Review by Jack A. Urquhart
Toronto-based writer David G. Hallman’s beautifully rendered memoir, August Farewell, appropriately subtitled, “The Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-three Year Romance”, deserves honorable mention in the pantheon of memoirists whose writing documents the heart-rending loss of a beloved spouse. Reminiscent of Paul Monette’s poetic musings in Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, and more recently, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, Hallman’s memoir captures in deceptively elegant prose the days following his long-term partner William Conklin’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and his death a mere sixteen days later on August 23, 2009.
Presented in seventeen chapters, Hallman’s portrait of a loving relationship built on respect, patience, judicious compromise, and `hard-kick-under-the-table lessons’ (of the kind anyone who has navigated a long-term relationship will instantly recognize) engages the reader from page one. Lovers whose passions included deeply shared spiritual beliefs, as well as social activism–both were at the forefront of the international boycott of Nestlé in the late 70s and early 80s–and an abiding love of music and travel, it isn’t surprising that the two men should be closely in tune throughout the slowing-down process of Mr. Conklin’s final days.
One of the most moving vignettes, captured in Chapter Eight, presents the two men in a shared devotional; as Mr. Hallman accompanies his lover on the piano through the hymn, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God,” Mr. Conklin, a music teacher whose tenor voice once soared, summons from dwindling reserves the wherewithal to complete the two-line hymn. Another milestone moment, detailed in Chapter Four, captures both men confronting the necessity of letting go:
“Sorry if it sounds harsh, but you’ve got to leave me alone so that I can slip away,” Mr. Conklin starkly entreats. Who could help but be affected by Hallman’s unspoken response: Do I love him enough to give him what he wants?
It is a reaction that will ring true for anyone–especially those who have struggled to maintain a respectful distance through arduous final hours and days at a loved-one’s bedside.
Hallman’s memoir is beautifully conceived and paced; but perhaps his greatest achievement is the transformation of a deeply personal loss into something inescapably universal in its implications and instructiveness. A primer for navigating the journey from life unto death (for who can claim expertise in that unfathomable journey), August Farewell offers lessons in grace and hope.