Spiritual Brothers: some friends I wish I had known
There are people who pass through our lives, resonating like a familiar melody on a comforting breeze, as true friends do.
The difficult times are when we never had a chance to meet them.
After my diagnosis, Anatole Broyard was the first to touch the new me.
In the summer of 2001, someone wrote me to say that they had read one of my journal essays and that I might be interested in Broyard. I had never heard of the man, so I looked him up. He had been a reviewer and writer for the New York Times and had died of prostate cancer in 1990, a year after his diagnosis, at age 70. His widow, Alexandra, had collected some of his writings into a book, Intoxicated By My Illness, published in 1991.
The title resonated with me. I had been struggling with my own perspective of the disease and how I related to it and what it allowed me to see about myself and my life. In the year and a half since diagnosis, I had been driven out the bottom on a number of occasions but I was also coming back and having insights that were possible only in my situation. It was as if the cancer raged through me like a forest fire and then new life would come springing from the ashes and, as I cradled and nurtured it, I felt more alive and with more purpose than at any time in my life.
My problem was that this joy came from the effects of the cancer and the treatments. I was drawing life from a disease that was trying to kill me. How could I possibly explain that to others, especially when there were so many who wrung their hands and wept and who found nothing but threat in their cancer.
A COMPARISON THAT NEVER WORKED
At one time, I naively ventured to explain it by saying that if I were offered a cure with the price that I would be returned to the state of mind and condition (cancer free) that I had before diagnosis, that I would have to give up everything I had gained and all of the people and friends that I had made, I would turn down the offer and live with my cancer, even though I knew it was progressing.
When said to a group of people, it drew puzzled looks, as if I were insane. When written to a mailing list, I was told by several that there was nothing of value and they would take the trade in a New York second.
All of this made me feel even more isolated in my viewpoint. Was there so few who took the disease as a challenge, from which they could gain strength? Did everyone fear this disease or consider it nothing but a threat?
That is why the title Intoxicated By My Illness resonated so deeply. Could there really be someone else who could dredge value and even joy from this disease?
I went looking for the book but it was out of print. I luckily found a used copy on the Internet. When it arrived, I devoured it and discovered that, yes, Broyard was the first man I found who was, exactly as the title said, intoxicated by his illness. In a prologue by his widow, she even offered a metaphor that he had used, how death was a wilder shore. I grabbed it and wrote about it, trying to use Broyard to explain that one need not curl up and submit to the terror of this disease, but the message was barely heard.
That was fine. I really didn't expect the entire prostate cancer community to throw off the cloak of fear and enjoy life. What was most important was that I no longer felt alone.
SEARCHING FOR MEANING
Viktor Frankl was my next spiritual relative.
I vaguely recall reading his Man's Search for Meaning back in my college days, but nothing really stuck out. Like before, someone recommended it and I found a copy and devoured it the way I did Broyard. Until Broyard, Frankl had no connection to prostate cancer but his message cut deeper, as the title implies. It gave me not only new strength but a tool, a method of seeing the world anew, to answer for myself, why do I have this disease? Not the physiology of it but the metaphysics, which I knew few would grasp.
I put Frankl's book at Phoenix5, along with an essay trying to explain its relevance to prostate cancer. Like Broyard, I didn't expect many to grasp it but that didn't matter. Someone would. Meanwhile, most importantly, I did. I was able to integrate some metaphysical, ontological and ethical issues that I had been pursuing since my university days, when my PhD program in philosophy was a thin excuse to explore and chew on questions that were more crucial to me than any degree. I had been searching for meaning and Frankl gave meaning to that search.
A couple of months later (in October 2000), I managed to make my own break-away from my earlier condition. Frankl and Broyard finally seeped into me fully and I realized how I had been struggling and now I wanted to live for tomorrow. I was able to fully deal with my own mortality and my position with this disease. I was able to embrace it and my life without struggle and move on into a future that I could create.
It was still lonely. Yes, I had my Caren. She was the only one that I could truly speak to about my feelings and ideas and my struggle to express these ideas. But as much as she understood, she was not a man with prostate cancer. She was dealing with these issues as a companion (and then as a wife) which are different than what a man with the disease struggles.
Yes, I had friends. My life on the mailing lists and my work with the local support group had helped me to make many but I had never found another who embraced the disease as I did, a la Broyard or who integrated Frankl into their ethics and metaphysics. It wasn't through the fault of anyone else. My friends are wonderful but in those quiet moments, I knew there was still a lack in my life.
But that is what they gave me, an ability for me to see that gap, that empty space that defied description because there was nothing there. Seeing or knowing a something is easier than seeing or knowing a nothing.
AND THEN HOWARD HARROD
Last week someone posted a URL to an "Essay on Desire" by Howard Harrod.
It was at the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) site. When I finally had some time, I went and read it and found the first man to resonate with me since Frankl.
Howard Harrod was a Vanderbilt University professor in the sociology of religion. He was diagnosed in 1993, at age 62, and had a prostatectomy the next year. When they found it had already spread to the lymph nodes (which made me wonder why the surgery), he was put on hormone therapy. After a year of despair, he had an orchiectomy and
i gradually became aware of how deep my gender socialization had been. Not only had I a sense of having been mutilated, I had also lost the very capacities that were symbolically associated with manhood in American society. I no longer had a prostate, I was incapable of an erection, and I had no testicles. More fundamentally, I had lost the capacity to experience desire.
He went through a "crushing weight of loss" that he couldn't comprehend. He
began to hate his previous sexual responses and his view of women changed and learned that "the terrain of manhood is much richer and fuller of possibilities than I had ever imagined."
By 2000, he suffered kidney failure and then had to endure 6 months of chemotherapy and was living in a wheelchair. In 2002, cancer progression forced surgery to place a pin in the left leg while the right hip was radiated. The treatment allowed him to move from a wheelchair to a cane and then full mobility. But in mid-2002, he lost bladder control and his ability to walk. An MRI found spinal compression and he went under the knife again. Recovery was slower than hoped, he wrote.
My condition is different now, and the sense of loss has a different quality and weight. I clearly anticipate the loss of my world. But I am not simply contemplating this possibility; it is a powerful sensibility that arises within me daily. Nurtured by a supportive network of friends, family, and groups like Gilda's Club and Alive Hospice in Nashville, I feel a strange peace descend on me. My life seems to have come full circle as meaning folds back upon itself and deepens in a manner that makes more and more sense.
When I finished the essay, I knew I had to find him.
Certainly my experience will not characterize all who read this description. In part, the quality of my experience is dependent on having had sufficient time to assimilate the meaning of what has happened to me. First I lost desire. Now I am gradually losing my body, and I will soon lose my life, my wife, my family, my friends, and the whole beautiful world. I hope that other readers in my situation will have sufficient time to integrate their experiences as I have, and I hope these reflections are helpful for their respective journeys.
I searched for Howard Harrod on Google and found he was with Vanderbilt and even found a page about him and an email address, so I wrote him a long letter. Hoping for the best, I looked up the distance between Nashville and Cincinnati. It was a two and a half hour drive. I could probably manage that, if Caren drove.
Then I went on the front porch to enjoy the excitement of finding someone who was able to "integrate" their experience. With his background, he probably appreciated some of the same writers that I did, especially Joseph Campbell.
When I came back inside, I noticed a link to the left of the essay for "Author Information." Odd how I missed it earlier. I clicked on it and was sent to the bottom of the page where it said simply, Professor Harrod died February 3, 2003.
I stared in disbelief. That was a mere three weeks ago.
I couldn't deal with it. I went back on the front porch and fought back the tears, realizing that I had written to a new friend who was already dead. It wasn't fair. That was a selfish attitude but I had just reached out to someone that I knew would understand me -- as I understood him -- and he was already gone. It wasn't fair.
When I could, I came back and checked my mail. The letter hadn't bounced so perhaps the university hadn't closed his account, so I sent another message saying I had just learned that he was dead, in case someone picked up his mail. It didn't matter. I was talking to the night wind.
I'm sorry we never got to meet, Howard Harrod. I sense there was a loneliness for you too. But, for what it is worth, your message was received. We can talk about it later. Until then, I wish you well.
Meanwhile, tomorrow (in about 15 hours) I start my chemotherapy. Good or bad, my own journey will take a new turn.
Harrod's essay is at the JAMA site but was moved to a subscription only section. Hopefully, this URL will still work.
Scroll down a page at the Vanderbilt site to read about him.
My section on Anatole Broyard can be found here.
Viktor Frankl's book can be found here.
My October 2000 essay when I turned around is here.