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Between Living and Dying: Reflections from the edge of reason, by Ruth Scott

14 February 2020

Penny Seabrook finds this narrative touching

RUTH SCOTT embarks on this book, as she starts a “gap year” to undergo gruelling treatment for an aggressive form of lymphoma. Once a nurse, she was ordained in 1994, but is best-known as a contributor to Pause for Thought on Radio 2.

She finishes without knowing how long she will survive, but in a place of acceptance — movingly articu­lated in her final conversation on air with Chris Evans, 27 months after diag­nosis, when she expresses the sad­ness of not having more time, but gratitude for all that life has revealed to her of human nature at its best and worst.

Her courage is palpable as she covers ground familiar to anyone who has received a life-limiting dia­gnosis or cared for people in ex­­tremis. She dedicates chapters to uncertainty, fear, loss of control,
and existential angst as she navigates the transitions of the year, and, on several occasions, comes within hours of death.

Although there are moments of dark humour and unimaginable horror, there is nothing morbid or self-pitying in her reflection, which typically starts where she is, but broadens out to consider the wider world with compassion and concern for justice. Having resolved to lie back and trust the expertise of her medical team, she is surprised to find the lack of autonomy liberating, because it removes the pressure of self-justification, which had driven many of the choices that she had made previously.

Vanity is thrown out of the win­dow as she shaves her head to min­imise the distress of losing her hair, and describes the indignities of other side effects of chemotherapy. In its place, she uses every ounce of energy to research her themes, and savour the gems of kindness and inspiration offered by family, friends, and fellow patients.

These make their way into the text through stories, poetry, and pictures that help Scott cling on when she is feeling wretched; they make this a book worth sipping slowly, as ad­­vised by Richard Holloway in the foreword. But there is pause for thought to be had, too, when she writes about God, and hope, and scripture, finding the silence of Quaker meetings more consoling than the wordiness of Anglican liturgy and talk of the world to come. Ruth’s priesthood shines through in the honesty with which she speaks of her journey of faith and reflects on biblical stories.

The narrative might be harrowing for those undergoing similar treat­ment, but the poems are a gift for life. I shall go back to them, as I will to Ruth’s pastoral wisdom, which is full of grace in adversity.

The Revd Penny Seabrook is Vicar of All Saints’, Fulham, in London.

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