Geoff Francis’ A Breath Before Dying is a last kiss flavoured with the lingering taste of revelatory poignancy. The grief for the loss of his father Freddie’s sensibility, personality and body during his long struggle with dementia is balanced by the dignity, grace and emotional eloquence of this poetic sequence.
The narrative takes the form of an enduring romance, for person, place and predicament; a stirring of ghosts from the shadows and dust of the day. But more importantly, this book honours the aim of all poetic achievement – both in the literal sense of what it is possible to do in verse, and in terms of the sadnesses inherent in all of our daily experiences and deteriorations – while fusing these meditations with a strident polemic to do with the right to die after death’s bitter promise has stolen all that was once thought possible.
What Freddie Francis lost in the latter years of his life, his son has revived in this searing and soulful collection. In examining each aspect and moment of the slow journey into the Waters of Lethe, Francis invokes that telling phrase coined by Harold Pinter in his Nobel prize speech, ‘the simple dignity of man, ‘ and highlights a truth that will embolden all of our hearts. It gifts his book with its own eerie prominence and makes it the first in a long chain of kisses; shared breaths between those who are departing and all of those left behind.
A Breath Before Dying is a vital work and in increasingly godless times, the closest thing poetic realism has to The Book of Common Prayer.
David Erdos, The International Times, January 2019
My mother has dementia, and my father is in exactly this position. I’m just so grateful that someone has put what it feels like in writing.
Annie Stevens, Dorset, March 2019
My father Max Bygraves suffered Dementia. In many ways we were very blessed. We cared for him at home until the final stages, and he passed away holding my hand. All through his suffering he kept his joy in life and his love of music. Of course there were difficult times, my memories though are of a loving kind funny father.
I wish you every success with this poem to your father. I am a member of a Dementia Caring Society and have forwarded A Breath Before Dying and my review onto them.
Christine Green, Australia March 2019
I admire Geoff”s exposure, openness and honesty to share his journey.
Julia Wilde, writer
A Breath Before Dying is a long form poem which looks at the experience of someone you love having a progressive terminal illness. Setting it in the context of an enduring love affair intensifies the sense of what has been lost. The intangibility of the passion that once was lives as a ghost in only one memory and poignantly intrudes and disrupts the everyday of the survivor. The words and emotions evoked take us into the world of prolonged bereavement without death.
Life expectancy is uncertain. The remainder of our life span is decreasing continually. There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here. Good health is simply the slowest way a human being can die. What happens when health fails and dignity is lost? Wealth cannot help us. We can be kept living, but just being alive is not living. The tragedy is that even our loved ones cannot help, no matter how we might plead with them or with anyone who can hear our voice.
All of us will have had heartache in our lives. One of the most heartrending moments of my life was to witness my late father’s response to a dementia test. His diagnosis was vascular dementia. But by whatever name it goes, the sudden realisation of the extent of the faculties a loved one has lost tears the heart out of those who are a witness to it day to day. Only those who have gone through this most destructive experience truly understand how It affects their own lives and health.
Loss in life is inevitably hard to take. But loss while the other is still physically present can be the most painful. Until they are gone, until you know the outcome, there is no closure. But wishing an end to their indignity and distress, being helpless to grant their wish to end their life early, does not come without its own pernicious form of grief and guilt.