Live While You Can by Fr Tony Coote: eloquent and painfully insightful
A priest’s memoir about living with motor neuron disease, with grace and with faith
Fr Tony Coote: has written a book about what it means to live gracefully, to live with faith and to appreciate every day, no matter what life throws at you. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Live While You Can: A Memoir of Faith, Hope and the Power of Acceptance
Fr Tony Coote
For some the snow of March 2018 will evoke fond memories of being cooped up with family; days off work; and maybe building a snowman. But for Fr Tony Coote, the snow and its isolating effect were the backdrop for a medical prognosis that would change the course of his life.
The diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease was the spark that led Coote to write his memoir. The reason was simple, according to the prologue: “I want to write the story about my life and the story of my faith, while I still can.” That sentence is both instructive in setting out the book’s intentions and a warning to the non-religious: like it or not, this will involve Catholicism.
The story starts with MND, its symptoms, the diagnosis and the author’s subsequent reaction. But delving into the past, we learn of his early life growing up in Fairview, and then Santry, Co Dublin as the eldest of four boys.
Early in his life, the death of his younger brother forced him to become independent. In a manner typical of the time, the grief was not openly dealt with. Coote, to borrow from Shakespeare, realised that the grief that does not speak “knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break”. MND later robs Coote of the independence he so valued, and witnessing this regression is difficult for the reader. As Coote himself acknowledges: “you think you can take on the whole world. But no one can take on the world on their own”.
Coote explains why he came to be a priest, delivering the first sermon of the book, which urges congregants to “celebrate the impossible being made possible”.
Some readers may well be irked at the use of sermons and Bible references, which punctuate lessons or experiences, giving what Coote believes is evidential weight to the passages.
Until his decision to become a priest, Coote grappled with the role of religion in his life. Wanting to work to provide for his family and an unnamed girlfriend, who he “fell more and more in love with”, made his choice to become a priest that bit more difficult. (She has since married, and Fr Coote attended her wedding, and she his ordination.) But there comes a decisive moment that was “unusual, but at the same time very ordinary”, where Coote accepts his calling,
From that point on, religion is front and centre, no longer a wandering idea but the backbone of his life. His vocation led him to Ballymun, then UCD and finally Mount Merrion and Kilmacud, where he has lived since 2008.
There is no avoiding the issue that when priests are in the news it is often for ungodly acts. To his credit, Coote doesn’t avoid difficult topics; he looks them in the eye and calls them out. He grapples with his own doubts and questions the limits of his faith when faced with untimely, unfair deaths; the deeply shocking revelations of clerical abuse; the loneliness of a priest’s life – even going so far as to suggest a change in the rules to allow priests to marry, both to avoid loneliness but also to draw people back to the profession.
It is this honesty which draws the reader to Coote. Every negative thought that has been hurled the Catholic Church’s way he has already heard and considered. The questions and accusations that you might have, he has had too. What differs is his end approach; others turn away, he doesn’t. This standing back from blind faith heightens the honesty of the book. His role as storyteller, not just priest, means he tells his story, flawed and complex as it is, rather than solely preaching.
Even with the frequent religious references, there’s a lot for non-religious people to enjoy and appreciate. Before reading it – when I sinfully judged a book by its cover – I imagined that the religious element would be overpowering, and that a book about a man’s faith and his grappling with an incurable illness would be demoralising.
However, this was not the case. The story is, as Ryan Tubridy claims on the cover, “told with humour, humility and humanity”.
Reminiscent of Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, Coote’s experience of illness and its impact is eloquent and painfully insightful, putting the reader directly into his shoes. Although he would go back if he could, he has accepted it as just another part of his life. “Truthfully,” he says, “I’ve never felt angry about this diagnosis, only continual and daily frustration.”
He proffers life lessons as an aside, an intelligent afterthought: noting that his family follow his lead when it comes to reacting to his illness; and that comparing his MND to others is pointless given every case is different.
These idiosyncrasies, the things Coote has learned from lived experience rather than medical textbooks or just googling, renders the story more human. The memoir is free of the professional objectivity of Seamus O’Mahony’s The Way We Die Now, enabling the reader to be empathetic to Coote’s circumstances.
Live While You Can is an intensely personal memoir of one man’s life, not professing to be indicative of any group, neither priests nor other MND patients. It is a book about what it means to live gracefully, to live with faith and to appreciate every day, no matter what life throws at you.