The title of Maggie O’Farrell’s new memoir, I Am I Am I Am, comes from a line out of the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Maggie O’Farrell writes novels, but for this book, she has stepped away to write about her seventeen brushes with death. The memoir opens with a harrowing account of her encounter with a serial killer on a remote mountain path. She also recounts contracting encephalitis as a child, an illness from which her doctors and nurses gave little hope that she would ever walk again, if she even survived. She survived a mugging at knife-point, a near drowning, and narrowly escaped being hit by a car. Any one of these things could happen to one of us, but all of them happening to O’Farrell has made her acutely aware of the tenuous thread between life and death; a thread that grew taut when her own child was diagnosed with a life-threatening immune disorder. As a mother, she must always be prepared – carrying a virtual pharmacy with her whenever they leave the house – for one never knows when one will encounter a stray nut or residue of something that will throw her daughter into anaphylactic shock. She learns how to administer the Epinephrine shots and give cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and must know where the nearest hospital is whenever she enters a new city.
When she tells an old boyfriend about all of her experiences, he exclaims, “You were really unlucky.” But Maggie O’Farrell doesn’t feel unlucky, quite the opposite. She feels lucky. “They thought I would die; I didn’t. They thought I wouldn’t walk or swim or hold a pencil again; I did. . . they thought I would need wheelchair for the rest of my life . . . that I would need to go to a special school . . .” But Maggie survived. She rose above all of these things. She fought her way back and became stronger – not crippled by fear or regret.
O’Farrell’s point is clear. Any of us could be one breath away from dying, and it is in recognizing this, that Maggie O’Farrell has learned to appreciate living – breath by breath, moment by moment, day by day. And after her daughter survives yet another brush with death, she whispers, She is, she is, she is.