‘Time on Fire’ shares cancer’s lesson: Life is ‘the sweetest candy’
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Distant friends are like distant comets. Gone for long periods. Then suddenly back, lighting the darkness for a time before looping out of sight again.
Which is why a friend who retired to Florida but was in town in November and stopped by the newspaper — whoops, multiformat storytelling platform — surprised me by phoning last week. Off-schedule. I was puzzling over this when she texted: Where are you? That got me on the phone, the cold hand of unease squeezing my shoulder.
Some preliminary chat. Then she let it drop: Cancer, one kidney already gone, a pea’s worth of Mr. C. discovered in her lungs. Chemo started.
My turn to say something.
“That’s terrible,” I began, then tried to reel it back. “Losing a kidney . . . well, humans are designed for that. That’s why we have two. And cancer . . . people shrug off cancer nowadays. It’s like having an unpleasant hobby.”
I told her about one of my older son’s best friends since kindergarten, now 22. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August, back at school, prognosis good, by January.
“What’s your address?” I asked. “I’m sending you a book.”
The book I send to all my friends facing cancer is “Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors,” by Evan Handler, a 1996 memoir that begins this way:
“I’m afraid it is not good news,” is what he said. “It is bad news. It is in the bone marrow. It’s an acute myelogenous leukemia.”
And just like that, Handler, then a young Broadway actor, is exiled to the land of sickness.
What makes the book great is its relentless honesty. His descriptions of pain and indignity and how the illness shreds his relationships. Handler is hideous to his parents, who at times seem terrified, petty and useless. He’s so transformed by chemo that his own brother walks in, apologizes, and starts to leave, thinking he’s in the wrong room. Handler deals with doctors who range from callous to insane. A medical “display of compassion” is both “remarkable and rare.”
All the while, dispensing practical survival tips, such as: force your nurses to wash their hands.
I’ve given the book to at least a half dozen people. I circled back to one, my cousin Harry, whose doctors basically told him to go home and die, yet pulled through despite them.
“Overall a great book,” he said. “Really useful during my battle. So many cancer books are preachy, but this one was full of humor and truth.”
I couldn’t resist using my media All-Access Pass to also check in with Handler, who you might know from such TV shows as “Californication” or “Sex in the City.”
What’s it like to write a book still touching people after decades?
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” he began. “It’s very, very gratifying that it has helped people over the years, that it still has power and validity.”
The book began as a performance piece.
“I had never written anything before,” he said. “Here were a series of experiences I had never seen talked about in the way I had experienced. I couldn’t imagine I was the only one. I wondered, ‘Why isn’t anyone telling this aspect of the story?'”
How does he view the battle — five years from age 24 to 29 — now?
“I feel farther away from it than I ever have been, yet it still infiltrates and infects every cell of my being,” he replied. “It’s still the most definite event of my life and psyche. I’m not particularly happy that’s the case, not sure that’s true for everyone who goes through it. The victory to me is in how many moments of every day I manage to forget it, to keep doing whatever I’m doing, engage in life fully and deeply.”
“Engage in life fully and deeply.” Which is why the book is valuable, even to those who are well, at the moment. A reminder, as Handler writes, that “life on the planet Earth was the sweetest candy, the milkiest pearl. That to have a day to spend with someone you love and to expect another one tomorrow [is] the most beautiful, lush, and soothing privilege.”
Nothing drives that truth home more clearly than getting sick. Or reading about it.