John Gunther

  • Books on My Shelf 2013

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.  This week, from my shelf, I selected Death Be Not Proud by journalist and father, John Gunther.  This famous memoir, considered to be a classic, covers the illness and death of his teenage son.  First published in 1949, Gunther writes: “My grief, I find, is not desolation or rebellion at universal law or deity. I find grief to be much simpler and sadder… All the things he loved tear at my heart because he is no longer here on earth to enjoy them. All the things he loved!”  

Johnny Gunther, Gunther’s son, dies of a devastating brain tumor.  Bad enough, of course, but the son also has an unusually high I.Q.  This seems to increase everyone’s suffering — why would someone so young, so bright, have to die?  Of course, “death” doesn’t pick and choose, only selecting those with a low or limited I.Q., but grief is anything but rational.

I remember reading the book in college.  Assigned reading.  I thought the book was filled with courage — with love, and definitely, with the reality of our brief mortal experience.  But, back then, I read the book with the comfortable distance of someone who was still in college, life stretching out before me in a pleasant, naive kind of way … life and death issues were real, of course, but only as an intellectual understanding. An agonizing experience for parents and son, Gunther’s memoir covers a two-year period, from ’45 to ’47.

  • In short, if you’ve read Death Be Not Proud, you know this is a book you don’t forget.

After losing my son, I found myself looking for the book again.  I now had much more than an “intellectual understanding” of profound loss.  The difference was enormous, life-changing, and often difficult to put into words.

In the foreword, Gunther writes: “Johnny was as sinless as a sunset.”  But he also mentions that he doesn’t want his foreword to be a “Bright-Sayings-of-the-Children essay or the kind of eulogy that any fond and bereaved parent may be forgiven for trying to put on paper.  What I am trying to tell, however fumblingly and inadequately, is the story of a gallant fight for life, against the most hopeless odds, that should convey a relevance, a message, a lesson perhaps, to anybody who has ever faced ill health.”

  • I would go a step further.  There are life lessons in this book for anyone and everyone.

At the close of the book, we hear from Frances Gunther, Johnny’s mother.  She begins like this: Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life.  Nothing, not even the birth of one’s child, brings one so close to life as his death.

With incredible wisdom Frances writes that she wishes they had loved Johnny more when he was alive.

But Johnny’s mother has already gone well beyond her personal world, as she explains the depth of her wish.

“To me, it means loving life more, being more aware of life, of one’s fellow human beings, of the earth.”

  • Grief and loss do have a way of expanding our vision … we begin to see more clearly how everyone and everything is connected.

Frances adds this, as she continues to explain: “It means obliterating, in a curious but real way, the ideas of evil and hate and the enemy, and transmuting them, with the alchemy of suffering, into ideas of clarity and charity.  It means caring more and more about other people, at home and abroad, all over the earth.  It means caring more about God.”

She closes with this: “I hope we can love Johnny more and more till we too die, and leave behind us, as he did, the love of love, the love of life.”

  • What a generous, enlightened perspective.  Read the book.  Read it again. ~dh
  • Interesting discussion thread in comments: Why does a memoir become a classic?

Thanks for visiting SunnyRoomStudio: a creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.
Looking for book suggestions? 

 I maintain an informal list here in SRS.  See top menu or click here.

 See you again Sunday, December 1st, as our 3-month review of books on my shelf continues.

I hope you are also digging into the books on your shelves.  Dusting them off.  Opening to page “whatever.”
Sit down, read your favorite chapter.  Read the first page, the last page.

 Journal about your discoveries.  A book is just a book until you read it for the second time.

 Enjoy the journey. ~ dh

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