Given how generally irreverent Kerr is, he would probably not use the language of sacred time and space, but Kerr knows from both his experience and his research that end-of-life dreams help the dying find meaning. He came to believe that even if physicians resisted this critical knowledge, patients would welcome it, and so he began to see his primary audience as patients and their families and not just his fellow physicians. For that reason, to get his message out, he turned from academic writing to storytelling. His first effort in this direction was a TEDx talk on the topic of whether death can be illuminating. The talk was wildly successful, and the media coverage of the talk led to a book contract for Death Is But a Dream. Because he is a clinician and not a writer, the publisher wanted him to work with a ghostwriter to produce a manuscript. By all accounts, the collaboration did not go well, and Kerr turned to a friend and literary scholar Carine M. Mardorossian for help. Mardorossian is a professor of English and global gender and sexuality studies at the University of Buffalo. Though she had not written creative nonfiction before collaborating with Kerr, she knew from her academic work the power of listening to the marginalized.
It was a commitment to telling Kerr’s patients’ stories that made the collaboration work. The previous ghostwriter who worked with Kerr wanted to highlight themes in the research and not the stories of the patients. Mardorossian understood that, like medicine, the humanities are often death-denying. Scholars write with ease about illness and its treatment, but they are not comfortable writing about death itself. She knew that in listening carefully to his patients and their experiences at the end of life, Kerr was rejecting the strict binary of life versus death. Dying, he seemed to say, was a way of living. To listen to the dying was to attend to a form of living that is frequently ignored.
When I asked Mardorossian what it was like to collaborate with Kerr, her admiration and respect for him were palpable. “Chris constantly changed anything I wrote for him in the first person from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ I had to fight for the first person, because Chris always wanted to give credit to others.” This makes it seem like Mardorossian wrote and Kerr revised, but Mardorossian is clear that this was not the case. She learned as much about writing from Kerr as he did from her. “It was like he had a (narrative) chessboard in his head,” Mardorossian said. “I would see the next move in the section we were working on, and Chris would see the next five moves almost immediately.”
Mardorossian is particularly fond of a chapter about love in Death Is But a Dream. It tells the stories of some of Kerr’s elderly patients whose love confounds our culture’s focus on romantic love as only for the young. One of Kerr’s patients, Benny, suffered from what is commonly referred to as broken-heart syndrome, or in technical terms, stress-induced takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Eighty-seven years old and in good health when his wife, Gloria, died suddenly from an infection, Benny was inconsolable and visited his wife’s grave every day, sometimes several times a day. On Valentine’s Day, two months after Gloria died, Benny’s daughter found her father at the cemetery in subzero weather tracing an outline of a heart in the snow around Gloria’s tombstone. Benny’s health declined dramatically after his wife’s death, and this ill-advised trip to the cemetery accelerated the decline. Yet when he was admitted to hospice, Benny found a kind of peace, because almost immediately he began dreaming of Gloria. He could no longer visit his wife at the cemetery, but it was as if he visited her in his dreams, or so he insisted. Benny made it clear that when he dreamed, he was in his wife’s presence.
Kerr’s comment on this case helps explain why he is passionate about listening to the dreams and stories of his patients: there is wisdom at the end of life that is missed if one thinks dying is only about death and not also about life. “Old couples,” Kerr writes, “have much to teach us about true love. Their bond requires no big declarations, loyalty tests, or dramatic endings.… They continue to feel and believe in it even when the person through whom that love originated leaves them. For elderly patients especially, their love for their other half is who they are. Jobs, ambitions, hobbies, mortgages, and plans have come and gone. What is left and what matters is the relationships they have maintained, cherished, and tended to through a lifetime of small gestures and greetings, loving glances and humorous words, shared stories and forgiven faults.”