It wasn’t exactly a blind corner, the one I just encountered. I saw things coming. For years a voice inside me has whispered, Soon it’s gonna be your turn…My late uncle, who fashioned himself S. Newton Feldman, looked a lot like me. Slender, soft-spoken. Same eyes, same face, same disease. What is it with people who dislike their given names that much? Doesn’t the world offer enough pain, sufficient imminent damage ? Why would anyone want to scar their own face? I thought I might escape scot free, if only I could live with being me.
I’ve avoided Uncle Sidney’s heart attack. Age 48, S. Newton had his, riding horses in Pelham Bay Park with the mounted cops he so adored. I’m 54 in recent days. He finally died of Parkinson’s disease, after a dozen years of suffering. May God spare me that fate – I’ve no sign of it yet.
But a couple weeks ago, my life changed forever. One’s three millimeters, the other half a millimeter. Indetectable by physical exam. But they’re malignant. Uncle had prostate cancer, and so do I. And I’ve never faced anything like this. A hemorrhoidectomy, a vasectomy, a shattered collar-bone, sure. Painful. Unpleasant. But hardly life-threatening.
Cancer is for keeps. There is no recovery. You can be treated and perhaps be “cancer-free” for five or ten years and be statistically classified as “cured.” But that’s all bullshit. My cells have now shown a certain proclivity. For thirty-seven years I’ve wandered New York’s streets in a certain way. Fearless. Off the leash. A quick look and out into the cross-walk, into the ocean waves. But now I’ve turned a corner, into a well-trodden one-way street. It may be a long one, God willing. But everything looks different and there’s no way back.
At lunch one day when I was eleven, I made a nasty remark about the minestrone soup my mother served me. Her wrath rained down, and I was forced to sit at the dining table until I finished that bowl of blood. Today, I still hate tomato juice. In Gristede’s, at the Daitch, I scan the shelves and stop short at the very sight of the stuff. Old folks in coffee shops who order glasses with their breakfasts have allowed me to know I’m not one of them, at least not yet. But now I am. I’ve turned a corner. There’s no way back. The stuff is chock-full of lycopenes, and I have to drink it. Every day, eight ounces. Bottom’s up, momma. Or else.
The world’s been very strange of recent. An ineluctable momentum won’t suddenly reverse itself, even when the diagnosis is confirmed and a treatment plan fixed. I’ll know it’s ticking, somewhere in me. And whether before or after the treatment, I get to enjoy the knowledge that something dangerous is inside me. Nothing my psychiatrist can say will help. My job in all this ? To relish and find beauty and meaning in the psychic experience, a new a many-faceted gem. And stay out of the pity box.
I feel blessed in many respects, able to connect with a whole new realm of minds and hearts, to understand the thoughts of those who’ve also rounded this same bend. Paul Cowan died of leukemia at age 49, a man whose heart and mind guided many of my generation. During his final illness Paul laid it down, in words and music to this effect: There are two kinds of people in this world, those who are sick, and those who are not yet sick. Now I finally know what he meant. I understood his thoughts and many like them. But understanding is not knowing. Now I know.
A different frame will enclose life from here on out. Running in the background, along with Firefox, Mozilla and Norton Anti-Virus, is a different program. One called How much time do I have left? How and when do I start to say good-bye? It’s easy for me to sit and write these thoughts. Because the survival rate for men my age with this diagnosis is nearly 100%. But what will happen if I’m really sick, if the scans that are due back from the lab next Wednesday come back dirty? And what of tomorrow and the next and the next…?
I’m no sicker today than I was six years ago – that thought constantly plays like a loop in my mind. But it’s a luxury, this kind of knowledge. The kind of luxury to which no one is entitled and all of us will ultimately renounce. It’s time to take pleasure in many new things. Soy diets and cold glasses of vine-ripened beefsteaks. Time to let things resonate in a new way, to find rich pleasure in every moment. I’m loathe now to jump the waves in the violent surf at Rockaway Beach. Will unbridled hedonism ever return ? Everything’s a bit scarier now, my skin a bit thinner. Driving slowly has become a simple pleasure. Because I just can’t tell., what sits and waits. Just around the corner.