Signs/Whines of Life

“Time passes and things change. I feel better today than I did one year ago.

Signs of Life, Natalie Taylor (2011)

Vendredi, 23 août 2013:

With the hassle of lodging my visa application, medical check-ups, Eid celebrations (or should I say, the lack of it), the birth of our niece, and just never-ending procrastination in general for the past few weeks, I found that I have actually dedicated alarmingly too little time on the subject of reading. In fact, come to think of it, the last time I read anything substantial was back at the end of June, when I finished Dorothy Hewett’s The Toucher and Cecile Pineda’s The Love Queen of the Amazon. And that seemed like decades ago already.

Last Saturday however I decided to get back into reading because I was getting sick of Facebook. Since coming back to Malaysia, I have literally no social life to speak or keep track of and I feel like my friends in Perth and I are no longer on the same social wavelength, which limits the extent of our communication. In addition to this, the horror movies I’ve been looking forward to watching with my brothers after midnight were taking too long to download. I was therefore desperately in need of a new form of entertainment and decided to stick to one of the traditional options available: reading. That afternoon I went to the bookshelf in my brother’s living room and picked out the first book I laid eyes on: Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor.

'Signs of Life' by Natalie Taylor (2011)

‘Signs of Life’ by Natalie Taylor (2011)

Signs of Life is one of the last few books I picked up at the $5 bookstore (my absolute favorite) in Hay Street just a couple of days before I left Perth for good in early January of this year. I love memoirs, so this must have been why I picked this book up from the many piles in the bookstore in the first place. This particular one is about the author’s drastic transition from being happily married and in love to a widow upon the sudden death of her husband in an accident to a single mother, all in just a few months.

On the cover of the book it says that this is ‘a true story of love and sadness and hope — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer!’, and it certainly did not disappoint. A few pages into the book I found myself holding back tears already (but in my defense, I am a very emotional reader to begin with…), and laughing out loud in the following chapters as the author describes the hilarious drunk antics of her best friend Chris Mathews and cheering her on as she emerged victorious from an Olympic distance Team in Training triathlon at the end of the book.

This entire book is basically (in a nutshell) centered on the author’s attempt at grappling with her grief over the death of her husband. Before he died her life was picture perfect — they were deeply in love and her husband, Josh, was the sort of guy that people had only good things to say about: handsome, smart, funny, loyal, a true gentleman, athletic, intelligent, loving, caring, the jack of all trades and the carpe diem type. Less than a year prior to his death, Natalie had signed up for this marriage with a vision that they would grow old together with many kids in tow and live happily ever after, but to suddenly find out overnight that she’s now a widow, just a few months before welcoming her first child into this world, is truly a harsh wake-up call.

Even after I’d finished reading the book I found that the grief that she carried with her throughout the book was something that I could not quite identify with. Not to say that she didn’t express it well, but just that her kind of loss is extremely different from the kind of loss that I’ve experienced. Sure, I’ve lost important people in my life too, but not my husband (not that I have one to begin with); thus the pain that we feel may be similar, but the social consequences of our loss are drastically different, which can have significant impact on the grieving and recovery process.

I think there must be something about being stuck in a state of grief that makes it difficult to look beyond one’s own pain and suffering, and I admit, I was in this place myself just a few years ago. All one could think of is the unfairness of life and ‘What have we ever done to deserve this’ and ‘Are we ever going to be happy again’. But the thing is that death will always be a part of this life. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.

As I progress from chapter to chapter and follow the author on her journey to ‘recovery’, one thing comes to mind: #firstworldproblems. I sympathize with the author but at times I thought the title of this book really should be called ‘Whines of Life’ rather than ‘Signs of Life’ because after reflecting on her relatively stable suburban life, the author’s biggest problems could be summed up in a few words: death of husband and newborn son. No financial troubles, extreme ostracism from society or unlivable stigma for being a widow and a young single mother, or anything of that sort; in other words, the tragedy in the author’s life hasn’t really resulted in a significant decline in her social or economic status.

Not many people in this world are actually as fortunate as you, Natalie Taylor, because:

1. Not all of us get that kind of support from our family.

The author is, without a doubt, extremely fortunate to have such a strong support system (or many), be it her family or other social institutions such as her local church or the state, to carry her through her grieving process. One thing I loved about this book is that Natalie talks about her family all the time. I feel like I know them all already by now — her mom (Lynn), dad (Vito), Kai (baby son), Ads (brother), Moo (older sister), Dubs (aka David, Canadian brother in law), Ash (sister in law she has a love-hate relationship with), Chris (brother in law), Deedee (mother in law), Margaret (cousin), Mathews (best friend), Grammy and Grampy (her paternal grandparents who hail from Poland), Battersby, Angela, Megan (best friends), Toby (Josh’s best friend) — and the list literally goes on and on.

Natalie lives near to her parents’ house, which is an enormous privilege in times like this, and her close friends drop by her house all the time as well to check up on her and her baby and to include her in their social activities. So really, life isn’t that bad because by losing one person in your life you get to strengthen relations with everyone in your family.

But us? One person walked out of our lives forever and we lost three-quarters of our family in less than a year. For some reason when I read about this I thought of how I would cope if I were in her shoes. How would I cope without a large supporting family as my safety net? Never mind. The five of us seem to fare just well on our own.

2. At least you’re financially secure. And you’ve got a stable job.

I say this because I thought of how widows in some countries have a difficult time supporting themselves and their children once they enter widowhood. This was certainly true in 7th century Arabia for example, where polygamy was deemed as an acceptable institution then because of the social and economic protection it offers to women (and maybe for other reasons too, but let’s not get into that), in particular to widows. Today there are still widows out there who don’t know how to feed their children because they don’t have a job because they are widows (catch 22).

Natalie on the other hand has a stable job teaching English at Berkley High School. The worst of her problems she encountered at work is that one of her 11th Graders forgot to bring a pencil to class on the first day of school. She does not have to scavenge the garbage processing center for scraps of food or collect recyclable items to sell to make money. So yeah, I’d say she’s damn lucky.

3. You have a SON.

The exact words she used in the book were actually “fat baby”.

Natalie realizes how blessed she is to have her son. But perhaps the hardest thing for Natalie about losing her husband is becoming a single mom, which isn’t really a job that comes with a complete manual, and the thought of her son growing up without ever getting see his own father is truly heartbreaking. I think her complaints of being a single mom are perhaps justified considering the fact that raising a child really is no child’s play — add her two out-of-control dogs, Louise and Bug, into the picture, and you can understand why she eventually had to give them up to a better home.

4. You’re still ALIVE.

This is enough reason to be grateful; I need not say more.

Of course, this book basically documents her journey to self-discovery, so at the end of every whine Natalie puts forth a lesson or two she learned from it. I do not mean to suggest that Natalie Taylor does not appreciate the luxuries of her life, but as I read her memoir it struck me that her worries pretty much pale in comparison to, say, single mothers in economically challenged third-world countries for example. These women have no financial, economic, social, or emotional security to speak of and are not aided by state-sponsored health or religious institutions such as local hospitals and churches that could coach them on how to make the best of their lives. So yeah, what are you even complaining about, Natalie?

Having said that, memoirs are a difficult thing to judge because each person responds to the challenges in their own lives differently. Perhaps my biggest problem with reading this book was keeping myself focused on ‘the glass is half full’ mentality by looking at how the author emerged victorious from her predicaments as opposed to being stuck in ‘the glass is half empty’ phase and only focusing on her troubles.

Is this book recommended? I’d give this a 2.5 stars out of 5.

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