Anyone who is diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease who wants or needs to write about their experience, probably has to start at once, because the tempo of this disease is so cruelly quick. Joe Hammond’s book was published in September 2019, only a year after his Guardian article in which he wrote about his plan to write cards for his sons’ coming birthdays, and only 2 years after his diagnosis. His book tells of the 2018 adaptation of his bungalow in a Hampshire woodland, which he was only able to see when it was completed, ready for the family to move into at the beginning of 2019. Joe died on 30 November that year.
A Short History of Falling is Joe’s reflection on how MND affects his life, from the falls of the title, to the Portuguese consultant who made the diagnosis, to the difficulties of how to tell his sons, and the process of saying goodbye and preparing for death. But it is not simply an account of MND. It is a way of being present for his family after he is physically gone, a way of explaining his gradual disappearance to his young children, evidence of his commitment to them to which they may return in the future, and an expression of his love. The final image in the book is of the boys running in and out of the woodland where their father will be buried.
Joe refers several times to how, as a playwright, he found it difficult to find the right subject matter and form – but this Short History seems to be the form and subject that fit him best. It is a memoir full of graphic images and metaphors to communicate his sense of dislocation and disappearance, his sense of declining powers, and a growing distance from his family’s pace of life. An example of these similes is his description of the muscle fasciculations characteristic of early MND as like earthworms in the rain coming out of the soil for air, and the gradual disappearance of fasciculations as the ending of a firework display.
Although Joe greeted his initial diagnosis with five days of weeping, he seems overall to exude a wonderful sense of calm – present and yet detached, emotionally involved and yet one step removed. Indeed, he almost thanks MND for the opportunity to recognise his approaching death in a way that is not given to most people, and thus to prepare for his disappearance. He describes the way his life is slowing, having to wait for his wife Gill to attend to his needs when she has a moment, and how this gives the impression that the people around him are speeding up, living at a different rate. But ironically, Joe appears to have more time than some of those around him. Although he only had two years to live from his diagnosis, Joe has time to look and see in detail how, for example, faces respond to news or tears or unexpected arrivals. He observes the ways that friends and relations respond to his growing disability, some with great care and consideration, but some in ways that say much about a desperation to deny their own mortality. Many people who have never experienced loving care, are unable themselves to offer it.
This book does not shrink from the way MND destroys dignity – Joe relates experiences in the hospice when nurses stand around while he is aimed at the hole in the commode by the nurse in control of the hoist. He describes bowel and bladder indignities. He tells of the role reversals in his life, as his wife Gill puts on his socks, or his sons run around him. The early chapter on falling showcases his ability to combine humour with a deadpan description of his helplessness.
I read A Short History of Falling at a single sitting, unable to put it down. It is both moving and entertaining: a testament of how it is possible to change perspective so as to create mental control, even as the body becomes powerless.
Hammond, Joe (2019) A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed About Love Whilst Dying, London, 4th Estate
Hammond, Joe (2018) I’m writing 33 birthday cards for the sons I won’t see grow up, The Guardian 15 Sep 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/15/dad-writing-birthday-cards-for-sons-he-wont-see-grow-up-motor-neurone-disease>