Originally published November 2014
Given the recent passing of Death With Dignity advocate Brittany Maynard, the timing of this read was somewhat cathartic.
Maynard garnered national attention for her decision to end her life on her own terms—not giving the brain cancer that was killing her the last say. In author Julie Lawson Timmer’s debut, Five Days Left, one of two central characters also makes the decision to die, forced that direction by a Huntington’s Disease diagnosis that has decimated 42-year-old Mara Nichols’ life. Once an active hardworking wife and mother of baby Laks, Mara is now tormented by a body that has gone to war with her in ways she can’t accept as becoming the norm over the course of the next several year, before death finally releases her.
The difference her is that she keeps her plan to exit to herself, knowing her husband, her parents and her friends will attempt to talk her out of it.
Mara is just one of two characters facing a life-altering/ending decision of sorts. Scott Coffman is a dedicated teacher and husband working in a Detroit area middle school that serves the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Married and with a baby girl on the way, Scott and his wife Laurie have been caring for Curtis, a 6-year-old boy whose older brother Bray, was a star pupil and basketball player for Scott.
Now Scott is facing the end of his time with Curtis, and try as he might to accept the fact Curtis should be with his birth mother, having been released from prison, he just can’t get his heart in line with his head.
Both Scott and Mara are looking at just five days left—five before Mara ends her life with a toxic combination of bills, booze and carbon dioxide, and five before Scott has to hand Curtis over to his mother, a chronic drug and alcohol abuser—something his wife seems more ready to do than he ever will be.
Though seemingly separate stories (and they really are), they are loosely tied together with an anonymous friendship of sorts between Scott and Mara, thanks to a message board about alternative parenting situations.
Delving much further into the story risks giving away too much, but I can say this—my thoughts on Mara’s actions wavered back and forth throughout the five-day journey with her. Her pre-emptive strike in planning her death seems equal parts selfish and selfless, and it had me wondering how those facing these kinds of decisions here in the real world arrive at them—and how surrounding family and friends respond. There is one scene in particular as Mara moves through a morning of symptoms that is so heart-wrenching it becomes painfully obvious as to how death is most definitely considered an option.
And I wonder how many readers will either side with or against Laurie as she tries to maneuver Scott through the end of his relationship with Curtis. Is she selfish? Or is she realistic? How do foster parents say goodbye? Or do they really ever?
A compelling read, for certain—great for a long weekend. My only beef would be the use of the message board as a literary device, given there isn’t any kind of resolution with it. Queue it up at your local library and you should have it time for the holidays.