In the genre of uplifting books about inspiring people, former Los Angeles Times reporter Hayasaki (Literary Journalism/Univ. of California, Irvine) offers a portrait of Norma Bowe, a psychiatric nurse and teacher at Kean University, whose “Death in Perspective” class has changed the lives of some of her most vulnerable students.
The author, who has faced death and loss in her own life, uses “immersion” and “participatory” journalism, following Bowe for four years, enrolling in the class and conducting extensive interviews. In addition, she read books and articles about death, dying and mental health, especially works by Erik Erikson, whom Bowe champions. Hayasaki structures her narrative by focusing on several students whose lives were in dire crisis when they met Bowe. One’s mother was a drug addict; another, whose father murdered his mother, cared for his schizophrenic younger brother; another struggled to wrest himself from a gang. Although reluctant to talk about herself, Bowe, too, revealed a dark past: She was an unwanted child, repeatedly battered by her cruel, narcissistic parents. Her grandmother raised her for part of her childhood. Indeed, besides Bowe, whom Hayasaki portrays as selfless and tireless, the heroines of this book are the many grandmothers who raised children their own offspring could not, or would not, care for. Bowe seems to have “radar hardwired inside her” that alerts her to people in need. Cheerful even while traipsing through a cemetery or visiting a halfway house, she emitted “an air of invincibility” and “a feeling so magnetic” that students flocked to her. At the end of every chapter, Hayasaki includes an assignment from Bowe’s syllabus—e.g., write your own eulogy, pretend you are a ghost and record your observations, write a goodbye letter to someone or something lost.
These assignments invite readers to consider the essential question of Bowe’s course—and Hayasaki’s book: How can we learn to celebrate life?