Book Review: Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying by Joseph Monninger

Tragically, a friend has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  So the topic has been on my mind as I have prayed for her and tried to offer her what support I could. As a result, when I saw Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying at the local library I thought it would be worth a read. I thought it might be helpful to read someone’s perspective on going through the process of diagnosis, treatment, etc.

Here is the publishers description:

After thirty-two years of teaching, Joe Monninger, an avid outdoorsman in robust health, was looking forward to a long retirement with the love of his life in a cabin beside a New England estuary. Three days after his last class, however, he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, even though he has not smoked for more than 30 years. It was May, and he might be dead by early fall.

Soon Joe learned, however, that he was a genetic match for treatment with a drug that could not cure his cancer, but could prolong his life. With this temporary reprieve, he sets out to live life to the fullest and to write about the year of grace that follows, from his cancer treatments to his innermost thoughts.

It turned out to be an interesting read.  I enjoyed reading Monninger’s perspective despite not sharing much of his background.  He is a New Englander, former professor/writer, who has traveled the world.  He is an avid outdoorsman looking to retire along the coast of Maine.  I am a lifelong Midwesterner, who works in government and politics, and is years away from retirement. He appears to be a lapsed Catholic while I am an active churchgoer.

That said, there is still the underlying blunt issue: you think of yourself as healthy and are making plans for the future when suddenly you are told you have a life threatening illness.

What Monninger does well is relate and illustrate how he wrestled with this shock to his system both in his everyday life and psychologically.  Questions about facing death, about how the reality of cancer can and should impact your daily life, your plans for the future, your relationship with family, friends, and colleagues, etc. are explored with humility and honesty.

He relates dealing with doctors, medical bills, with accepting help from family and friends. He also wrestles with the somewhat unique experience of having planned to retire and move into that phase of his life, and instead face a future cut short and where and long-term plans seem foolish.

In the end, he has to find a balance between being realistic about his lessening physical abilities, and the risk of pretending the cancer diagnosis won’t impact his life, and just suspending his life or putting everything on hold. He has to find joy in the small things and appreciate all that he has been given even as he considers his responsibility to those around him.

For Monninger, nature and literature sustain him and help him make sense of the world.  This all comes to a crescendo when Joe and his partner make a trip to Nebraska to experience the migration of sandhill cranes. It is experiencing that amazing show of nature that reinforces the understanding that death is part of nature in all its beauty and poignancy.

As I noted, I found Goodbye to Clocks Ticking interesting and an enjoyable read.  But I have to confess that nothing struck me as particularly profound or deeply touching, etc. It was thought provoking to consider what a cancer diagnosis forces you to face and begin to think about what kind of impact that would have on your own life.

Perhaps because our lives and perspectives were so different, it didn’t resonate with me at a deeper level.  As I so often note, I think your level of engagement and enjoyment might be highly impacted by your perspective (age, background, faith, etc.).

That said, it is a well written and thoughtful exploration of a difficult topic done with humility and honesty.  Hard to complain about that.

Other reviews.


Particularly striking are the author’s reflections on the difficulties of acknowledging one’s mortality even at an advanced age; the awe one must feel at the sophistication of modern medical interventions; the intractable fear one must confront after becoming dependent on others and losing a sense of dignity; and the detachment from trivial concerns that comes with facing death. Monninger’s frankness in detailing his vulnerabilities as a cancer patient and humor in framing some of the frustrations that arise as one loses physical autonomy are memorable and inspiring. Also notable are the descriptions of where the author took comfort as he struggled with moments of acute panic and more routine anxiety—e.g., in simple conversations with loved ones, experiencing the diverse beauty of the natural world, and immersing himself in books. In unassuming yet convincing terms, the author also conveys the important message that “cancer does not bring any particular clarity about life…no big, shining lesson”—though it may, as it did for Monninger, intensify the desire to understand and make peace with one’s ultimate commitments. This brief but incisive record of survival is all the more compelling for that humility.

A poignant, instructive account of reckoning with a terminal illness.

Publishers Weekly

The author is as at home recalling decisive medical conversations as he is when considering questions that arise in the wake of a terminal diagnosis, such as burial options and accepting the “quiet thing” of death. But Monninger, who is still alive, avoids raw emotionality. The result is a frank yet distanced self-exploration.

And in an odd coincidence, another author I read recently offered a blurb:

“Someone in need of precisely this book will pick it up, read it, and their spirit will be lifted.”

— Jonathan Carroll, author of Mr. Breakfast


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.