Pub Date 02 Oct 2019
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Father, husband, athlete, medical doctor, Jeff Sutherland had built a perfect life for himself and his family…then he noticed that he was losing strength in his left arm. He visited a specialist and from that appointment, he writes, “deep personal loss for some unknown reason wrapped its tentacles around me and my family.”
Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he lost his abilities to walk and speak within two years and, confined to a wheelchair, was forced to retire from his life’s work as a physician at forty-three. Not long after, he was locked in his own inanimate body, unable to eat, drink, or breathe without assistance. His meals were delivered through a feeding tube, and a ventilator controlled his lungs through an opening in his throat. The only parts of his body he was able to move voluntarily were his eyes.
Despite these extreme limitations, Sutherland made peace with his disease and, surrounded by his loving family, found happiness again – only to suffer another soul-shattering loss. His eldest son, Zachary, passed alongside his girlfriend in a freak kayaking accident in the river behind the family home. “Despite everything I lost through ALS,” he says, Zachary’s death was worse. Yet again, through a long process of suffering and healing, Sutherland was able to accept his loss and find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in his constricted life.
His story, laboriously written on a computerized device that tracks his eye movements on a visual keyboard, is a testament to both the human will’s ability to overcome unspeakable tragedy, and the power of familial love to heal incomprehensible pain. “When a negative change occurs,” writes Sutherland, “we have to choose how we will face it. We can be paralyzed with fear or we can make the choice to integrate it into our lives, make peace with it, and eventually grow from it. With any change, good or bad, personal growth is the ideal outcome. It is my belief that this our soul’s mission on earth.”
“The expression ‘still waters run deep’ has never been more apt. Jeff Sutherland’s Still Life is the training manual all of us need for how to face terrible loss and redefine the good life. If only Job could have read it.” –MO ROCCA, CBS Sunday Morning
“Sutherland’s prose is measured and thoughtful, and his accounts of fleeting moments are made all the more heartbreaking by his understated appreciation of them: ‘I remember … my last week in the hospital, strolling through the medical unit with a walker to keep my balance—recognizing the irony that my life expectancy was now shorter than that of most of the patients in my charge.’ The author is such a sympathetic narrator, and his story is so mortifyingly tragic, that readers will undoubtedly be persuaded by the wisdom he draws from his experiences…. [T]here is a serenity to his grief—a literal one—that is unexpectedly reassuring.
He comes off not as a prisoner of his own body, but rather as a monk in a cell who has been granted a rare opportunity to observe a world that few readers have the patience to see. With immense humility, he questions many of the things that people assume are necessary aspects of the human experience, digging toward a deeper, kinder understanding of life. An affecting account remarkable both in its content and execution.” –KIRKUS REVIEWS
“This is a book about loss and grief and suffering so on one level it is difficult, but because Still Life is also about the will to live, and how to do that in the face of cruel disease and the accidental death of a beloved child, it is also exhilarating. This weird and sometimes uncomfortably honest book is Jeff Sutherland, who can’t actually move a muscle anymore, giving death the finger.” –CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD, columnist, National Post