When Abulrazak Gunrah won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I was somewhat abashed that I had read nothing by him. I looked for something related to aging, and chose The Last Gift, which was published in 2011, when the author was 63. (The main character is also 63.) It is the story of the last days of Abbas, a man who has kept the secrets of his youth for his whole life. Even his children, born and raised in England, do not know where he came from. We are English, his children tell people who ask about the source of their brown skin. Abbas’s wife Maryam, much younger and the anchor that kept him on shore after a long period at sea, has an equally mystifying past. She was a foundling whose parents were never identified, and she broke ties with her foster family when she ran away with Abbas. Secrets all around.
When we enter the story, Abbas is getting old and suffering from diabetes. The children of the family have grown and are successfully negotiating university and the working world. They maintain ties with their parents, ties of obligation and guilt. Soon, Abbas has a collapse from diabetes, and then a series of strokes, losing his speech and making him weak. We find him working desperately to recover his voice because he finally feels compelled to tell his story before it is too late. “He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame except himself.” Abbas’s confession spills out in languages his family can and cannot understand; the substance of his story causes them all to re-evaluate their lives and the secrets they themselves are hiding. Soon his wife is also telling her story, as to why she abandoned and has never communicated with her foster family.
It is a good book; I recommend it. It is a tale of immigrants and parenthood, but I left it thinking mainly about the compulsion many of us have to tell our stories before we are gone. Capitalism has even tapped into this – there are apps and websites (i.e. StoryWorth, Saga) that guide you through the process and print you out a glossy book with your picture on it in the end – something to be gifted to all the relatives (whether they want it or not). There are ghost writers who will gladly do it for you (for a substantial fee) and will be less humble about your life than you might be. Some people write out their memories longhand and place them in an envelope with their will. We all have secrets, but we are not quite sure that we want our secrets to die with us.
Of course, in these days of ancestry.com and DNA tests, family secrets are harder than ever to keep. One reason to tell our own story might be to exert some control over the narrative. But the urge to impart everything before you go is as old as man. Classically, it takes the form of a last confession to a priest, but more often it is a plethora of tales told in one’s old age. Even people with dementia seem to want to tell their stories; in her last years, my mother told hers over and over again, including many details of her young life that we had never heard before.
As I have said elsewhere, writing one’s life – present or past – is an enlightening and therapeutic experience. To have to put words to the fearsome memory or that critical act is a good exercise, and the monster of memory is often tamed by calling it out by name. And surely, if there are facts that someone is likely to unearth after you are gone, it might make sense to tell your story in context. We all have such memories, I can assure you. They are not necessarily secret, but they are not necessarily spoken either. It makes no sense to pretend you are perfect. Even if your family believed that, is that a good image to leave them with? How will that make them feel about their own stumbles?
In Gunrah’s novel, Abbas’ family is stunned and then intrigued by his secrets (no spoilers here). In the end, his son and daughter are happy to have both a past to investigate and a better feeling for their father as a real person. It is, indeed, a “last gift.”
Truth is important, and communal truth is increasingly rare. My latest story, “And Now, A Word from Dead Barry,” is a humorous look at the role of truth in life and the afterlife. Meanwhile, I encourage you to write down your story and then think about who you need to share it with. Or not. But you might not be able to decide that until you can put your arms (and words) around what your story is.