Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor

I’ve always been a bit sceptical of people who talk of “life-changing books.” Life-changing? That’s love, isn’t it? Death? Birth? Infidelity? War? Peace? The big stuff, right? But then I found a book that – *whispers* – actually did change my life.

Last week I found myself out with a bunch of lads I know, climbing sheer cliffs, diving into the sea, getting washed through gullies and exploring sea caves (so coasteering, then) and I was having the time of my life. The second before I jumped off a twenty-foot cliff into the sea, the book Signs of Life flashed into my head.

Because that book was a total wake-up call for me. It really got into my head and made me feel my own mortality. This life is not a run-through. This is it. So try to do everything you want, while you can – is what it seemed to say.

I’d had a baby the year before and while I was nursing, I’d hardly been away from my little girl for more than an hour. As wonderful as that experience was, part of me was beginning to crave adventure.

So I decided to take myself off to a surf film premiere with a friend. I had stopped nursing a couple of weeks before, and I was going to have my first alcoholic drink in two years. As it happened, my friend had to cancel at the last minute, so screwing up my courage, I went to the event alone. And there I met the most incredible young woman, who had also come to the event alone.

This young woman would go on to become a dear friend to me and together we had the most amazing beach summer, sort of like a platonic love affair, in which she taught me to surf, took me to yoga classes and – inspired by the eco surf film – we even arranged our own beach clean, things that put me forever in her debt.

Surfing was the start of a lot of other great things, more of which I’ll talk about in another piece for Vulpes Libris. But in short: reading Signs of Life gave me the courage to do many of the things I had always wanted to do with my life, but had put off through fear. So, Signs of Life, I salute you and thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to Josh and Natalie Taylor: you remain my heroes.

ORIGINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT SIGNS OF LIFE

First of all, this is not a review. It can’t be. Signs of Life is a true story and it’s one that I engaged with so deeply that I cannot hope to be objective. I’ll see this piece then as more a literary tipping of my hat to the extraordinary woman that is Natalie Taylor and to the man who was once her husband.

Natalie Taylor was five months pregnant when her husband Josh died in a freak accident. He was carveboarding when he fell and hit his head in such a way that his brain was severely injured.

Uncle Alex cries. “He fell backward and hit his head. It crushed his skull into the back of his brain. He died in less than three minutes.”

Last night, right before I went to bed, Josh went out Carveboarding. A Carveboard is a modified skateboard. It rocks side to side and imitates the motion of a surfboard. Carveboards are used on pavement embankments. Josh was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. He never wore a helmet.

I would like to go off on a slight tangent here and point out that since reading Signs of Life, I have noticed a few dozen people out carveboarding in my neighbourhood (my town is full of surfers and as hinted above, surfing and carveboarding are natural companions). Not one of the carveboarders I saw was wearing a helmet. I searched Youtube for videos of carveboarders and most of them weren’t wearing helmets either. Seemingly a lot of well-meaning people asked Natalie after Josh’s death “why wasn’t he wearing a helmet?” As if this painful question could somehow make things better, as if it could reverse a tragedy.

Josh wasn’t wearing a helmet because that was his choice. We all take risks every day. That was a risk he took. If he thought he was going to fall off his board and be fatally injured then he no doubt would have worn a helmet. Let’s move on.

Signs of Life charts Natalie’s everyday existence in the sixteen months between Josh’s death and her son’s first birthday. It is drawn from the diaries that Natalie kept at the time, and as well as being a memoir it is also a consideration of many famous works of literature and how Natalie connected with them in the period after her husband’s death. The inclusion of great novels, poems and plays isn’t some cheap device; Natalie is an English teacher and in her grief she ponders the books she is reading at home as well as those she is teaching her secondary school classes, remarking upon the ways in which those texts have changed and taken on new meaning for her since Josh died. Natalie discusses The Godfather, Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth and many more, and far from being trite summaries, Natalie talks of these works with great clarity and insight. Although I’ve studied English at Master’s degree level, I still learnt a lot about literature from reading Signs of Life and I was very glad that Natalie chose to weave these texts into her own. The texts are made yet more interesting as Natalie shares the opinions and reactions of her students, who are vividly depicted here.

Even with the addition of these interesting literary examinations, Signs of Life might sound horribly depressing. But it isn’t, I promise. There’s sorrow aplenty, of course, but beyond that this is a surprisingly life-affirming, hopeful and at times funny read.

After the accident, Natalie has to learn to pass her days without her husband. She attends antenatal classes alone, goes through labour without Josh as her birth partner, stops wearing her wedding ring, drives herself everywhere and no longer has her husband as a buffer between herself and her in-laws (with whom she consequently grows much closer) and Natalie negotiates a thousand other elements of life that are starkly different in widowhood – raising a child being the greatest of them.

At one point, near the end of the book, Natalie makes a habit of asking herself “what are you afraid of?” and consequently for the past week I have been asking myself the same thing. At this precise moment, what I am afraid of is not doing justice to Signs of Life. I am afraid that this piece will make the book sound heavy and bleak, when it is no such thing.

To get a clearer picture of the book, I perhaps need to give you a clearer picture of Natalie’s husband Josh. Josh is described as someone who loved life, who made time for his family and friends, who made people laugh, who kissed the women he loved. He was energetic, brave, sporty and adventurous. He died in his prime; he died when he and Natalie were still experiencing the great infatuation and romance of early marriage. His death at the age of 27 should not have occurred. Over a thousand people attended his funeral. To those who knew him it seemed unthinkable that someone as vivacious and active as Josh could be dead.

Natalie is at first naturally floored by her grief but she also gets to a point where she starts to kick back. She becomes angry. She is suddenly intolerant about things that she never minded before. She reads a certain chicklit book about a woman “trying to find herself” by an author she admired before, but after Josh’s death the book becomes so irritating that it grates on her nerves every time she opens it.

First of all, I probably shouldn’t be reading this book. I am fully aware that there is an entire population of mothers who live a daily life of complete malcontents because their identities have been “reduced” to driving children around in a minivan, grocery shopping, and doing laundry. I know that these are the women who end up snorting crystal meth or resorting to alcohol or who yell at their kids in that tone that just screams “I am a bitter human being”. They watch Oprah, they think about having affairs (some probably do), and all of this in their minds is justified by the idea that they’ve been “suppressing” their real selves their entire life. Tragic. So sad I could cry. These are women who make choices their entire lives – they choose to be married, they choose to have children, they choose to not go back to work – and get everything they want only to one day wake up and say, “I am horribly unhappy”. If I could personally punch all of these women in the face, I would.

However, after becoming a mother, Natalie gets a different perspective:

Remember how I cursed that book I was reading about a stay-at-home mom who dared to whine about her stay-at-home mom life? Now, as a mom who doesn’t sleep or get dressed on a consistent basis because I don’t have the time or energy, I am in awe that there was once a point in my life when I could actually read a book. More important, I am sorry I said those things and thought those things. I didn’t know. I wasn’t a part of the club yet. I just want to take a moment to say I’m sorry. At the time I cursed all of you, I wasn’t a mom. Now that I am one, I know all the secrets. I am now one of you and this job is not easy.

Perhaps one reason why I engaged so much with this book is the fact that it has been fifteen months since I became a parent. The pure bubbling joy of being pregnant and holding my newborn baby is fresh in my mind. Even the idea of my partner never getting to meet his child is so awful, so devastating, that I don’t even want to write it here. And yet that was the reality for Natalie.

What, some might ask, is the purpose of Signs of Life? Is it an outlet for Natalie’s grief? Is it intended to immortalise Josh? Was it written as a gift to Josh’s friends and family? Perhaps it is all of those things. It is also a book for every person who has ever lost – or who will ever lose – someone they love, which I suppose makes it for all of us.

Yes, I cried. Yes, I laughed. And yes, books have had this effect on me before. But never before have I felt so changed by a book. The world looks more inviting after reading Signs of Life, as if I am suddenly seeing it the way Josh might have seen it. I feel that I am being braver, I am taking more risks, and I am fully appreciating what I have. I have never and will never meet Natalie Taylor and her family, and yet through this book I feel that I know them. After reading Signs of Life, Natalie feels like a friend, and Josh like a friend that I have lost. This is absolutely crazy and yet must be testament to the power of the book. For all its strengths, Signs of Life is also one of the most candid books that I have ever read and for this reason alone I would urge anybody reading this piece to buy a copy of Signs of Life this instant.

As if pre-empting her readers’ new resolutions to be better and braver, Natalie touches on the idea of character change. To quote her once more:

It’s safe to say that none of us will be the same now that we have lived through the death of Josh. Right now I firmly believe I will never be as happy as I was. I will never exude that carefree smile I see on my face in my wedding pictures. Life will never look as bright, not simply because he’s not here, but also because I now know that things aren’t always fair in the world. But will I change? Will any of us change? Four months later, after vowing to live life differently, I wonder how much power those grief-stricken resolutions have. In the days following the funeral, Chris told Ashley that it was his job to make sure that the baby and I are always taken care of. But he’s back in Denver hunting elk and sometimes forgets to return my phone calls. Deedee said she was finally going to start on the much-needed renovation of her house – Josh had always wanted her to fix it up. Months later she hasn’t mentioned it again. I said I would never take a moment for granted. I would never get annoyed with stupid things like traffic or waiting in long lines at the post office but I have gone back on those promises over and over. I said I would never reject an invitation to celebrate something, but months later and I am already complaining about upcoming weddings and showers. So have we changed? Can I still change?

Four years on from Josh’s death, Natalie has completed gruelling tests of physical endurance, has had a book published and has seen her tiny baby grow into a thriving little boy. Even if life will never look as bright for Natalie, perhaps the publication and (I hope) great success of this book will add some light to the greyer days.

Two Roads Books, ISBN-13: 978-1444724677, paperback. 320 pages.

7 comments on “Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor

  1. melrose
    September 27, 2012

    The first thing that hit me about this book, upon my first reading of this review, was that Josh may have been a risk taker, lived life in the moment, done exactly what he wanted to do. But, he had also made a commitment to be with his partner, and have a child, and the results of his risk-taking – death – would have implications for both that will be with them forever. It’s okay for him, he’s out the picture, dead within 3 minutes. They have the tragic manner of his death in their lives forever. Unless he and Natalie discussed this possible outcome and came to terms with this, then he was being rather selfish. If Natalie was 5 months pregnant, then it is likely he knew about the baby, and he considered the fact that it may be born fatherless an outcome he could live with, in order to live life as he wanted, which seems rather selfish to me. To be a high-level risktaker, and not even take safety precautions like protecting vulnerable parts of your body, like your brain, seems to me something you should do, in a life, where you haven’t chosen to share your life with others. And potentially be a contender for the Darwin awards.

    I think it is very brave of Natalie to write this book, and it sounds that it would be totally gripping. And it may be part of her personality to have to do so, which hopefully her child takes from her, to be gutsy in the face of adversity. But, it doesn’t say “life changing” to me, to me it’s more about a man who has chosen to share his life with others, but continues to live his life as if he has no-one else to consider, if he dies doing what he loves. So, a tale more about the making choices, which might not be ones you should make, when you have shared your life with others whose lives will instantly be devastated, and who will miss you tremendously when they are left behind, or even, like the unborn child, never get to know you at all.

    It’s not really about living life, it’s a story about the people left behind, picking up the pieces because a person chose to put themselves in danger for sport (basically an addiction).

    Evidently, a great book though, as you say, for such a visceral reaction from me, I think.

  2. Lisa
    September 27, 2012

    I was waiting for this sort of comment and I definitely understand where it is coming from. Perhaps the book struck me so forcibly because as a new parent I was totally risk-averse and so terrified of something bad happening at every moment that I was making myself an anxious wreck.

    But I don’t want to be a person who lives in fear. I would rather take calculated risks and live a full life. And there is risk attached to pretty much everything we do in life. I think what comes across in Natalie’s book is that Josh wouldn’t have been the person he was, the man she loved, if he didn’t have that adventurous spirit in him.

    It was a tragic accident but I don’t think that accident means that all of his passion for sport and adventure was misguided. Natalie and Josh both come across as remarkable people who loved each other very much and who had jointly decided which things were acceptable risks and which weren’t. I appreciate some people might disagree and I would be fascinated to hear if you feel any differently after reading the book. It might just be that the fear/seize the day element resonated with me so much because I read the book at a particular time of my life when I was crippled with fear and seizing nothing except more fear.

    I appreciate the honesty of your comment, and I am quite sure that my own mother would agree with you totally.

  3. Lisa
    September 27, 2012

    And I do understand that it might not seem particularly logical to read a book about someone who died taking part in a risky sport and then react by thinking “I must take up some risky sports” but the book just describes a kind of absolute love for life and its wonders/experiences that really affected me. Some of the people I know who live with serious illness also have this kind of spirit. As if they know that their time is limited so that they make the most of each day and pack in as many adventures as they can. And really, everybody’s time is limited, but this book made me properly feel that for the first time.

  4. melrose
    September 27, 2012

    My personal view of life is that, if you have or decide to have a child, then you are making a commitment to that child to endeavour to take care of it until it reaches an age at which it is able to take care of itself. Deciding to have a child is not a decision that should be made on the spur of the moment, it affects your whole life for a long time because you often have to change ywhat was your “old” lifestyle to accommodate the change you have decided to make to it. And, with the decision to commit to bringing up a child, often comes the realisation that you have to be less foolhardy, and make sure that any risks you take are very well calculated, in order to fulfill the commitment you have made.

    Often people in high risk sports are in it for the adrenaline buzz, it’s about peak experience, a feeling of being “alive”, as if somehow you feel you aren’t, if you don’t take risks. But peak experiences come in lots of ways. Maslow, King of Peak Experiences, gave as an example a young mother having a peak experience, simply by gazing out the window and experiencing the beauty of a particularly lovely sunrise. If you added to that, her young child slumbering peacefully within that glorious environment, and her husband’s arms around her shoulders, there may nothing more that could top that particular moment for a mother for the rest of her life. Like you say “a kind of absolute love for life and its wonders/experiences”. Putting her life at risk in a high-risk sport to get the same feeling may come a very poor second for that mother. She may feel the price she would have to pay is far too heavy, for both her and her family.

    Having children certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, so I don’t think risk-aversiveness and being crippled with fear comes into it. It can take often take far more courage to live with children, especially foolhardy ones, than leap off high cliffs. You are exposed to lots of heart-stopping moments like children suddenly disappearing in shops, or crowded areas, and not being able to find them. But you have to keep your cool, and not panic. Or helping your child to take calculated risks, like crossing the road on their own, or learning to horse ride or mountain bike. You make sure they are aware of the risks, and, for sports, appropriately kitted up, and then you have to stand back, even though there are lots of heart in mouth moments. That can take guts, but you have to do it, if you want your child to learn independence.

    Each to their own. As I say, a very thought provoking book, and I imagine very emotional and heart-breaking at times, but with moments of real inspiration. I think it will appeal to people like Natalie and Josh, who live the kind of lifestyle they did, with its high element of risk and associated tragedies. And, as you say, perhaps someone like yourself, with which the feeling resonates. Other people, even those with serious illnesses, may not always get their peak experiences by suddenly taking up paragliding or something similar, but by appreciating the beauty and wonderment of the life that surrounds them, i.e., they may decide to stop and smell the flowers instead of rushing around, as they perhaps used to.

    Natalie certainly seems to have a really strong character to be able to live with someone as singleminded as Josh, and to have the determination and courage to write about their tragedy, and how it affected her and her young child. And I am pleased that her book has been able to change your life in a way you are finding really life-affirming.

  5. Lisa
    September 27, 2012

    Thanks for that and as I say, I do appreciate that people will have very different views and so much of this is very personal. For me, I enjoy surfing and open water swimming and yes those things could kill me, but do I never go back into the sea? Not an option for me. It’s not an addiction, because I have always felt this way, since a very small child. My love for the sea is part of who I am and always will be. I don’t actually think that a very small risk of death is a reason not to do something. When I drive a car I take that risk. When I walk across a zebra crossing I take that risk. Likewise, out of all the cyclists, skate-boarders, carve-boarders I see around my town, perhaps 10 percent of them are wearing helmets, so the vast majority feel that they will probably be okay without a helmet. And they probably will. But maybe one of them won’t be okay and some terrible tragedy could happen. But they have presumably decided that is an acceptable level of risk. I don’t think that makes them bad people or selfish. Just like I don’t think parents should never climb mountains or ride horses or go skiing.

    But all these decisions are very personal and so each to their own.

  6. Kate
    September 28, 2012

    Mmm, me too. I never didn’t wear a bike helmet, but once I became a mother I absolutely wore it, and expected my husband to wear his too, no questions.

    The book sounds extraordinary. I’m not sure about the encouragement to take more risks, since scary sports don’t attract me at all, but it does sound a deeply worked out response to her new direction.

  7. Jackie
    September 28, 2012

    While I agree with everything that Melrose says, I can also see how this book would have such a positive impact on someone. And living without fear doesn’t necessarily mean participating in extreme sports, it could also mean having the courage to try something, anything that you’ve always wanted to do, but were afraid to: a cooking class, a new hobby, a book group, a different career direction or trying something new in something you already do-a different style of painting or dancing. It could also inspire someone to make the world a better place, such as Lisa joining a beach cleaning excursion. I think each person could take the “living without fear” message & tailor it to their own life and personality.

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2012 by in autobiography, Entries by Lisa, Uncategorized.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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