As though they didn't have enough emotional torment in seeing their daughter Jane fight against cancer, Victor and Rosemary Zorza also had the problem of their son Richard, who was relentlessly pushing his parents to come clean and tell Jane that she was dying.
"she should be told the whole truth," Richard argued uncompromisingly. No, said the father: "we can't possibly let her know now. She couldn't take it." His wife agreed: Jane "rejects any effort at real communication. How can we tell her she's dying?"
The scene occurs in the Zorza cottage in the British countryside in May 1976. The family had just learned that Jane, in her 25th year, had cancerous melanoma cells in her bone marrow. All knew that "there was no hope, no sense even in continuing treatments." It was a harsh moment for everyone, the son believing that his parents "alternate between being very sane and very out of it," and the father telling his son angrily that frankness is fine but "then you'll go back to America in a week or two and leave us. You won't be able to talk to her then, and she won't be talking to us. What will her life be like?"
Among the many reasons that "A Way to Die" is both powerful as literature and valuable as an exploration of one woman's courage as life slips away from her is that Victor and Rosemary Zorza were determined to write the full story, not the syrupy one.
The family argument about telling or not telling Jane was one part of the fullness. Another was when Victor came back to the cottage after being with Jane in the hospital. When his wife was disbelieving that all had gone well, he cried out: "all right, then. It was a disaster. Jane threw me out. She screamed at me, the little bitch. Everyone in the ward could hear."
Everyone who reads the story of Jane Zorza's last months will hear her, too: through the words of her parents, who understand that writing about death must contain sentiment but not sentimentality, that in order to write lovingly about a dying person's beauty it is crucial to write believably.
It might have been expected that Victor and Rosemary Zorza would do this. He is a professional writer whose analyses of foreign affairs have come to be trusted by readers because he is careful with the shadings. He is that way here. Jane Zorza -- a vegetarian who wrote poetry, loved politics and thought her father's liberalism needed to go further left -- was eventually told that she was dying. "she accepted it easily, said the physician who informed her in the cottage. The family came into the living room and found Jane on the sofa, crying a little but in control of the despair she must have felt. One by one, we kissed her and she returned our embraces, weeping but not breaking down. There was no drama, no great climax to the months of uncertainty, of family argument and friction."
Not long after, Jane entered a hospice. With much of the same clarity and depth they bring to exploring their and their daughter's feelings about her dying, the Zorzas carefully bring us into the atmosphere of Jane's final home. She was to be in the hospice for only eight days before dying, but that was enough time for the Zorzas to understand that the essence of a hospice -- and one of the main differences from a hospital -- is that the aim is not to cure the person but to make him feel better. You end your days in a bedroom, not a sickroom.
One of the most gripping scenes in the hospice is when Victor talks with Jane about his own attitude toward death. He had been close to it several times -- as a Jew escaping from Russia, as a boy and as a wanderer during the war. Zorza joined a Polish air force group and assumed a Catholic identity. He submerged his Jewishness so thoroughly that after the war he did not tell his wife at their marriage that he was a Jew. With no ties to a homeland and all of his family gone, why tell anyone what he was? If the world could let Germany destroy 6 million Jews once, it could allow it again. He wouldn't be a Jew this time.
Hiding his Jewishness was a fear of death. "It isn't that I have lived a lie all those year," Victor tells his daughter in her hospice bedroom. "It's that I didn't admit it even to myself."
The admission, part of a long, intimate conversation with Jane, was analyzed dispassionately by Victor: "She had shown him something he had never reasoned for himself -- that he was afraid of dying, and that so long as he remained afraid for himself, he would be afraid for her. But she could retain her serenity about her own death only if she could make him share it. At last he was no longer afraid, because he had faced the truth."
The beauty of "A Way to Die" is that it also tells about a way to live -- honestly and compassionately. When they returned to Washington after Jane's death, the Zorzas report that "we became aware of a change in ourselves. We were thinking far more than ever before about what really matters in life, about feelings, about the more abiding human values, about people -- people as individuals."
That is a simple truth, but it is profound because it was discovered by this brave family in the profundity of life and death.