By Dan Clendenin
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann (Detroit: Cass Community Publishing House, 2018), 402pp.
On September 1, 1998, Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann collapsed on her bathroom floor from a seizure. Two weeks later, surgeons removed a tumor the size of an orange from her brain, which tumor turned out to be a grade 4 glioblastoma — a late stage and extremely aggressive form of cancer. The prognosis for most people with her condition is measured in months. Only 3–5% of patients with glioblastoma live longer than 5 years, but Wylie-Kellermann lived over seven more years, until December 31, 2005. Her neurologists called her “a walking miracle.” This loving and tender tribute by her husband Bill, written twenty years after the events, tells Jeanie’s story of “dying well.”
This hybrid memoir is many things at once. It’s an extended reflection on how Bill and Jeanie “worked out their salvation within the vocation of marriage” and their larger Catholic Worker community in Detroit. It’s an agonizing exploration of the complicated questions that surround treatment choices, conventional medicine, alternative therapies like ultrapheresis, and healing prayers. Family stories play a significant role here, including poetry, diaries, photographs, and letters. There are also theological reflections on social activism and spiritual formation within a well-defined Christian community.
Most of all, this book is an extended disquisition on death from a specifically Christian vantage point that suggests what it means “to die sacramentally.” With death all around us in its many and dreadful manifestations, our culture typically responds in fear and denial. To die well, then, requires “an act of resistance.” That is, “a truly good death subverts the culture at its worst.” And that’s what Jeanie Wylie-Kellerman did in her “resurrected life” both here and in the hereafter.
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