Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“He looks mysterious to me”

A quick in-and-out visit to Houston yesterday to see my oncologist. Dr. Garrett R. Lynch has been treating me for nearly five years now, ever since I was first diagnosed shortly after Simhat Torah in 2007. It is always a pleasure to see him, even under the strain of an oncological exam, because Dr. Lynch would always prefer to talk about books.

“I saw your review of Coral Glynn,” he called when he glimpsed me in the waiting room. “It was weird.” He didn’t specify what was weird: the review or how he came to see it. (He googled Peter Cameron’s new book, he later explained, and my review popped up). He urged me to read Billy Lombardo’s How to Hold a Woman, I urged him to read Billy Giraldi’s Busy Monsters. We agreed that Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot was spectacular. “I liked the ending,” Dr. Lynch said. “So did I!

The relationship between doctor and patient, at least from the patient’s side, is “what the French call un couple malade,” Anatole Broyard once wrote. I’m not sure Broyard appreciated how deeply attached a doctor is to his patient—how deeply he grieves for his patient. Maybe I only appreciate this because I am married to a doctor. “I want to dance at your [three-year-old] daughter’s bat mitsvah,” Dr. Lynch said with the clear implication that he wants me to be there too.

Before going to the doctor’s appointment I lunched with Patrick Kurp, the author and sole proprietor of Anecdotal Evidence, with whom I have been corresponding at least since 2008, when we discovered our mutual high regard for L. E. Sissman, the poet laureate of cancer. A good half foot taller and with a voice a good two three octaves lower, Kurp must have seemed my trainer or keeper. He offered me a touching note from Elberry; I offered him a volume of James’s criticism from the Library of America. Then we ordered enchiladas.

Kurp has already given his version of our lunch. He didn’t leave out much. He didn’t say that we discussed what has happened to newspaper reporters. Patrick and I both started out as newspaper reporters. When we were young cubs, we were drilled in skepticism and mistrust. These days young reporters see themselves as advocates for social justice.

How did we get onto the subject? Patrick marveled at my beautiful and brilliant wife, who was featured in a Columbus Dispatch story recently. “Wonderful story,” Patrick said, “but the reporter buried his lead.” Ed Ritter, my editor on the old Corona (Calif.) Daily Independent, would never have let me get away with such sloppiness.

Ritter taught me to write by calling me over to his desk and ripping my first story apart, then putting it back together in the correct order. Patrick and I remembered the human-interest stories we had written: he, on the grower of the largest kohlrabi ever seen in northern Ohio; I, on the winner of a pineapple cooking contest. “It may be mere historical conditioning,” Marilynne Robinson writes in When I Was a Child I Read Books, her latest collection of essays, “but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to stay that for a moment I see another human being clearly.” This is a creed to which Patrick and I can happily assent.

For dinner I went out for shawarma, blessed shawarma, with my old friend Rob Levy. We gossiped about the Houston Jewish community until I was too tired to talk anymore, and I collapsed in a Holiday Inn bed by 8:30.

Early the next morning I left for Hobby Airport. In the security line, the TSA’s full-body scanner picked up the cancer in my right pelvis, earning me a latex-gloved patdown. When the TSA agent found nothing suspicious, I sneaked my illness onto the plane and flew home to Columbus.