David G Hallman’s memoir, August Farewell, is a day-by-day account of the cancer diagnosis, quick decline and achingly slow death of Bill Conklin, the author’s partner. Or rather, it’s the story of the final days of a journey the two men shared together over 33 years.
Hallman and Conklin met in the mid-1970s at Toronto’s Club Manatee and divided much of their next three decades together between homes in Toronto and Stratford, Ontario. In August of 2009, Conklin was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
Hallman describes the emotional roller coaster he and Conklin rode in the final 16 days of Conklin’s life. What are the logistics of palliation? What do you say to the man who has been the centre of your universe for three decades when you find you will soon be separated by death? And what do you do when you’re all talked out and the end won’t seem to come?
Hallman intersperses his account of Conklin’s final 16 days with snapshots from their lives together. They had a wonderful time.
August Farewell is readable and interesting, a kind of voyeuristic peek into the most deeply personal of experiences. Still, it’s fascinating and eminently readable and may be particularly interesting to those who call Toronto’s gay community home.
There’s a therapeutic element implied for the authors of works of grief. It’s as if by recounting on paper their gut-wrenching experience, the survivor earns a kind of catharsis. There’s also a sense that overcoming horrific challenges and memorializing the life of a long-time lover requires a kind of monument, the building of which earns the creator the latitude to carry on alone, or better, to build a guiltless new future with others. Those sentiments seem clearly evoked in the text.
It’s difficult, frankly, not to think also about yourself as you read, about your own life and the prospects for your own death. Dying slowly is no time to walk alone.
But August Farewell, although a first-class tearjerker, is not dripping with pathos and despair. In fact, there really is no despair. There is something rather life-affirming about it. It’s a story not just about Conklin and Hallman, but also about the many people in their lives. It’s really a kind of love story.