Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
A few weeks ago, Sifted Sand published a review of The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, a book detailing her husband’s terminal illness and how their lives changed after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This week, we review the second half of the story, written by her husband, Tom Lubbock. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive offers readers another glimpse of the life they shared together, and this time, it’s through the eyes and mind of Tom Lubbock.
Until Further Notice, I Am Alive begins with a prologue by Marion Coutts as she recounts the moments spent with Lubbock after his diagnosis. Coutts touches upon the background to the book, as well as their meeting, subsequent marriage, and son, who was just eighteen months old at the time of Lubbock’s diagnosis. She also explains how this book is comprised of excerpts from her husband’s journal, starting with an entry about his initial diagnosis and ending with a final note recorded when he could no longer write unaided. It is clear that Coutts could understand Lubbock even when he could only speak a few, or even no, words. The book also includes excerpts of a 5000-word article written by Lubbock for The Observer, “When Words Failed Me.”
We join this moving journey from its beginning. Lubbock wakes up in hospital after undergoing tests and scans, and he is diagnosed with a stage four brain tumor. After his diagnosis, Lubbock kept to his regular activities, and no one would have guessed what was going on in his life by looking at his vigor. The positive energy in Lubbock’s narrative is infectious, highlighting that it is more important to live in the present rather than be paralyzed by what lies ahead.
Beyond coping with a terminal illness, what bothered Lubbock the most was the fear of losing his language capacities, his ability to communicate. Words power his energy, and the thought of living without them seems insurmountable. Lubbock explores these profound challenges while continuing to communicate about his day-to-day life.
A poignant point in the book is when Lubbock discusses the letters he wrote to his wife and son before going for an operation on his brain tumor. He did not want to go away without telling them what they meant to him and how thankful he was to have them in his life. After the operation, while waiting for the biopsy report, Lubbock notices that his speech and words are falling away, not expressed as intended. Sometimes he has epileptic episodes that affect his speech even more, yet his ability to write remains unaffected.
Lubbock narrates emotions and thoughts that cross his mind with great fluidity as he encounters different life events. He analyzes what it is to wait for death and the feelings associated with waiting for his imminent end. Yet a reader also learns of how, after emailing his friends to tell them the news, Lubbock finds strength in the words of his wife, and he sends another message to his well-wishers: “Until further notice, I am alive.”
With so much going on in his life, Lubbock doesn’t keep his diary updated regularly, but whenever he does, he writes with touching candor. He shares deep thoughts, funny reactions, and tender feelings with his readers. After opting for chemotherapy for a few months, he goes through another MRI scan, and the results are inconclusive. Lubbock goes to great lengths to describe how it feels to live with limited body capacities, gestures, and expressions, but still be left with a functional mind.
Almost two years after the first diagnosis and treatment, a repeat MRI scan shows the reoccurrence of the tumor, and a second operation is scheduled. Lubbock divulges how receiving good news raises new fears for the future, but he also notes how bad news helps him search for hope in his present situation. Although he rarely experiences physical pain, the emotional turmoil is almost constant.
“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones. “
– Thich Nhat Hanh
One interesting topic the author touches upon in this book is his experiences with nursing staff and doctors. Seemingly, he meets few empathetic doctors or staff, and, at times, their words dishearten him more than his medical results. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive places a significant emphasis on the impact of words used by friends, family and healthcare providers, and more importantly, how a person suffering from a terminal illness receives these words.
The book ends with a few blank pages, symbolizing Tom Lubbock’s death. Overall, this book details one man’s unyielding emotions and deep thoughts. He talks about death, disease, helplessness, eternity, mortality, love, and the life before death. It teaches us not to die before death knocks us down. Death is both unpredictable and inescapable. We should not ruin our “today” in fear of what lies ahead. It is sad that Lubbock could not live a long life, but he lived his life to the fullest amidst all of the chaos, which itself is highly commendable. Lubbock, with all of his will and wit, manages to pen down his thoughts and life events, bitter or sweet and provides readers with a moving memoir of a person who is dying. A reader of Until Further Notice, I Am Alive will thank him for sharing his experience of the world, and above all, for changing the concept of how we approach the thought of dying.