Swimming in a Sea of Death

A Son's Memoir

nolead begins By David Rieff

Simon & Schuster. 180 pp. $21

nolead ends Does anyone seem more immortal than one's mother? For most of us, she's the creature present since the creation: the unquestioned supporter and intimate, the unconditional backer, the unimpeachable source on one's whole life.

More pointedly, she's the one who has never not been. No wonder a mother's death rocks children to the core.

David Rieff faced a heightened version of that awful clash between the hardwired sense of a mother's eternal presence, and the fierce comeuppance life delivers.

The only child of the critic and novelist Susan Sontag - who divorced his father, University of Pennsylvania scholar Philip Rieff, when he was a child - young Rieff was raised by a famous dynamo viewed by many as America's smartest, most accomplished critic of world culture.

After his mother's third struggle with cancer in 2004, Rieff recalls in this moving rumination on her final illness and death at 72, he received condolence letters from old friends of hers notable for emphatically expressing, in addition to their sorrow, "their disbelief that she had not lived."

Sontag, indeed, made one feel she was too smart to die. She would, you figured, find a way around it. In Swimming in a Sea of Death, Rieff testifies to his own mix of guilt, regret, uncertainty and lack of "closure" (a term he hates).

Sontag first faced cancer in 1975 at age 42 - Stage IV breast cancer that led to a radical mastectomy, remission and survival, and to her powerful book, Illness as Metaphor. Then, in 1998, came uterine sarcoma, which brought more surgery, chemotherapy - and survival again.

The third brutal diagnosis, in early 2004, proved worse: myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes called "smoldering leukemia," a "lethal form of blood cancer." Her death, in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, came later that year, after "excrutiating pain" and Sontag's effort to survive once more through a bone-marrow transplant and experimental drugs.

Swimming in a Sea of Death avoids a clinical account of Sontag's last battle. Rather, it's an extended meditation, in a sober, heartfelt tone, on the struggle and Rieff's and his mother's attitudes toward it. Watching Sontag die from a distance here, seeing her strategize, strategize against the dying of the light, is to be reminded of what made her so impressive.

Raised in Tucson, Ariz., far from the Northeastern and European cultural capitals that became her homes, Sontag evolved in her teens an indefatigable appetite for life and culture, a desire to produce significant literature that drove her lasting achievements in books of criticism, such as On Photography, and the novels that meant most to her later on, such as her National Book Award-winner, In America.

"No one I have ever known," asserts Rieff, "loved life so unambivalently."

Avidity is the word he thinks best describes her personality. Very simply, he says, "There was nothing she did not want to see or do or try to know." Sontag confided that she'd have liked to live to 100, if only to complete her planned projects, "the work" that "had to be served."

Rieff believes that she'd gladly have accepted "an immortality that consisted of nothing but consciousness," the "science-fiction immortality of the disembodied head." Because Sontag, Rieff writes, "lived her life as if stocking a library" - she "wanted to absorb," not "be absorbed." She constantly read (she didn't own a TV), made "lists of restaurants and books, quotations and facts, writing projects and travel schedules," and took in any information available.

Still a "rock-hard" atheist at her death, Sontag remained "loyal to the activity of acquiring information as one is loyal to a faith. Therein lay my mother's most deep-seated conviction about herself - her belief in her ability to take in and understand facts and then to face them."

That bent, Rieff says, explains how she confronted her three cancers. In her '70s battle against breast cancer, she became the "straight-A student." She opted for a radical "Halstead" mastectomy - a brutal operation that removes "most of the muscle of the chest wall and lymph nodes in the armpits" - because she insisted it would improve her "slim" chances. In her final illness, she submitted to the bone marrow transplant for the same reason.

She "believed in her own will," Rieff writes, " and, grandiose though it may seem, in her own star." He respects that because "everything my mother accomplished . . . was undergirded by that belief."

At the same time, Rieff concedes, his mother considered herself a "lucky person," someone who had "a good chance at being the exception in whatever situation she found herself in."

Rieff's memoir offers more feelings about his mother's death than facts about their relationship, but some of the latter inevitably appear, helping one understand his continuing regrets. He explains that "neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with the other," a habit that didn't change in the early part of her illness, when he sometimes felt "unable to say anything that mattered, let alone touch her." To Rieff's credit, he knows that "the guilt comes no matter what you have or haven't done."

Sontag's admirers will appreciate the son's many sharp insights into his mother: her "astonishing mix of gallantry and pedantry," her tendency to be "divalike and unstoical about trivial things," her refuge in streety humor, as when she joked that she wanted to live as long as possible "just to see how stupid it gets."

A larger book - a biography of the sort only David Rieff could write - would make a lasting gift to us all.

Just after his mother received her third diagnosis of cancer, Rieff recalls, she told him, "This time I don't feel special." He adds, "Of course, none of us are special."

We know what he means. Swimming in a Sea of Death nonetheless leaves us thinking rather the opposite about his astonishing, much-missed mother.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.