5-13 by Nancy Rankie Shelton is a Welcome Addition to the Growing Body of Literature on Living and Dying Well

Nancy Rankie Shelton’s 5-13, A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival is a breathtaking read. It is work of great courage but also a literary triumph. Like an uncut diamond it is rough reading in places and then the light fractures and you feel the surge of an enduring human spirit who is not frightened to love, face death, and then reimagine her life.

Death is a common theme in fictional novels, so it should not surprise us that several nonfiction books dealing with issues of mortality have become best sellers. Dying with dignity, end of life decisions, assisted suicide and advances in health care are important topics in today’s society. Nancy Rankie Shelton contributes to this body of work in her book, 5-13, A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival, which leads the reader through her husband Jack’s cancer diagnosis and his death, with moving vignettes of life and love woven throughout the text.

With the publication of 5:13, Nancy takes her place along side Mitch Albom, Joan Didion, Randy Pausch, Paul Kalanithi, Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, and Diane Rehm.

What attracts us to these books? Perhaps our growing consciousness of our own mortality, perhaps accounts of pain and suffering that were met with courage leave us hopeful that we will manage our own fates as bravely, or maybe we read these books to understand our personal feelings surrounding right to die legislation.

Many of the books discuss health care decisions and management. What started decades ago as the need to complete a living will has expanded into a process of emotional, financial and physical preparation for our loved ones and ourselves. The authors provide insight that, until lived, are little more than theoretical expectations of what might happen in our own lives. And since each experience is personal, the authors provide unique understandings that we can all learn from and that help us live our lives in a much more appreciative manner.

What follows is a brief discussion of several best-selling books that address issues similar to those written about by Nancy Rankie Shelton in 5-13, which is a compelling love story, not a saga of illness and death.

Tuesdays with Morrie, (1997, Doubleday), introduces the reader to Morrie, a professor, and his former student, Mitch Albom, who chronicles a series of meetings between the two as Morrie faces his death from ALS. The reader is moved by Morrie’s love of life and his message to live fully. Similarly, Shelton’s book is a story of how living well allows a man to also die well.

Joan Didion chronicles the year after her husband’s death in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007). Although Didion’s revealing insights of grief are described following her husband’s death and Shelton’s memoir takes place before her husband’s death, the raw emotions, including grief, Jack and Nancy experience are strikingly articulated. At one point in the memoir, Nancy writes, “Like Hemingway who, in Green Hills of Africa, confessed to lying awake at night missing Africa before he had even left the country, I miss Jack before he has even died. I imagine myself alone in our bed, wondering what it will be like to wake up in the morning and have no Jack here to say ‘Good Morning Honey’ to. I doubt I will be able to manage without him.”

In his memoir, Randy Pausch challenged his readers to focus on what they would leave behind in this world. The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 2008) is not about dying as much as it is about living well. As readers will learn in Nancy’s book, Jack refused to live sadly. He keeps his positive attitude towards life for most of the 5 months, 13 days between his diagnosis and his death. He continues to spend time with friends and family whenever possible, not chasing after glimpses of life he inevitably will not live to see, but enjoying his strength of character and the simplicity of life and as it was before his diagnosis.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande, (Deckle Edge, 2014) draws our attention to the medical aspects of terminal illness. Writing as a surgeon, he argues that current practices may not always be what are best for terminally ill patients. An advocate of Hospice and exploration of alternatives to current practices, Jack’s final days are an example of how important it is that patients are well informed and that comfort and family become more important than medical procedures.

Oliver Sacks provides yet another example of how important it is for us to find peace in our selves, to live with Gratitude (Knopf, 2015), and to accept the good in our work and our lives. Similarly, Nancy’s book about Jack’s struggle with cancer reveals how the dedication they felt to each other allowed them to live in peace and for Jack to die with dignity. What readers will relate to and appreciate is how the love that sustained their relationship for 35 years can and does continue to grow through the months at the end of Jack’s life.

Although Paul Kalanithi is listed as the author of When Breath Becomes Air (Deckle Edge, 2016), the book is actually written by both Paul and his wife. Kalanithi, like Gawande, is also a physician. The reader is introduced to a very different understanding Kalanithi develops in his duel role as both doctor and patient. One of Nancy’s goals in writing her memoir is closely related to Kalanithi’s book in that he, a neurosurgeon, had more knowledge about the effects of his cancer on his brain than most other patients. Nancy hopes that her readers will become aware of the ever-changing medical decision-making that comes with a diagnosis of late-stage cancer.

Finally, like Didion, Diane Rehm gives us On My Own (Knoph 2016). Written the year following her husband’s death, Rehm’s book includes a straightforward, deeply honest and passionate account of her husband’s decision to refuse food when his Parkinson’s disease had advanced to the point where he could not longer care for himself in any way. Although Nancy did not have to bear witness to the consequences of such a difficult decision, she did have to carry out Jack’s wishes that he not receive medical intervention when he reached the point where death was his best option.

Nancy Rankie Shelton’s book adds greatly to this body of literature. Not only does 5-13 add to and enrich the messages of these previous authors, it offers the reader much more. It is well written, bringing the reader through a difficult illness while surrounded with stories of love and laughter. Shelton’s writing is at times poetic, at times punchy, and always filled with deep emotion and the raw realities of life that allow the reader to live the five months, thirteen days together with Jack.

5-13, A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival also provides insights as we contemplate our own mortality and care for family and friends who are living with death and the inevitability of dying. Since the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1,685,210 new cancer cases diagnosed and 595,690 cancer deaths in 2016 (www.cancer.org), conversations surrounding medical care are important ones, regardless of our political differences. At Garn Press we are grateful to Nancy for the opportunity to publish this important work and look forward to the ongoing conversation that will surely take place following the release of 5-13 at the beginning of June 2016.


5-13: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival by Nancy Rankie Shelton5-13: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-35-3
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-36-0
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-37-7
Hardcover & Paperback: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Waterstones
Hardcover: $27.95
Paperback: $19.95
eBook: $9.99
Imprint: People & Society
Genre: Non-Fiction




About Nancy Rankie Shelton

Nancy Rankie Shelton is a Professor of Education at UMBC in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in a remote area in New York State, the youngest of five children, and moved to Pass-A-Grille Beach, FL in 1976 after graduating from SUNY Albany with a BA in interdisciplinary social sciences at the age of 19. She married her husband, Jack, in 1978 and they lived in Gainesville, Florida until 2003, when Nancy earned her PhD from the University of Florida. In June 2012, Jack died of metastatic lung cancer. Nancy has one son, Conrad Shelton, who still resides in Gainesville.

Nancy has worked with children since she was young. She held many positions, from babysitter and playgroup organizer, to teacher, and finally professor of education. She has always advocated for the children most in need. In her work as an educator, Nancy has 23 publications that appear in premier academic journals or with leading publishing companies that specialize in literacy research and/or education policy.

Reading and writing have been essential activities throughout Nancy’s life. One summer, she and her sister Carol read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery available in the Speculator, New York library. That summer, Nancy wrote her own mystery but she knew she could never publish it because she had stolen too many ideas from Franklin Dixon and she didn’t want to get caught. Now, more than forty years later, she finally has her own completely original story to share.


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