Every Last Breath: A Memoir of Two Illnesses

Jacobson, Joanne

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Apr-11-2022
  • Last revised: Apr-11-2022


Five years into writing about her mother’s slow decline from a respiratory illness, Joanne Jacobson was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening blood disease. That discovery dissolved the illusion that she and her mother had separate fates. “How could I continue writing about my mother as though I were observing her from outside the circle of Illness?” Jacobson asks (27). She can’t. And Every Last Breath becomes, as its subtitle discloses, “A Memoir of Two Illnesses.” Doubling its concern, Jacobson’s memoir in essays becomes a richer, more urgent, and ironic revision of her original project.  

With writerly attentiveness, perceptive intelligence, and some impatience, the four opening essays witness the negotiations that Florence Jacobson makes with her body, her environment, and her psyche. From a distanced perspective, Jacobson wonders at her mother’s courage and stubborn animal will to go on. Her mother’s slow pace and reluctance to let go—of her possessions, her habits, her life—initially frustrate and puzzle Jacobson. She even expresses impatience with the constant sound of her mother’s oxygen pump filling the apartment, the inconvenient bulk of the oxygen canister, the tangles of tubing connecting the machine with her mother’s nostrils. 

 As Jacobson’s diagnosis closes the distance she perceived between herself and her mother, it ignites the memoir’s transformative insight. It’s first articulated at the end of the essay titled “Mirror Writing” and it sustains the rest of the memoir. Realizing that her mother might outlive her, Jacobson writes: “. . . I can no longer pretend that the ragged approach of death is likely to be smoothed by nature’s grace, or by the natural order. So long as I believed I was writing about my mother, I was able to hold mortality at a distance . . . Now in the mirror of my mother’s aging face I see myself” (29). In “Dead Reckoning,” when Jacobson learns that her blood is starved for oxygen, she hears her “own lungs fall into the thrumming motor’s pulse” of her mother’s respirator. Revising her response to the technology, she writes that it is “the sound of death being pushed mechanically away that is audible to me now—steadily asserting its nearness . . .” (63-4). Jacobson’s descriptions of her hospitalizations and treatments (“Written in Blood,” “If My Disease Were an Animal”) take her on solo flights toward her new understanding of herself and the “call to the imagination” that her experience issues (59). Jacobson’s elegant and vulnerable rendering of her efforts to survive pain, uncertainty, and terrifying treatments register her own courage and will to go on.  

The final essays bring the shared destinies of daughter and mother together. Jacobson thinks of them as “invisibly entwined, cellular,” as she recalls that mothers’ bodies can absorb their fetuses’ cells (88). In “Book of Names,” Jacobson’s closing essay, she and her mother read out the names in Florence’s heavily edited address book, tracking the alterations in the circumstances of those whose lives she’s shared. It invokes the lists in Genesis. Begotten. Then gone.


Every Last Breath should be read. Its profound and startling reflections on mortality are lyrical, uncompromising, and deeply felt. At times readers are taken on extravagantly metaphorical flights of the imagination. At times we are immersed in facts about the natural world and our human biology. This slender book melts boundaries. Not only between the literary and the scientific. But also between caregiver and patient. Mother and daughter. Self and other. Personal and universal. It challenges literary classifications as well, blending poetry, essay, and memoir. Read separately or together—either way can be satisfying—Jacobson’s brilliant essays refuse to let us ignore our shared vulnerability or the unpredictability of living in a body, as she once thought she could. 


The University of Utah Press

Place Published

Salt Lake City





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