In 1984 a large cancer was discovered in Reynolds Price's spinal cord. Here he recounts without self-pity what became a long struggle to withstand and recover from this appalling, if all too common, affliction. He charts the first puzzling symptoms; the urgent surgery that fails to remove the growth and radiation that temporarily arrests it; the trials of rehab; the steady rise of severe pain and reliance on drugs; the sustaining force of a certain religious vision; the discovery of help from biofeedback and hypnosis; and the miraculous return of his powers as a writer in a new, active life. Beyond the particulars of pain and illness, Price tells of his determination to get on with human interaction, the gratitude he feels toward kin and friends and some (though by no means all) doctors, and the return to his prolific work. More than the portrait of one brave person in tribulation, "A Whole New Life" offers honest insight, realistic encouragement, and inspiration to others who suffer the bafflement of catastrophic illness or know someone who does or will.
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Reynolds Price was born in Macon, North Carolina in 1933. Reared and educated in the public schools of his native state, he earned an A.B. summa cum laude from Duke University, graduating first in his class. In 1955 he traveled as a Rhodes Scholar to Merton College, Oxford University to study English literature. After three years and the B. Litt. degree he returned to Duke where he continues to teach as James B. Duke Professor of English.
In 1962 his novel A Long and Happy Life appeared. It received the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel and has never been out of print. Since, he has published more than two dozen books. In 1986, his novel Kate Vaiden received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He also has published volumes of poems, plays, essays, translations from the Bible, and the memoir Clear Pictures; and he has written for the screen, for television, and texts for songs by James Taylor.
He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his books have appeared in sixteen languages.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
So far it had been the best year of my life. In love and friendship I was lavishly endowed. I'd recently published a new play -- my twelfth book in the twenty-two years since my first, A Long and Happy Life. They'd all been received more generously than not by the nation's book journalists and buyers. I'd been steadily rewarded with understanding readers of many kinds; and I'd earned a sizable income from a brand of work that was mostly deep pleasure in the doing. For twenty-six years I'd also taught English literature and narrative writing at Duke University. The annual one semester's work with good students was not a financial necessity for me but a test of sanity against the touchstone of merciless young minds. I'd lived for nearly two decades, alone by choice, in an ample house by a pond and woods that teemed with wildlife; and in February I'd turned fifty-one, apparently hale.
The previous fall, October '83, I'd gone with a friend to Israel. It was my second visit in three years to a place that had fed my curiosity since childhood and was promising now to enter my work. To save at least some of the goodness of the year, I'd begun to keep a daybook called Days and Nights. It consisted of quickly written poems, each triggered by some aspect of the pile-up of happiness and recompense in the long calm days. By the spring of 1984 I'd finished the first third of my sixth novel, Kate Vaiden.
But as the son of a father who'd always doubted his rare good luck and who died at fifty-four, I'd begun to hear occasional ominous chords. In all the elation of recent months, I somehow knew I was on a thin-aired precipice. I knew I'd come down gently or hard; and by early April the daybook poems, more alert than I, were well aware that an end was near. One poem called "Caw" even sounds a knell for the run of luck.
Splayed face-down on the last pool of sleep,
I'm gaffed by caw-caw from one distant crow.
What Roman would rise to face this day?
Half an hour later I loom at the pond window,
Glum while my two globes of barnyard cholesterol
Gurgle behind me in salt-free fat
To the tune of the radio voice of charles Simic
Who suddenly flings out a cold crow poem.
What human would join me to face this day?
But I barely listened to the curious warnings, and the next few poems are about new love. My main response to the racing days still had to be thanks, thanks and the care to save these memories against an ending.
Then on a clear day in mid-April, I was walking through the crowded Duke campus with a friend and colleague, George Williams, a man more watchful than most. After a few silent yards, he said "Why are you slapping your left foot on the pavement?"
I laughed at what seemed a rare error in his observations and said that I wasn't -- I was wearing thong sandals that tended to shuffle. But I took a few more steps and heard he was right. This was no shuffle; I was lifting my left foot higher than usual and slapping it stiffly down on the pavement. If I thought the motion was more than odd at the time, I didn't act on it or begin to worry.
A few days later in my neighborhood video-rental store, I was laughing with the manager about our mutual plight as temperance fiends in a nation drunk on exercise. She said she'd started to jog at home on a stationary platform beside the TV. On the spot I tried to jog a few steps in place. My right leg wouldn't flex back off the floor. I could easily pull the foot backward with my hand and touch it to the back of my thigh, but on its own it couldn't respond to a mental command -- couldn't or wouldn't? Before I could register puzzlement, my friend said "You're even worse off than me."
We laughed and dropped it, but later that day I phoned the cardiovascular-health unit at Duke to ask about joining a new middle-aged exercise group in which a few of my contemporaries were already thumping and jerking and lunching on sprouts.
And that same evening I started at least to face what I believed was the problem. I was just past fifty-one years old, weighing 167 -- thirty pounds more than I'd weighed in high school. In measuring my height recently, I'd discovered that I'd somehow lost an inch -- I was now five-nine. Age was firmly staking its claims; I was starting to soften. For several years, when walking down stairs, I'd felt a sense of risky balance -- I'd sometimes even take the arm of the person beside me -- but I chalked that queasiness up to the bifocal glasses I'd worn in recent years.
Over the past months I'd also noticed a slowing down in sexual need and exertions; and though that need had won me a large part of the pleasures of my life, oddly the slowing didn't alarm me. I didn't feel unmanned, I didn't feel compelled to retire prematurely from an ongoing joy, I felt a natural change under way and was ready to let it define its course. Then in roaming the steep hills of Israel, I'd damaged the cartilage in one of my knees, but that eased quickly once I was home and took a few weeks of an anti-inflammatory drug.
From memories of my own father's early fifties, and from watching older male friends through the years, I'd assumed such losses came with the territory. Hadn't Father often fulminated that "These damned bifocals will kill me yet"; and hadn't my mother always said "After forty, it's maintenance, maintenance, maintenance"? Well, now I'd need to admit there were problems and begin to confront them. But the prospect of regular huffing and puffing with squads of garrulous heart-attack survivors in designer sweat suits was hardly beckoning, so I pushed the unattractive details of the cardiac-health unit to the back of my desk. Drastic remedies didn't seem called for. I'd handled this aging body on my own.
On my own had been the motto of most of my life -- in exercise, in work and much else. As a boy who spent his early childhood with no brothers or sisters and no playmates, I'd missed an early exposure to communal games. My pastimes were mostly solitary. And once we moved into town among other boys when I was in the third grade, I was soon aware not only of my inexperience on teams but also of a full set of butterfingers at the ends of both arms. I caught and threw badly; and after a burst of hard play, I'd often need to stand very still till my jumbled vision and whirling head could take their bearings. By the age of nine, with the private help of an older boy, I'd grown into a dependable touch-football lineman, a middling batter in softball; and later I became a roller-skate ace; but I loved none of them and was often the last team-member chosen from a motley pool. So once I was past compulsory gym class in high school and college, I gladly quit the playing fields.
Even in the bone-chilling torpor of my graduate years in the Thames valley of England, where I'd gone on a scholarship that expected physical vigor of me, exercise was never more strenuous than the odd walk or occasional swim. Generally I saw both activities as pointless interruptions of all that mattered, which were love and work -- friends often called me "The Great Indoorsman." And now, by the early eighties, the exercise fads of the 1970s were alarmingly widespread. In the late seventies I'd bought my first pair of running shoes and glumly circled my big upper pasture for a few months at the urging of an orthopedist whom I consulted about a stiff lower back. But I soon gave in to the boredom and bugs and retired the shoes. Surely this new flock of driven joggers and jerkers were insuring a future of agonized joints. Why not take comfort in the memory of my numerous kin on both sides of my family? They'd been virtually motionless through long lives yet were clearheaded straight to their fully dressed deaths. So sure, start working it out on your own, but gradually.
By the end of April '84 thought, I'd got two more warnings. On the night of the final examination in my Milton class, I made myself a sandwich at home and ate it quickly with one gin and tonic -- two ounces of gin. When I parked in the dusk and set off toward the building where my students waited for seven o'clock, I was startled to feel that I was nearly drunk. All my life I'd had a glass head for even small amounts of alcohol, but this slip on a class night was unprecedented. I took the firmest grip I could get on my faculties, proceeded across campus with the exaggerated caution of a Chaplinesque souse and gave the exam. No one seemed to notice; and before the students were done three hours later, my equilibrium had returned, though my sense had deepened that something was eerie.
Two days later as I parked on campus again to return final grades, I glanced at my watch and saw it was nearly five o'clock; the registrar's office would close on the dot. I should hurry along. I know I thought Run, a conscious signal, but I couldn't run. The command had got no father than my brain. Some bridge was out. I stalled like a man on a menacing plain in a nightmare, inexplicably paralyzed. In a moment however I found I could walk at normal speed, though I had to concentrate not to veer or stumble.
I was concerned but still not quite scared enough to mention the newness to any friend or to see a doctor. I'd seen the needless punishment my parents took in their sad deaths, and I'd skirted doctors whenever I could. Again I reminded myself that I was just a man in broad mid-life with the muscle tone of a raw scallop. I still wouldn't join the old puffer-bellies at cardiac care. I'd start again jogging in the buggy pasture and cycling on the stationary bike I'd bought a few years back and quickly abandoned. And I really applied myself to the bike, half an hour twice a day. My legs obeyed me on the go-nowhere pedals, but after each session I'd feel like an octogenarian who's barely survived collision with a brick wall. I'd yet to feel any trace of pain, just immense exhaustion.
A quickly written poem in the daybook tries to paper over the widening chasm. It describes my fatigue and ends with
Rest. The promise of a week like silt
In a sweetwater delta, stirred only by minnows
And the mutter of each slow skin of nacre
As it welds to the pearl of a somnolent oyster --
Mindless companion while I too mutter
Round my gritty core, this ruined glad life.
I'd give myself that week of rest, then return to work on my novel Kate Vaiden. With any luck I'd have it finished by the end of the year.
The relaxation and busywork on the indoor bike eased my mind, despite the fact that in public I had to pay even closer attention to walking straight and that I'd begun to dwell on two words in the night -- multiple sclerosis, a generally slow process in which the body's immune cells attack the protective sheathing of the nerves and produce effects that range in severity from blurred vision and mild numbness to blindness and total paralysis. An old friend of mine had it in a bad form. She lived in a wheelchair now; and I'd visited her recently to find that her husband had moved out, leaving her alone and vulnerable in an insecure house. So her plight was a fearsome possibility; but on down toward the end of May, I went about my work and friendships with no concession to the gathering weakness and with surely no thought of seeing a doctor.
Then on Saturday, May 26th, I served as best man at the wedding of my friends Jeffrey Anderson and Lettie Randall -- a fine mild afternoon, the guests uphill beneath a tent, live music beyond us in the trees. When the moment came to climb the incline toward the tent, Jeff motioned to me and led the way. I fell in beside him but by the third stride, I was in real trouble. There was no pain or dizziness, no fear of falling, just the fact that my legs were barely hearing my will to walk. I honestly didn't think I'd make it up the gentle slope. But some old overdrive kicked in, and somehow I was there at last on level ground with the bride and groom. The service went on and at the reception no one seemed to have noticed my trouble, so I laughed my way through a bibulous hour. But how much of this is in my mind?
On the Monday afternoon I went to a humane physician, an internist at Duke Hospital, a man slightly younger than I. He spent five minutes checking my reflexes with a rubber hammer. The responses looked normal to me. But the doctor stepped out and came back immediately with a staff neurologist, who repeated the check -- no words between them. Then both men went out and shut the door; three minutes later they were back, poker-faced. Some of my long-nerve tracts were blocked. I'd need to come in for further tests, "a complete neurological work-up."
I said I was off to New York in a few days for a week's business but would then be free.
They glanced at each other; and the internist said "No, we need you now." I noted that they needed me, not that I needed them.
The neurologist stood in silence, nodding blankly.
That was my first real body blow from fear. They're in earnest. This is big. I recall that the cramped examining room seemed near to exploding with excess light.
I've had very little success through the years in my efforts at keeping a journal. In numerous attempts since adolescence, the process has left me even more detached and introspective than is natural for a bookish ex-boy who became a lone writer through most of his youth and adult life. For me, despite sporadic tries at a diary, my writing life has found sufficient pleasure in managing characters in fiction and plays. It's left slim need to manipulate friends to perform more interestingly for their next appearance in a journal. And the tedium of rehashing an uneventful day at the desk has likewise discouraged me -- most productive writers live calmer lives than winkles.
But since the late 1950s when I got my first job teaching, I've needed simple daily calendars. And I've saved them all since, while they mostly record nothing more momentous than who I saw at dinner, I've sometimes noted a crucial event. Unlike the daybook of poems that I'd lately been keeping however, my calendar for May '84 shows oddly no suspicion of the growing strangeness in my body till it summarizes the doctors' advice on the 28th -- "my immediate entry in hospital for neurological tests." It adds that I phoned two friends that evening with the news. Then alone I watched the film All That Jazz, a choice that proved inappropriate -- there's a gruesomely depicted fatal surgery near the end.
But I have no memory of feelings from that night, the following day or the next half-day before I entered the hospital on Wednesday, May 30th '84. The calendar shows that on Tuesday morning, for encouragement, I phoned a friend who was studying in South Africa; and I met a friend at noon for lunch and another for dinner that night, after which -- alone again -- I watched another film, The Last Wave, a humorless Australian fantasy.
Surely during that hollow pause my mind must have run the odds time after time -- multiple sclerosis, brain tumor, an inoperable cerebral aneurysm of the sort ...
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Book Description Simon & Schuster Audio, 1995. Audio Cassette. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0671521322