You could say this memoir is one woman’s struggle to come to terms with loss and to explore and understand the complex family dynamic that evolved in the context of her sister’s terminal illness. You could also say it’s a book written to satisfy a death-bed promise to “tell our story.” On both levels, this is a monumental piece of self-reflection and painstaking re-creation.
But to stop there is to acknowledge only the motivation for the book and the challenge of writing it and to ignore its broader impact on the reader. In this page-turner of a memoir, Cariou has taught us what it is like to live with a family member’s chronic, severe, incurable illness. This book chronicles a family learning to tolerate the intolerable, to endure the interminable, to ameliorate the unmitigable and to understand the inconceivable. How do you watch your best friend and closest relation die for twenty-two years? How do you live fully, when your life exists on that liminal plane that most of us only experience briefly during times of crisis? Cariou has no clear-cut answers for these questions, only her own family’s example of surviving and moving forward—at times coping brilliantly and achieving greatness (as in their founding of the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation) at others, scraping for the smallest reassurance that they’d all turn out okay.
This book is not sentimental, nor does Cariou portray the individuals involved as deities or villains. She reveals each family member with the matter-of-factness of an observer, rarely judging, except to say that, in spite of their failings, everyone did the best they could, under the circumstances. In Heather we see the jealous, angry, teenage older sister who lashes out, as well as the heartbroken protector, faced with the choice of living her own life or standing by her sister's side. We never feel that the author's actions are heroic—only human, and driven by the usual human motivations of fear, guilt and love. Eventually, the author even manages some self-forgiveness, implicitly encouraging us to do the same for ourselves.
In the end, this is a book about a relentless human struggle; it's a call for compassion and understanding and a reminder to us all—including Cariou herself—to be better human beings and to live our lives by Pam Summerhayes’s legacy: to surrender, to have faith, to be unafraid, and to give and receive love freely, making the most of each day.