Conversations On Dying: To be published April 2016

Eighteen months ago I set out to tell a story, a story I thought was important and becoming more so with every passing day: a story about palliative care. My idea for this story was to show palliative care physicians at work with their dying patients. I wanted to illustrate, in a piece of long-form journalism, the immense difference palliative care can make in the quality of life of dying patients. Because it’s one thing to be told that palliative care can make a difference; it’s quite another to see it demonstrated for yourself. That’s what I was hoping to do: demonstrate that difference, by showing readers that difference. Life, as it often does, had other plans for me, and other plans for my story.

Phil Dwyer

“Life, as it often does, had other plans for me, and other plans for my story.”

One of my first instincts, when I set out to tell this story, was to contact Dr. Larry Librach. Larry co-founded the Temmy Latner Centre (the largest palliative care centre in Canada, and one of the largest in the world) in the 1980s, and was a pioneer of palliative care in Canada and around the world. He was also, for five years, my wife’s boss, although he had retired from the role of director at the Temmy Latner Centre in 2011. If anyone knew how to get my story told it would be Larry. We met, in March 2013, to discuss my idea. Larry pulled some names from his mental Rolodex, discussed a few ideas, and sent me on my way. Three weeks later he was handed a death sentence: he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and given a few months to live.

Larry outlived his oncologist’s predictions: he lived over four months. He died on August 15, 2013.

During those four months he agreed, most generously and selflessly, to open his home to me, and spend some time talking about his experience of dying. During those sessions (sometimes weekly, sometimes, if he had the strength, several times a week) the idea we were working on together changed and grew: from a simple piece of long-form journalism to a book. Larry wanted to call it Dying in the First Person (a great title). Because Larry was determined, in the manner of his dying, to demonstrate the principles he’d expounded in his 35 years as a physician working in palliative care. He’d helped hundreds of others die a better death. This was to be his final teachable moment.

He planned to journal his experiences, so the book was to be a joint effort. Sadly, Larry’s condition declined far more rapidly than even he had anticipated. Between the fatigue and the ‘chemo fog’, he was barely able to work alone on his journal. Instead, he told his story to me in our regular sessions. Perhaps it was better that way. Larry was a natural raconteur, and when he was spinning a story he was relaxed and natural. When he wrote he could never quite shake off that academic-sounding voice you have to adopt if you want to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

My agent (the wonderful Trena White), when she first read my book proposal, pointed out that we couldn’t really use Larry’s title, since I would be doing the writing, and it wasn’t an account of my death, but Larry’s. I was trying to honour Larry’s wishes, but in this regard at least, they no longer made sense. What should we call the book then? I puzzled this over for an uncomfortable weekend. In the end, I focused on the words I’d been planning to use as a sub-title: Conversations on Dying.

For the past several months Trena has been working hard to find the right home for Conversations On Dying. I’m delighted to announce that Conversations On Dying will be published by Dundurn on April 16 2016.