A little while ago I was telling a friend about my mother. I love my mom, and I love to talk about my mom, and I’m fascinated to no end by not only her person but our relationship. She embodies my origin story, in that I was once a part of her body, and she raised me to become whoever it is that I am. Her influence over my life is pervasive, moving forward through our shared genes and backwards through our family history. My friend and I began to see that one of the reasons we talk about our parents is that it provides a way, in some senses, to talk about ourselves.
David Shields is on to this; The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead is a work of both cultural and personal memoir on what it means to live, to be given life, and describes Shields’ fascination with his father’s apparent deafness to the ever tolling bell. Let me say plainly that I adore David Shields’ work, especially here. He writes with his own words, and (as you may have heard) with those that came from many others. The Thing About Life is, like life itself, a collage. Relying on quotations from artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers, Shields also uses biology to describe the way our bodies run their course. He includes other physiological metrics to describe the life of that strange animal we call a human being. At 10 years old, we are physically in our prime; Every year after our 25th, our brains get a little smaller; “[b]y age 35, nearly everyone shows some signs of aging, such as graying hair, wrinkles, less strength, less speed, stiffening in the walls of the central arteries, degeneration of elevated blood pressure.”
Sheilds’ dad is obsessed with preserving his vitality. He eats, perhaps even enjoys, a sparse and fibrous diet and exercises fanatically. When this book was released, in 2008, he was 98 years old. And still swimming every day. He had a heart attack on the tennis court and played the set through. Shields, at the time of writing, was 51 years old, living day to day with chronic back pain. Watching his father’s body, his own body, decay gradually, Shields confronts death head on, without a trace of romance, or even angst. His investigation into his own origins, and his fascination with our common fate, becomes a surprising celebration of life itself. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead takes the guts out of you, but manages to keep giving you a reason breathe.