by Hugh Gilmore
Anatole Broyard, bless his soul, had been a literary critic, novelist, short story writer and editor from the 1940s through the 1980s. He saw life in grand terms. In his view, each person’s life was a drama worthy of a novel, or stage play, filled with incredible turning points where changes of fortune might, if you were lucky, bring thunder claps of sudden, unsought insights. In short, he saw literature as life, and life as potential literature. It was not unexpected, therefore, that a lofty literary perspective imbues his classic book, “Intoxicated by My Illness, and other writings on Life and Death” (1992, compiled and edited posthumously by his wife, Alexandra Broyard). When he became ill, he went looking for “a doctor worthy of my illness.”
No such luck for me. It was with a much humbler attitude I went with my wife to hear the details of the cancer it was now my turn to bear – after a lifetime of previous good health. I’d brought a list of questions to ask my doctor, but he asked me to hold them while he went through a practiced spiel. To illustrate what he wanted to convey he went page-by-page through an illustrated booklet, “Living with Prostate Cancer.” We leaned forward to follow his narration.
Much of the content went over, under, around, and through my head. I’m sure I seemed to give rapt attention, but my mind kept racing ahead. The graphic pamphlet showed the typical scenario of a hypothetical average guy stricken with this malady. It explained the nature of the disease and then outlined the treatments one might possibly seek, given his age and the stage of his disease. Then the doctor discussed the possible after-effects of each type of treatment.
It might be helpful here to say what a prostate is. It’s a walnut-sized gland whose basic purpose is to make fluid that nourishes sperm on its way out of the body. Few people know where the prostate is located in the human male, so let’s ditch our shyness and say: if you wanted to prod it with a finger, or a very long biopsy needle, it is located in the same vicinity as the penis base, rectum and bladder. It does not take a lot of imagination to picture the collateral damage that might be done if a surgeon or radiologist, even with the best intentions, cut a man’s prostate out of his body, or left it in situ but blasted the heck out of it with radiation.
As I heard this, my mind reeled, my stomach flipped, and my heart began looking for a healthier donee to live in. Parts of myself formerly external retracted up into my body as I thought, “So THIS is the country for old men!” Ahead lies a hillside littered, for a post-operative while, with the debris of incontinence, impotency and uncertainty, all of which may last a short time, a long time, or possibly forever. Wait! Not forever. Forever is another dimension.
We left the urologist’s office thinking the good part of this is the same as the bad part: The patient himself chooses which treatment he wants to roll the dice with. At my age, given the grade of my disease, my choices reduce to either surgery or radiation. Each treatment bears its own repugnancy. Each has its peculiar side effects. Each is about as effective in “curing” your disease as the other. There: Now, go become an expert at knowing what you should do next. Bring a medical dictionary with you.
When I got home from the urology office that day I immediately looked for my copy of Anatole Broyard’s “Intoxicated by My Illness.” I’d read that book three times in my life. During none of those times was I ill. I loved the book because it was a philosophical story of whistling in the dark. It was filled with Dylan Thomas-ish ideas about raging against “the dying of the light.” Filled with beautifully written, Camus-like phrases that swirled like existential poems. In short, though it is a memoir, I had read it as a work of literature. I had forgotten the actual details of the author’s malady, but I remembered that he had tried to adopt a heroic attitude toward it. Perhaps it would help me buck up.
And so, when I read the foreword that afternoon, I could not help but smile and shake my head in learning that Anatole Broyard, one of my heroes, had died of metastatic prostate cancer. Tomorrow I would be tested to see if I, too, carried a prostate whose cancer had metastasized. No longer had a tourist in the land he’d once dwelled in, I begun reading him again.
Hugh Gilmore is a Chestnut Hill writer and antiquarian bookseller. His noir biblio-mystery “Malcolm’s Wine” is a tale of duty and revenge set backstage in the rare book business.