Pascal’s Tears

Robert Fraser

Published by Cranthorpe Millner 22 October 2018

Paperback, £7.99

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns


For a while I didn’t even want to read this book, let alone review it.

I felt too close to it. The author Robert Fraser is a friend and neighbour of mine, as was his wife Catherine. She died in January 2014, from cardiac arrest and resultant brain damage. Three months later, my own partner John Petherbridge died of bowel cancer. How, I wondered, could I write a review of Pascal’s Tears – which is Robert Fraser’s account of Catherine’s dying and his own caring and grieving – without it turning into a sort of palliative-care version of #MeToo?
But now that I’ve read the book, I realize that Catherine’s death and John’s could hardly have been more dissimilar. Five years passed between John’s diagnosis and his dying. During most of that time, he was able (in between operations, chemo and other often-onerous treatments) to live a relatively normal life. I never had any reason to doubt that he was aware of his situation and able to make his own choices.

Catherine Fraser’s illness, by contrast, lasted six months. She was comatose almost from the start, and unable to communicate. Much of Robert’s book is written in the second person, addressed to her as someone who might or might not be able to hear and understand what he is saying. A person who, if she could communicate, might or might not respond in the ways he imagines for her, or make the choices that he – in consultation with their 26-year-old son, other relatives, and their medical team – made for her.

The book’s title refers to the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, whose response to the question of whether or not a god exists was to take a gamble and assume that it does – not because there is strong evidence either way, but because the consequences of getting it wrong (i.e. eternal damnation) are so serious. Catherine Fraser’s family and medical team ran up against comparable challenges in the context of her life. Would she want to be kept alive? What does ‘alive’ mean in this context? What does ‘want’ mean? Is she at peace in there, or is she bored, irritated, frightened, in pain? What can be done? What should be done?

And then there were the non-medical issues: which Jane Austen book would she like to hear being read to her today? Is it OK if Robert takes time off from her bedside, in order to pursue his academic interests? And why on earth didn’t he and Catherine sort out power-of-attorney and living wills while they were able to do so?

John and I didn’t either. In our case it didn’t matter, though it might have. But I’m not here to give legal advice, and neither is Pascal’s Tears (which is subtitled How not to murder your wife). It is life-writing and death-writing, and as such often vivid, evocative, haunting and disarmingly honest. The book also contains poetry, theology, history, philosophy, and reflections on the NHS. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth the effort, particularly if you believe that death is something that is one day going to happen to you, and to those you love.

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