Iceberg, Another Memoir of Loss

March 18, 2016

“Maybe all that can be spoken by me at this time is not about happiness or unhappiness, or optimism or competition, but just that we are still here.  To be still here is all there is.”
— Marion Coutts, Iceberg


Camellia bouquet and watercolor painting

I don’t mean to dwell on themes of death and dying and loss and grief, but I do feel compelled to recommend yet another book whose impact seems important and true.  Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg describes the too-short period in her marriage between her husband’s diagnosis of brain cancer and his death at age 53.  As I read it, I felt less like a voyeur and more like a witness to love and suffering when the worst thing that can happen is, in fact, actually happening

Like Diane Ackerman’s memoir about her husband’s stroke and the recovery of his language in A Hundred Names for Love, Coutts meditates on the meaning of loss of words and speech.  Both women’s husbands were professional writers, so the losses are especially poignant.  But for Coutts, unlike Ackerman’s situation, there was “no question of re-learning.”  She flatly states,  “This is not a rehabilitation story.”

As the brain cancer progressed, and words and names began slipping from her husband’s mind, Coutts reflected on other ways of communicating.  “What is there apart from language?  Let me list:   music, touch, the great inter-cosmos of the eyes, running and jumping, sex, cooking, friendship, eating. . . . We will devise another language and in it we will talk.”  And then later in the story she notes, “The tools we have are steadily depreciating.  We must use these poor, truncated tools or create new ones from scratch.  Silence holds more pressure.  It is simply more difficult to form and find words.”

Courts says, “The world experienced is the world described.”  So what is life in the absence of description?  “There is seeing and there is telling and what is one without the other?  In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer, all visual experience is for two.  To see something is to store it up even as it is happening, as potential news, not even news, sub-news, to be retold, embellished, filtered or censored and described to another.  The other. . . . Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to.  What will experience be then?”

And there is real sorrow and anguish when, not unexpectedly, her husband starts forgetting her name.  “My name is a word like any other and though it means all of me to him, just like any other it may be lost.  This is the trajectory of disease and if we think about it, it is a natural progression.  But we do not think about it because disease is a wave and we are always, always in its wake.  Like survivors floating behind we are knocked stupid.  We must scavenge, pick things up and construct anew out of flotsam. . . . There is no getting ahead of the wave and imagining our lives enough in advance to prepare, and maybe if we could, then we could not live as we do held tight and fast.  We would simply drown, each alone and separate.  Yet somehow, somehow, we still expect our sacred and familiar selves to be spared from oblivion until that endpoint when there is no more time left for us anyway.  Marvelous.  Miraculous.”

At times, Coutts finds comfort in togetherness in silence.  “Yet wordlessness can be exquisite.  There are times when Tom can speak and when we have nothing more to say.”


The Iceberg attests to serious illness as a series of grievous losses.  “We howl along, all three of us [Coutts, her husband, and very young son] together, with knocks and shocks and sudden up-speeding round curves skewed tight enough to spill us right out, and our bones and skin are broken and torn but there is always more bones and skin to be mangled.  Like a miraculous Catholic bloody endurance sport, there is always more.  In the space of three weeks, between us we have had hospital stays, fits, diarrhoea, speech loss, tonsillitis, swollen feet, mobility loss, demoralization, ambulances, glue ear and holidays …”

“You must know that illness is insatiable in its demands.”  Coutts says, “We note the demarcation lines of illness and wellness, their borders on alert, glowing green, soft and elastic, looping and curling to draw new phenomena ever within their reach and scope.  This too!  Ah yes of course!  This too!  You didn’t think you’d be spared this?  Everything has a side effect somewhere else.  Drugs layer new problems over like fresh scabs.”

When her husband becomes incontinent, she says, “Everything happens for the first time and then you know and the knowledge after that is never surprising again.”

The emotional and physical toll on Coutts is totally depleting and exhausting.  “I hold my body in extreme watchfulness and note how I never actually rest.”  Any activity or outing takes planning and vigilance.  Coutts says, “spontaneity is the privilege of the able-bodied.”  And even the best laid plans can easily go awry.  “I don’t tell Ev [her three-year-old son] what we are doing until we get there because I am unsure that we can achieve anything we set out to do …”

Coutts  seems very honest about the challenges of parenting a pre-school-aged child whose father is dying.  She dwells very little, however, on the impact of her husband’s terminal illness on her work.  She is an artist and a teacher.  Professional goals were set aside to cope with more pressing life issues.  “Loss of ambition means loss of focus, but the big one is loss of desire. … At one stroke my ambition has gone private and it has a singe goal: to keep us as a family alive so that our formation can continue. … I cannot achieve my ambition by my own or any other ends.  By hard work I cannot make it happen, by being good I cannot make it happen, by self-sacrifice I cannot make it happen, by being clever I cannot make it happen, by being more creative I cannot make it happen.  My previous ambitions, reliant on skill and will, are rendered mute, inert, and of no interest.”

Surrendering to the inevitability of death is the lesson here.  “Not to choose is incredible.  It makes the end of me so beautifully slight.  I have an imperative.  I may resist the imperative or I can love the imperative, it makes no difference.  By no effort of will can I change the terms.  All I can do is change my approach.”

Later she says, “There is never any choice.  I cannot win.  I know it.  Death trumps; trumps me, the child, all our desires combined.”

Coutts  ends her memoir with the death of her husband while he is in hospice care.  He sleeps and does not awake.  She is at his side.  “Death is mighty. … There is nothing in the world like it.  But there is nothing in it that is not like the world.”  She says, “I had thought that death was a separate foreign state.  It is, but it follows the contours of our own terrain.  And because we knew this terrain so intimately we were able to continue on through it as allies.  What we need to know here is what we already know.”



2 Responses to “Iceberg, Another Memoir of Loss”

  1. Lina Menezes Says:

    Thank you. A very beautiful and moving piece of writing which gives you so much to think about

  2. Ouri Says:

    I’m glad to know about this book. I plan to read it. Thank you.

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