t's something of a cliche to call memoirs about terminal illness life-affirming. But you will cherish everyone and everything you love, not to mention the capabilities of your own body, all the more dearly after reading this beautiful, devastating and stunningly written memoir by a man living with—and slowly dying from—motor neurone disease.
In 2018, Hammond wrote a memorable piece for the Guardian about the 33 birthday cards he was writing, to be given to his two sons each year after his death. It received a massive response. A Short History of Falling is his much more expansive account of what it feels like to confront the fact that your family will persist through time without you. Hammond takes us with him into uncharted territory as his body slowly disconnects from a mind that is still pin-sharp, demonstrating on each and every page his awe-inspiring mental ability to reach for the truest words with a precision that his physical self can no longer muster. My copy is full of pencil marks where I have underlined another searing sentence or gem of wisdom.
This is a book which shines with the clarity that comes with knowing that your days are numbered, and I think that the comparisons 4th Estate is drawing with The Diving Bell and When Breath Becomes Air are entirely justified.
What one notices throughout is the ascendancy of the writing: fit and unaffected and strong. And the images he alights upon are brilliant – there is a gallantry to them. At one point, he describes the way in which his body “curled inwards like a fortune-telling fish on a hot palm”. After writing the birthday cards, he beautifully likens the imagined and yet unimaginable future to “a street market in the hours before opening”. When his body first starts to go wrong, he notices himself walking “like a passenger in the aisle of a plane going through gentle turbulence”. At every turn, his witty precision deepens the narrative’s impact. He did not choose his subject, MND chose him. He is a real writer and real writers have to write... At the end, what one feels is that this is a book to extend empathy, to ensure one understands what it is to have MND and to witness one man facing it with exceptional courage. It is also a moving reiteration that a “short” history is our human lot. And even though he ends with a bittersweet chapter describing the family’s upbeat move into a sylvan bungalow, it could not be clearer: there is no such thing as happy ever after.
A melancholic feeling of helplessness seeps into the narrative in the latter half when Hammond has lost even basic voluntary movements. There is a tacit acceptance of the inevitability of death which propels contemplative, conscientious reflections. A Short History of Falling is a brave, stirring memoir of a man staring down the barrel of his own mortality.
Hammond can’t take the reader right up to his death, but he enables us to get our nose right up to the window, and his testimony deserves a place on the shelf next to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Late Fragments by Kate Gross. The narrative closes in mid-March as Hammond sits in his wheelchair on the edge of a leafless wood looking at the moss and daffodils at the base of a giant ash tree. In the distance he sees a flash of Tom’s red T-shirt and the blue of Jimmy’s wellies. “Everything takes so long and is nearly gone, apart from the millions of moments remaining.”