Part 16. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Long before Warren Zevon so eloquently articulated it in song, I embodied the I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead ethos.
This was not voluntary, nor was it the byproduct of a hard-partying, cocaine-snorting nightlife. It’s just that I couldn’t sleep. So I worked a lot.
Fortunately, work has always been fun for me. I was spoiled by my first job. I started working at a newspaper when I was 14, with the absolute lower-than-whale-shit job on the staff and by the time I graduated high school, I was a reporter — general assignment, the environment, city hall — as well as the weekend news editor, in charge of assembling the A-section of the paper on Friday and Saturday nights.
(It was insane to give so much authority to a kid, so for that I’d like to deliver a long-delayed thank you to publisher Tom Tarzian for having faith in me.)
That job established a template for my grown-up working life. Work consumed me. I was never not working. Anyone who writes for a living knows this. You’re quiet, looking out the window, lost to the conscious world — in other words, you’re writing.
All of my life, I never slept. And because I couldn’t sleep, I worked. I got a lot done. When I was writing my memoir Highway 61 in 2001, I went delirious with depression after the terrorist attacks. For a few months, I was in such gloom that I’d sit at my desk staring at the screen.
Nicole was pregnant with Jack and terribly sick. As was her habit, she kept the kitchen radio on all of the time, so in the middle of the night I’d hear the murmur of voices of all-night talk show hosts railing against the terrorists. I’d stand in the kitchen, sipping my glass of milk, wondering what the hell was happening to the world.
Eventually, a deadline loomed and I had to get my ass in gear. I’d work my normal eight-to-five day for the University of Florida, go home for dinner and Nicole and Savannah, get in bed by eleven o’clock, but get up by two in the morning. I wrote the book in a series of all-night sessions. It got done.
So work had always defined me. I figured I could work cancer into my daily schedule. When I started negotiating times for the appointments I’d need for chemotherapy and radiation, I built the times around the commuter-rail schedule. So what if the doctors said I’d be a little more tired than usual — I could deal with it. This is the guy who regularly got by on four hours a night. This is the guy who wrote a book in the middle of the night.
Fortunately, a smart man intervened. My dean at Boston University, Tom Fiedler, absolutely insisted that I take a medical leave. He counseled me not to underestimate the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.
Take six months, he said. We’ll have someone take care of the chairman duties while you’re gone. Concentrate on getting well.
Nicole agreed with him. This was confirmation of her long-held belief that I was insane — to think I could go through chemotherapy and radiation and still work.
But work was who I was. I couldn’t imagine not working. It was like death — the absence of me.
This meant that I’d have to tell my colleagues about my cancer. I’d told Tom, of course, and Maureen Mahoney, our administrative dean. I’d told my department administrator, Mary Chapman, because I told her everything anyway.
In fact, I told Mary I was sick before I told anyone else at work. I wasn’t sure we’d really need a temporary chair. Mary could do her job and mine and probably also still have time to perform surgery, bake a 14-course meal and tap-dance on riverboats.
But I asked my high-energy colleague Susan Walker if she would do the chairly stuff while I was gone. Her husband Stow had just been through two years of cancer treatment and was given a clean bill of health. She was therefore understanding. She was also perfect for the job.
I did this as the Fall 2014 semester was ending and the faculty members were dispersing. I relied on email to carry the news and rehearsed the optimistic message about my prognosis — the sort of message I’d deliver to my children over the holiday. So I sent an upbeat note: Hey, everybody — I’ve got cancer, but don’t worry, it’s cool, I’ll be fine.
My colleagues all sent messages of support and best wishes. Perhaps my favorite came from David Carr. David was our distinguished visiting muckety-muck. (Okay, he had a real title — the Andrew Lack Professor of Journalistic Wonderfulness, I think.) He was the beloved media columnist for the New York Times who came to campus two days a week to inspire the next generation of journalists. David came to our faculty as one of the most important figures in American journalism, but he was a humble, kind, giving man.
He always dropped by for a chat during his days on campus, bringing with him a parade of celebrated bylines he’d brought to speak to class. Sometimes, I was a little starstruck by the people he cajoled into coming to campus.
David’s story was one of the most remarkable I’d known. He’d been an addict, a single-parent on welfare, a small-time loser who’d saved himself and his family to become a God of American journalism and culture. I require his autobiography, The Night of the Gun, in my introductory class for graduate students.
But David was also a two-time cancer survivor, so with that on his resume, his you-can-do-it note had special meaning:
glad you’re getting down to business on those invaders.
here’s hoping you put them on the run in no time.
don’t let them kill you in the process of curing you.
(insert smilicon here)
my days are mostly mondays, so we will miss a lot,|
but please know that I am at your disposal to assist
in any way I can on whatever day needs to be done.
god speed, hoss.
He came by later that day. “There was something I wanted to tell you but didn’t think I should put in writing, owing to posterity.” He had a rich, gravelly voice and spoke with an old-world cadence and vocabulary. “From my experience, I have one bit of advice for you.”
Plastics? I briefly thought.
“Those surgeons are deeply talented and you are in excellent, skilled hands.” Then he paused and exhibited the timing of a gifted comedian. “But don’t let them anywhere near your dick. No matter what, tell them to keep their hands off your dick.”
Male Bonding 101.
“By necessity, they will be in the neighborhood,” I said, “but I’ll be sure to tell the surgeon to stay away from my junk.”
“That’s the most important thing,” David said. “We often define ourselves by that appendage, so it is imperative that we care for it with every sinew of our being.”
“And in my case,” I said, “that’s an awful lot of sinews.”
So: I cleared the decks.
I prepared to hand over the administrative parts of my job to Susan Walker and Mary Chapman. My colleague Christopher Daly took on an extra class (mine) with little notice. It seemed that everyone in the department was stepping up to help. I could take off from work, knowing everything was in good hands.
But could I really take off from work? Without work, was there any me?
And then, over the holiday, I prepared my family for this new, different dad on the horizon — the one who would not be going to work, but lurking in the upstairs hallway, shuffling around in a bathrobe, going to Dana Farber for daily radiation, probably turning into the living embodiment of being “old and in the way.”
Without work, without the energy to be a father, would there be any me left? And would I even like that version of me? I would be a different person and it would be like inviting a stranger for a long-term residency.
As the New Year began and I prepared for the first of a series of cancer surgeries, I knew I was at the continental divide of my life. I looked back at sixty years of a certain kind of me.
Now I turned the other direction; I wasn’t sure what was over that ridge.