Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cancer reading

In a comment to my reflections on cancer etiquette, Don asks what reading I found helpful in going through the experience of life-threatening cancer.

One of the best things, which I have mentioned before, is the late Richard John Neuhaus’s As I Lay Dying, perhaps the only gift-book from a friend that helped in any way. Neuhaus is unsparing, but not despairing—hopeful without falling into the voice of uplift. (I am allergic to inspirational writing. And tapes are even worse. No one really ought to listen to me on this subject, then.)

In a similar vein, Martin Marty’s Cry of Absence (1983), a meditation on some of the Psalms after the cancer death of his wife Elsa, was oddly consoling. It will not be so for everyone, however. Building upon a distinction first advanced by Karl Rahner, Marty addresses those whose religious faith is “wintry,” who are intimately familiar with God’s absence and silence. That’s why the book, although deeply Christian, is marvellously appropriate for a post-Holocaust Jew. And of course Marty has the bonus effect of sending the grateful reader back to the Psalms themselves.

I have also recommended Intoxicated by My Illness by the New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, who died from the same kind of cancer that afflicted me. The best thing in the book remains his early story “What the Cystoscope Said,” based on his father’s death from cancer.

Encouraged by these books, I supposed that I was ready to stare directly into the abyss. Both Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die (1995) and Peter de Vries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb (1961), were nevertheless too much for me. In fact, almost none of the cancer titles on the exhaustive Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database, compiled by the faculty of the New York University School of Medicine, was particularly welcome when I was at my worst. Only the poet L. E. Sissman, whom I have already praised for just this, spoke a language that sounded the right note of defiance and clarity.

Otherwise I recall with pleasure the novels that I read in the hospital, which plunged me away from myself into other people’s woes or wonders: J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban (a very different kind of death than what I was contemplating), Bellow’s second book The Victim (about a very different kind of victim), and perhaps best of all, John Williams’s Stoner, which taught me all that I needed to learn about the quiet moral dignity of endurance.


Robert said...

I trust you also found some support in the efforts of your friends to keep you grounded by treating you as a normal person (including with jokes, personal attacks and large doses of sarcasm). said...

You've probably already read it, but I would say Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which comes from personal experience.

In 2005 I was treated for osteogenic sarcoma, and although the prognosis was reasonably good, the treatment was a proverbial nightmare. Relatively few people knew what to do, so I bought a Go board and would teach people who wandered by how to play.

Anyhow, someone (I can't remember who) gave me a copy of Man's Search for Meaning, which was infinitely better than the three copies of It's Not About the Bike that made their way to me. The circumstances of reading Frankl's book were also strange: I brought it to Children's Hospital in Seattle, where a screwup that day meant the treatment didn't begin promptly. This gave me a lot of time to read, and to use cliches like "absorbing" would vastly understate the power of the book, but most people who love to read know the feeling.

My roommate, a guy who was 16 or 17 and had already lost a leg, wanted desperately to tell everyone who stumbled by about the car given to him by the Make a Wish Foundation. I listened politely the first time, looked at a few pictures, and couldn't summon the urge to care about the horsepower, V-8, and so forth. You couldn't talk to him about anything but the car, so I retreated and kept reading about Frankl's method for survival, which chiefly entails the kind of imaginative transference reading teaches you to do. I found the book so startling in part because I'd already been using the kinds of strategies he described, albeit in a different way.

In the background, I heard a constant stream of chatter about color, number of seats, technical specs, and so forth. Part of me wanted to grab this guy, shake him, and shout, "Who cares about the car?" But that was how he dealt with things. Maybe the focus on it helped him. But I doubt it.