MS Memoir Review: A Final Arc of Sky
Jennifer Culkin's A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care sheds honest light on the day-to-day realities of discovering, then learning to live with, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis while working as a first responder.
This personal memoir of the former life-flight nurse recounts the harrowing tales of her life as a Medevac nurse around the time she was diagnosed.
While her memoir covers a wide range of personal topics beyond MS, it still accurately portrays the reality of living with it.
"From the outside in"
I know Jennifer personally; we have been friends in a variety of writing clusters since 2000.
In fact, I was privileged to see many essay first drafts from this memoir before it coalesced into a book manuscript. Even then, the storytelling was beautiful and inspiring.
Interestingly, I had not yet been diagnosed with MS at the time. So, I was reading her narrative "from the outside in," in a sense.
I must give credit where it is due: When I was diagnosed in 2013, one of my first and best supporters was Jennifer. I was so grateful to know someone with MS who was living with it while tenaciously refusing to let it stop her from working or being who she was as a whole person.
How lucky am I to have this living example of the "MS warrior" merely a few minutes' drive away, who I could lean on for insight, advice, and camaraderie?
While it might seem like I can't be a fair reviewer of Jennifer's book, I can tell you this: Her memoir manuscript (prior to publication) earned her the coveted Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award ($25,000) in August 2008. These accolades come rarely to first-time authors.
Almost 10 years later, her memoir is still in print. I just gave it a reread and can attest that it has stood the test of time.
To know this vibrant, active woman endured all this and still continues to work as a professional critical care nurse (but no longer as a Medevac first responder) is, indeed, inspiring.
Upon reading this memoir a second time
What I found most interesting upon the second reading is her attention to her work as a first responder—one who also just happens to have MS.
(Note: A final arc of sky references the 2005 tragedy of a downed Medevac helicopter in the Puget Sound, which took the lives of some of Culkin's most beloved peers.)
Sometimes I find memoirs a little too internally focused, what some might call "navel gazing," and especially when the topic is directly about having a chronic illness.
But Culkin's story is about more than just her MS journey.
Aside from her work as a Medevac nurse, she also covers the tender territory so many in the sandwich generation are facing now: the failing health and eventual deaths of her parents.
She buoys up these difficult passages with stories about how she and her husband finally united after a rocky cross-country relationship, as well as the deep love she holds for her two grown sons.
And isn't that the way it is for all of us with MS? Our lives are more than just our illness. We hold jobs when we are able, we have families, and we encounter defining situations that would tear us down if we let them... and these aren't at all related to MS.
So, rereading this book was refreshing! I felt I was peeking inside a fully lived life, however rife with obstacles, refusing to be defined by one of the biggest obstacles of all: incurable chronic illness.
Warning: put on your seat belt
This memoir reads like an extended essay. Culkin’s writing is smart, unflinching, and authentic, filled with telling detail and acute observation. She renders her stories with a poet's deft use of language.
But I won't lie to you. This could be a tough read for some. There's a lot of blood in this memoir, a lot of startling images you'll not be able to erase easily afterward. Working as a first responder can exact a toll. Heroic acts occur and yet go mostly unrewarded.
Her writing also leads readers through a starlit interior where she questions the existence of God, while also capturing the harrowing realities of her occupation, in which patients are literally laughing at one moment and dying the next.
At the same time, you will find yourself laughing out loud at the arch ways in which Culkin compartmentalizes what are, for most of us, moments too painful to recreate with words. Maybe this is how she takes command of her own MS, then: by containing it, too, in a box, whenever and however she can.
Read this book and be inspired
We all know how MS has a way of creeping into the nooks and crannies of one’s life, popping up when we least want or expect it. Within the framework of her work life, Culkin's memoir takes on added relevance for this reason. I think readers will appreciate what a gift it is to see the world through her eyes, if only for the short time spent reading her life story.
I confess, I kept finding myself wondering how anyone could so gracefully manage such physically challenging, messy, downright dangerous work—work that would leave many of us terribly wrung out only halfway through a single shift—while managing MS.
But she clearly knows how to do this, and it's inspiring.
Ultimately, her combined reflections of living with MS shape what I believe is ultimately a resilient work ethos that seeks to serve humanity more than tongue depressors and stethoscopes ever can. In this way, A Final Arc of Sky truly delivers.
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