Thursday, March 21, 2013

`But at Least I'm Still Breathing'

“…I realized that I was going to have the greatest difficulty in renouncing, however involuntarily, my wife, my house, my friends, my work, my dog, and certain ash and maple trees, not to mention various winsome bit players in my life so far.”

In “A Little Night Music: The Curvature of the Earth,” one of his Atlantic Monthly columns collected in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (1975), the poet L.E. Sissman describes his reaction to a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease in 1965. In the remaining eleven years of his life, Sissman blossomed as a poet, wrote his best verse and became, for this reader, the exemplary poet of not only cancer but disease, modern medicine, what he calls “ersatz stoicism,” genuine stoicism and death. Naturally, I thought of Sissman when I read my friend Steve Bornfeld’s “Cancer Chronicles.” Reading his words, I see Steve. It’s his voice in prose: 

“Whatever your stage, treatment or support system, cancer is a profoundly lonely experience and nerve-wracking showdown: You vs. The Body’s Ultimate Badass. You know it needn’t be to the death. Yet it could be. Stalking the vulnerable corners of your mind, cancer is this insidious nocturnal creature that hibernates in daylight when the world diverts you, and whispers at night when the world recedes.” 

I’ve known Steve, now an entertainment writer in Las Vegas, for twenty-three years, since he was hired to cover television for the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., where I worked as a features writer. He’s not bookish and I seldom watch TV. We had newspapers, jazz and a love of Jewish comedians in common. On Jan. 6, 1993, the day Dizzy Gillespie and Rudolf Nureyev died, we fumed when TV news reported only the latter and only as politics. In June of that year, our colleague and friend Marty Moynihan, the paper’s movie critic, died of renal cancer at age forty-seven. After reading Steve’s cancer story, I wrote: “Well done, Steve. Like Damon Runyon with a tumor. The bluster half-conceals a lot of fear, and that’s just the way to play it.” He replied: “That's pretty much the way I feel, so I'm glad I expressed it accurately.” We reminisced, via email, about our time in upstate New York. He wrote: 

“While looking back is almost always done with rose-colored glasses on, I sometimes wish I never left Albany. Life was good for me then. Good job, good friends, and I was (relatively) young and healthy. Can’t ask more out of life.” 

Me: “I'm familiar with that line of thought because I increasingly indulge in it, but I'm also deeply suspicious of it. That about sums me up.” 

Steve: “Nothing remains constant until they put you in the ground (or so I assume). It was a good moment in time, one which I polish up and keep protected under glass in my mind. But life is here and now, and for me that's in the most un-subtle city in the world, in a house I couldn't sell and will die owing money on. But at least I'm still breathing.” 

Describing how he felt in 1966 after a year of cancer treatments, Sissman writes near the conclusion of “A Little Night Music: The Curvature of the Earth,” remembering: 

“…the increased sensitivity of my personal emulsion to the otherwise quite ordinary things in life. I could be startled, for almost purely asexual reasons, by the great spectacle of a young girl smiling; I could be transported by the odor (for example) of thyme crushed underfoot; I could be moved, almost embarrassingly, by the sound of a friend’s voice over the telephone; I could be stunned by the first Macoun apple of the fall.”

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