In 1984, Reynolds Price – acclaimed writer, Rhodes Scholar, Milton expert, Duke University professor of English, and my third cousin – learned he had cancer: a 10-inch-long, malignant tumor wrapped around his spine that he came to call ‘the eel.’
Imagine getting that diagnosis today. Twenty-six years ago, the eel was a death sentence. And yet 26 years later, Reynolds is still writing books and teaching his usual three courses at Duke. Seven years ago, when I was 21, I drove 10 minutes from my Chapel Hill apartment to Reynolds’ house in the woods. We spent the afternoon talking about spirituality, Scotch, ginger molasses cookies (inspired by the Foster’s Market molasses cookies I’d brought to share) and even a little writing. That day still conjures up the clearest of pictures and deep-down feelings whenever it crosses my mind.
I’m attending a great class with my mom at our church on Wednesday evenings. It focuses on spirituality in Reynolds’ works. Tonight, we discussed A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing. This extraordinary book is the story of Reynolds’ agonizing illness and astounding survival. It was published in 1994, and the first time I read it as a college student, I had no inkling of the sadistic disease lurking in my little sister’s cells. I think that I will read it again. On page 185 of the paperback edition, Reynolds makes a profound statement. At the time of my first reading, my life was free from the kind of pain and suffering that I know all too well these days. In fact, when our teacher at church, the poet/novelist Tony Abbott, brought the passage to our attention in tonight’s class, I read it with virgin eyes, as though I had never encountered it before:
“If belief in an ultimately benign creator who notices his creatures is available to you, you may want to try at first to focus your will on the absolute first ground-level question to ask him, her or faceless it. Again, that’s not “Why me?” but “What next?”
In the early days following Taylor’s diagnosis, I often plainly asked God all possible variations of that question:
- “Why her?”
- “Why me?”
- “Why us?”
Here is another passage from that same page that I simply love:
“My own luck here was long prepared, from early childhood; but as with all sorts of invisible luck, there have been forced treks these past ten years when I all but quit and begged to die. Even then though I’d try to recall a passage of daunting eloquence in the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy where the baffling God of Jews and Christians says
‘I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today that I have set life and death in front of you, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your seed may last to love the Lord your God….'”
Though she hasn’t read Reynolds’ book, Taylor gets it. She’s always gotten it. T greets each new day and bids it goodnight choosing life, no matter how tough things are between sunrise and sunset. A life with Batten disease surely isn’t one we would have chosen for her, nor is it one she would have chosen for herself had she been given a choice of cards. But they’re her cards, and ours because we love her. And because I love her, I choose life for her, too. And here’s a question for Batten disease: you gave us a good fight today. We fought right back. We’re still playing the game. So what next?