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Book review: “Shaking Hands with Death” by Terry Pratchett

Shaking Hands with Death is a very small book, only 59 pages in length, and only 41 of those pages are the words of Terry Pratchett.

The rest is taken up with an introduction in which Pratchett’s personal assistant Rob Wilkins explains how the book came to be. It is a sad story, lightened by Pratchett’s great humor and infused with his passion.

Pratchett was the author of more than 50 comical fantasy novels, most centering on his imagined Discworld. He sold more than 85 million copies worldwide in 37 languages — or as he says in Shaking Hands with Death, “a very large number of inexplicably popular fantasy novels.”

Then, in 2007, he learned that he was suffering from Post Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare version of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 59, and he was very angry.

Over the next eight years, he wrote and published eight major books, six of which were centered on Discworld. He died on March 12, 2015 at the age of 66.


“His fury”

Shaking Hands with Death is the text of a televised address that, with the help of a friend, he gave on February 1, 2010, in which he described his experience with PCA and gave a fervent plea for what he called “assisted death,” also known as “assisted suicide.”

pratchett.shaking hands

Wilkins writes that, in drafting this address, Pratchett channeled “his fury into something positive: the fury became his inspiration.”

Because Pratchett had, early on, lost the ability to touch-type, he initially employed a computer program TalkingPoint.

“However, [Wilkins writes] the anger in his voice as he tried to line up his thoughts about what he saw as the misery of end-of-life care was unmistakable, and the software just couldn’t cope with the change of tone.

“Try as he might to get his words on to the page, Terry was unable to express his passion without bellowing the words, so I stepped in and let him shout at me on the keyboard instead.”


“Opening the gate”

Pratchett in 2012  (Luigi Novi)

Pratchett in 2012 (Luigi Novi)

In his address, Pratchett noted that an important recurring character in his Discworld series is Death, complete with a sickle and also a bit of a sense of humor.

“[Death is] implacable because that is his job, he nevertheless appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.

“He is, in short, a kindly Death, cleaning up the mess that this life leaves, and opening the gate to the next one. Indeed, in some religions he is an angel.”


“The sun of Karachi”

He talked about his own father’s death from pancreatic cancer over the course of a year during which the two men had long talks, often about the father’s service in India in World War II.

“Then, at one point, he suddenly looked up and said, ‘I can feel the sun of India on my face,’ and his face did light up rather magically, brighter and happier than I had seen it at any time in the previous year and if there had been any justice or even narrative sensibility in the universe, he would have died there and then, shading his eyes from the sun of Karachi.

“He did not.”

Instead, the father spent the last two weeks of his life in a dreamworld existence in a hospice as he was pumped full of morphine in a holding action against the cancer that, in the end, had to win.


“Shake hands with death”

Pratchett didn’t want that for himself, and, soon after announcing his early onset Alzheimer’s, he became a vocal advocate for “assisted death.”

“When I began this speech, the so-called debate on assisted dying was like a snowball fight in the dark. Now, it seems to be occupying so much space in the media that I wonder whether it is something in the air, an idea whose time is really coming.”

He said that, as a young newspaper reporter, he was in awe of a veteran reporter named George Topley who “as a fiery young man would have fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War were it not for the fact that he stowed away on the wrong boat and ended up in Hull.”

In any case, at one point, Topley passed back to Pratchett his draft of a story, telling him to change the word “released” to “discharged.” The point was that, in a hospital, you’re not being held against your will. You can, actually, walk away — discharge yourself — any time you want.

“And I remembered what George said and vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it. I would live my life, as ever, to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever version of the ‘Brompton Cocktail’ (a potent mixture of painkillers and brandy) some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.”


Terry Pratchett and my brother

I am not sure how Terry Pratchett died. There was no indication from the news reports I saw that it was an “assisted death.” I hope he was as happy as he could be at the end. I hope he, at least, fought Alzheimer’s to a draw.


But I’m not sure what to say about “assisted death.”

I knew Pratchett slightly. I met him and interviewed him for more than an hour when he came through Chicago in 2000 promoting his Discworld novel The Fifth Elephant. He was as delightfully droll in person as on the page, a short, gnomic guy who talked with a lisp and seemed to be humbly delighted that people loved his books.

I’ve read almost all of his books, many more than once, and those few I haven’t read are on my bookshelves. I go back to his novels frequently, usually when I’m feeling down in some way.

I did that late last year when my brother David Michael committed suicide.


Control of his life

Nobody helped him. He wasn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s like Pratchett, but he was in huge pain. Throughout his life, he had insisted on taking responsibility for himself. Maybe he took it too far.

In this case, it seems to me that he acted because he felt that his pain was so great that he was on the verge of being chained to a wheelchair and in need of constant care. He would lose control of his life.

I wish he hadn’t killed himself. I miss him. Our brothers and sisters and the rest of our large family miss him. If he only knew…

He didn’t know, but couldn’t know the pain that his sudden departure left behind.

I say this, yet I do not begrudge David Michael his decision. It was his life.

But I miss him. I miss him terribly.

Patrick T. Reardon

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