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Before I Die


Before I Die

Tessa is a 16-year-old with a terminal case of leukemia. After
four years of battling the disease, Tessa forgoes treatment in
order to more fully appreciate the last few months of her life. Not
knowing how to cope with the knowledge of a death that is both
certain and soon, Tessa makes a list of things she'd like to do
before she dies.

Tessa's list contains many of the things teens are curious about,
especially those that exact a heavy price. Knowing she will soon
die means that Tessa can experiment with sex, drugs and criminal
behavior without having to endure their consequences. With the help
of her best friend Zoey, Tessa rushes headlong into the experiences
she believes to be emblematic of being alive. What she discovers is
that life and death are more luminous and complex than she ever
could have realized.

Not a sentimental teen “sickie,” BEFORE I DIE grapples
with some of the larger doubts and fears we all experience in
facing our own mortality. I am particularly grateful to author
Jenny Downham for not beginning the book with a list typed out in
the first chapter. We only discover what's on Tessa's list as she
experiences them --- and it changes as Tessa becomes sicker. Her
initial desires for wild teen transgressions are replaced by
simpler longings, whether it's as profound as the company of the
people who love her or as a prosaic as another cup of tea.

The author uses a few tricks to get the full emotional range out of
Tessa's experiences. One of the characters becomes pregnant, which
highlights the life cycle. Tessa contemplates fetal development at
the same time she monitors her own body's decline. She also manages
to fall in love between starting her list and taking her final
breath. Instead of feeling manipulated by these developments, I
found myself both elated and heartbroken.

Downham's description of the disease is unflinching. Even though
Tessa is refusing chemo, the doctors still monitor the progression
of her disease. Tessa's final days aren't pretty; the last few
pages of the novel are filled with the grief and panic of her
family as they hear the “death rattle” of fluid build
up in her lungs. The author does not rely upon popular ideas of the
afterlife, and the characters in this book do not spend a lot of
time reflecting on them. Instead, Tessa is comforted by the idea of
the larger life cycle. She thinks of herself as star dust:

"...when I die, I'll return to dust, glitter, rain.... I want to be
buried right here under this tree. Its roots will reach into the
soft mess of my body and suck me dry. I'll be reformed as apple
blossom. I'll drift down in the spring like confetti and cling to
my family's shoes.... In the summer they'll eat me. Adam will climb
over the fence to steal me, maddened by my scent, my roundness, the
shine and health of me. He'll get his mum to cook me up in a
crumble or a strudel and then he'll gorge on me."

This vision is a rare fanciful moment in a book that focuses
primarily on moment-to-moment impressions of living and dying. At
its core are the things for which we long. Should our deaths be
defined by a list of accomplishments to follow us to our graves? Or
is it measured by the love of the people who accompany us to its

When Tessa asks her boyfriend to stay the night with her, saying,
"I want you to be with me in the dark. To hold me. To keep loving
me. To help me when I get scared. To come right to the edge and see
what's there," she is voicing something for which we all long and
fear. Her boyfriend’s response is equally as recognizable:
"What if I get it wrong?" he asks.

BEFORE I DIE is not an easy book to read. But it does provide a
much needed antidote to all the books and articles about places to
see and things to eat “before you die.” Most of us will
not leave this earth disappointed that we never got to go to
Disneyland. When we do die --- as we all will one day --- we should
be as lucky as Tessa to be allowed a death that is comfortable,
meaningful and surrounded by the love of friends and family.
Ultimately, Tessa's regret is not for those things that she hasn't
tasted or seen but a simple plea of "I don't want to be dead. I
haven't been loved this way for long enough."


Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on October 18, 2011

Before I Die
by Jenny Downham

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: David Fickling Books
  • ISBN-10: 0385751559
  • ISBN-13: 9780385751551