Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Ten years ago Nora Gallagher wrote Practicing Resurrection, a memoir involving her brother's death, her Episcopal parish's response to their recently uncloseted gay priest, and her own process of deciding whether or not to prepare for priesthood. Publishers Weekly's anonymous reviewer loved it: "With a poet's ear for language and a novelist's eye for essential detail," she wrote, "Gallagher offers a compelling story of her journey toward 'a wholeness bought at the cost of suffering.'"

OK, I confess: I wrote that review. And I also loved Gallagher's earlier memoir, Things Seen and Unseen (1998), about her brother's cancer and her own coming to faith, all taking place within the framework of the church calendar with its major feasts and fasts.

So I was twice happy to learn from Gallagher's website that "Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic is part three of a quartet on modern faith as it is lived out"--once because this new memoir is about her journey into what she calls the Land of the Sick, or Oz (a land I know better than I'd like to), and twice because if this is part of a quartet, there's yet another book coming.

Let me say right up front that you should read Gallagher's other two memoirs first. They reach out to a broader audience. They are more finely crafted. They will allow you to befriend Nora before going with her on this darker journey where both physical and spiritual health are challenged.

The story begins in November 2009 when the vision in Gallagher's right eye goes blurry. She hasn't been feeling well anyway--headaches, queasiness, fatigue--so she schedules an appointment with her doctor. He doesn't like what he sees, and for the next two years Gallagher goes from specialist to specialist trying to find out, and hopefully to fix, whatever is wrong.

There's an element of medical mystery about her story, and I'm not going to spoil it by telling you the eventual diagnosis. Suffice it to say that it will not raise your opinion of American medicine in general: "Doctors were often baffled; the system of specialists who did not follow up on patients made it worse." The Mayo Clinic comes up smelling like roses, however. (Personal note: My experience at Cleveland Clinic, where I had open-heart surgery in 2011, was similar to Gallagher's at Mayo. Both have stellar reputations for the quality of their health care, and both have found ways to keep costs below the national average.)

Gallagher is a spiritual writer, and a person facing a major health crisis tends to have major spiritual concerns. I'm not going to spoil the account of her spiritual journey by telling you how her illness affected her faith, either. I'll only say that she and I--two women of about the same age, both of us having spent years in the Episcopal Church, both of us living with scary health conditions--look for peace in somewhat different places.

You may not identify with this memoir if you are young, or if you have never faced a life-threatening illness, or if you are a conservative evangelical. You'll probably want to read it if you prefer questions to answers, if you've faced serious illness or are caring for people who do, or if you work in health care and wonder how it feels to be the one on the examining table.

I'll finish by quoting a few paragraphs, one of Gallagher's many asides, that I particularly enjoyed:

I once interviewed Jews who had recently emigrated from Russia in one of the openings in the Cold War in the 1980s. Many of them had survived the siege of Leningrad. They were living in a retirement home in Denver. One of them took me aside after I had been there for a few days and said, "Tell me, Nora. Is everyone in America always fine? I ask someone how they were doing and they reply, always, 'Fine.'"
     I explained to her that this was a commonplace; a custom, it meant nothing. Relief showed all over her face.
     "Ah," she said. "That's good. Because I am rarely fine." (Later, whenever they saw me, they would chorus: "How are you? We are fine!" and then laugh uproariously.)
     I missed them, I thought. These were people who understood not fine.

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