Thinking about Chadwick Boseman, Cancer and Hollywood

Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?

“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,

I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.

I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.

I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?

But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.

The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.

Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working with about my upcoming surgery. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What if I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?

I’m going to stop writing, because I have more thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.

(As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.)

FILE – In this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo, Chadwick Boseman poses in the press room with the award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for “Black Panther” at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, has died of cancer. His representative says Boseman died Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

The First Cloned Cat

A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.

Of particular interest:

For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times

Words to Drive By “Room”

EPISODE 01: “Room”
(After the Storms, Part 1)

SUMMARY: In a near-future dystopia, two people check into a hotel room knowing only one will check out.

NOTES:
This story was first published in Devilfish Review (sadly, now defunct). It stands alone, but is the first part of a trilogy of stories called “After the Storms.”

A few years back I took a class taught by one of my favorite teachers,  Richard Rayner. Each week we were tasked to write 400 words from a prompt provided by Richard. This one was: 

A sick man and his younger wife check into a hotel room. He tells her a story and orders drinks which are brought by room service. The man has something to drink, says something, and then he dies.

I don’t remember what I turned in for my 400-word assignment, but it’s safe to guess that my constant and pervasive anxiety about climate change was already seeded in. The hotel room setting is inspired by The Hollywood Athletic Club, where, like Jerry and Beth, my husband and I took a weekend “staycation” one sweltering summer. 

Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs for this and every episode. You can see more of what he does on his Vimeo page

The cover art is by the talented and prolific Ted Giffin.

Also, you can SUBSCRIBE to this podcast on your favorite player:
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When All That’s Left Is Love

February 10, 2019

A few days ago I went to a  memorial / celebration of life service for the husband of a friend who suffered an illness this year and died too soon. It was a beautiful service for a man who was a beautiful soul, and this is a poem that was read at his request.

I had  never heard it before and have been thinking about it, so I thought I’d share it here.

When All That’s Left Is Love

When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
And when you say
Kaddish for me
Remember what our
Torah teaches,
Love doesn’t die
People do.
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give me away.

by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Cancer Rears Its Head

Wednesday evening I came across this article by Roger Ebert and reposted it, with the status: “I love this guy.”   In Ebert’s post, he was talking about making some changes–pulling pack because of his health, but also looking forward to new interests and endeavors.  He also said,

At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.

This was something that, when I read it, I found myself looking forward to.  Hearing what this smart and passionate man had to say about illness–about living with his illness.  For awhile that evening, he was on my mind.

On Thursday morning, I received an email from a friend of mine in Australia, S. In 2003, she and three other women had been roommates at a retreat I affectionately call “Cancer Camp.” She’d gotten in touch with two of the women, L and M, and we’d been planning a Skype reunion call.  But S’s email was to tell me that our plans might have to be put on hold because L is in the hospital.  Her cancer is now in her spine, her spinal fluid, and her brain. She recently had a shunt put into her brain and now she has had radiation to her throat, making her unable to talk. L was already Stage 4 when we met nine years ago. She had two little ones and was determined then to see them grow, and she’s done that. I hope she can continue to do that–but everything is fragile, and life doesn’t always continue just because we plan for it to–as I was reminded on Thursday afternoon, when I heard the news that Roger Ebert had died.