Up until her early 40s, Susan Spencer-Wendel had what some might call a charmed life. She lived in Palm Beach, Florida, and had a successful career as a crime and justice reporter for the local paper. She had a gorgeous, devoted husband, three smart, funny kids, and many good friends. Then, just as she and her husband were on a romantic trip to Hawaii, it became clear that she couldn't just continue to ignore the symptoms she'd been having --- muscle weakness and atrophy, fatigue, slurred speech.
"UNTIL I SAY GOOD-BYE is both bittersweet and often surprisingly funny... [Such] moments not only provide levity in what otherwise could be a pretty downbeat read, they also continually remind readers that it's okay to follow in Spencer-Wendel's footprints and to approach her memoir with joy --- fragile and complicated to be sure, but joy nonetheless."
After months of hoping it was anything else, Spencer-Wendel was finally diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), a degenerative illness that results in progressive muscle deterioration, paralysis, and ultimately death. Like anyone else with a terminal illness diagnosis, she spent a time weeping and raging. But then she made a choice. She wasn't going to spend her remaining days of strength and mobility at endless doctor’s appointments. Instead, she made the deliberate decision to live with joy, taking as her mantra a quote from Dr. Seuss: "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." She wants to give her friends and family members --- especially her children --- a chance to make lifelong memories of their time with her before her inevitable decline. She cashes in her life insurance policy, pays off the mortgage on their house, and decides to spend the year traveling.
These experiences include a trip to the Yukon to (attempt to) watch the Northern Lights with her best friend, an opportunity to take her children swimming with dolphins and see the final lift-off of the space shuttle, and a return with her husband to Hungary, where they lived during the first two years of their marriage. These travelogues are interesting essays in their own right, but become especially rich when readers remember just how much these travels near and far must mean to Spencer-Wendel and her loved ones.
Throughout the memoir, Spencer-Wendel's accounts of her travels offer glimpses not only into her family dynamics (which include an epiphany about her relationship with her adoptive mother) and on the daily indignities of living with advancing ALS, but also the author's reflections on other aspects of her life. These include her often conflicted thoughts about meeting her birth mother for the first time, as well as about parenting a child with Asperger's Syndrome.
UNTIL I SAY GOOD-BYE is both bittersweet and often surprisingly funny, such as when the author describes her horror that her birth mother might be a hippy or relates her one ill-fated attempt to smoke marijuana for pain relief. These moments not only provide levity in what otherwise could be a pretty downbeat read, they also continually remind readers that it's okay to follow in Spencer-Wendel's footprints and to approach her memoir with joy --- fragile and complicated to be sure, but joy nonetheless.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 15, 2013
Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy