels, two story collections, and several books of nonfiction. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a three-time National Book Award finalist. 

At the age of 85 Godwin ventured outside to water a small dogwood tree in her yard, tripped and broke her neck. For several months thereafter, Godwin would wear a cervical collar and spend time in a rehabilitation facility. Readers who have cared for elderly parents or relatives know how disorienting and debilitating this can be for a person, especially one who has up to then lived independently. The loss of bodily autonomy and comfortable routines is often crushing. 

Godwin recognizes her predicament and what the first serious physical injury of her life means for her remaining years. “I can’t see a way out of this,” she writes, adding that “things will not necessarily get better.” But though she acknowledges reality, she never completely surrenders to it. Her injury may prevent her from ascending the stairs to the second-floor bedroom in her home, but it never stops her from creatively mining her experience. Getting to Know Death is full of grace and humor, memories of friends and people Godwin has outlived, including a brother and father who committed suicide. 

If Godwin felt any despair during her recovery it was displaced by her endless curiosity. She’s interested in and grateful for the new people who come into her orbit: nurses, therapists, her rehab roommate, Agnes, and a home health aide named Rusa. The portraits she draws of these people are as interesting as her reminisces of her childhood friend, Pat, and her long-time companion, Robert, whose room on the first floor Godwin now occupies. She ruminates on the poetry of Philip Larkin, the late work of Samuel Beckett and the death of Henry James. Her creative mind still skips and leaps, pirouetting from present to past, from people and books that have influenced her to the novel she’s in the process of writing. 

Ironically, Godwin outlives the little dogwood tree in her yard. A year after breaking her neck, gardeners laid the tree to rest in the woods behind her house. And in what seems a metaphor for the end none of us will escape, she writes that they “raked and smoothed the dark soil, sprinkled the grass seed, and watered everything well with the hose.”

This memoir will be published by Bloomsbury in June 2024