Our Last Six Months
Emily Bracale's graphic narrative Our Last Six Months is a refreshing variation on the end-of-life caregiver memoir. The grayscale illustrations, in simple pen-and-ink wash, convey both the gentle hush of a soul letting go, and the monotony and depression of a family's world constricting to the periphery of the sickbed.
Bracale explains in the introduction that she chose this format to be accessible to caregivers who are too fatigued and anxious to concentrate on a book with hundreds of pages of text. It's a brilliant move that also gives ordinary readers the space to absorb a painful story. Visuals provide sensory anchoring points that keep the mind from being overwhelmed and disoriented.
Our Last Six Months introduces the author's blended family: her teenage son Earl, his father and her ex-husband Aubrey, and other young adult children that Emily and Aubrey had with different partners. When Aubrey is diagnosed with end-stage cancer, Emily takes him into her home and assembles a team that includes Aubrey's exes, her boyfriend, and some helpful patient advocates she meets in the various hospitals and nursing homes where he is admitted. The arc of his decline is interwoven with memories of happier times, paying tribute to Aubrey's life as a beloved neighborhood bus driver, creative writer, and free spirit.
More than a memoir, this book serves as a case study and conversation-starter for those end-of-life decisions that many families put off until a crisis hits. Bracale's story will give readers support and ideas for finding the path that is right for them, and warn them of some common bottlenecks in the treatment plan. Along with the grief and mess of a sick person's daily care, Aubrey's family must contend with inconsistent diagnoses, an overwhelming pile of unpaid bills, equipment that never shows up on time, and the patient's stubborn denial of his imminent death.
Despite the heavy topic, the artwork has an intimate, humorous flavor, almost like The New Yorker's Roz Chast. The graphic elements feel like sketches that someone might doodle in her diary or in a letter to a friend, a real-time casual commentary that we are invited to eavesdrop upon.
The physical book was sturdy and comfortable to hold, a securely bound trade paperback on thick paper with matte covers. The sans-serif typeface was easy to read and worked well with the illustration style. Page layouts integrated visual elements well. There were a few typos but not a distracting amount. The list of characters at the beginning was helpful. While the basic table of contents lists seven chapters, we'd suggest adding a page guide to the 106 mini-stories within them, so that readers could easily reference sub-topics that are especially pertinent to their personal situation.
Bracale brings emotional honesty to the process of winding up her complicated relationship with her ex-husband. This book will be very validating for anyone who struggles with resentment, guilt, unmet needs for closure, and other normal but hard-to-admit feelings we have about our sick or dying loved ones.