Sailing Lands Away

Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped through my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life! So began the book I had my nose stuck into. It was called Sleep Till Noon and written by Max Shulman. Of course, this was back in 1976 that I was reading this. I had just finished The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books, another very funny book that was written by Hal Dresner. The books were so funny that I recall them even today, especially the opening line of Sleep Till Noon. That’s the cool thing about well written books, they tend to stick with you even as the years reel off one following the other until decades have gone by.

Books can be the salvation of someone suffering the throes of chemotherapy. As your brain goes into a weird sort of neutral and sleep consumes the greatest portion of your days, the in between moments need something, a distraction, to keep one from dwelling on just how shitty chemotherapy can make you feel. The funny ones can lift spirits weighed down like a piece of paper pinned by an anvil, and perhaps this is why I ready fourteen Janet Evanovich books about Stephanie Plum, the recovery agent (read: bounty hunter) from Trenton, New Jersey. They made me laugh right out loud in their silliness. Yet they drew me enough that I buy and read her succeeding books still. On a more serious side, I bathed myself in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and Jonathan Kellerman’s stories of Alex Delaware, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. There are more; according to Amazon.com, I bought no less than 294 books during the period of April 2008 and September 2010. I wore out two Kindles reading all of the novels and short stories.

But they got me through some of the toughest times of my life, and that includes the horrific thirteen months I spent in Vietnam, where the VA asserts I picked up the seed of what would bloom, thirty years later, into Multiple Myeloma. At the same time, I went to an unofficial university called the School of Hard Knocks and got an unwanted education in elements of physiology and medicine. It’s remarkable what a cancer patient can learn in the course of dealing with the symptoms of the illness and worse yet, the side effects of the treatments available to combat it. I still had time to reflect on things, especially my mortality, which was the point to reading all of those books. No one wants to face the fragility of their lives and realize just how powerless one can be at the whim of circumstance. I was desperate for diversion and I found it in books to a much greater degree than television or movies could provide. It’s easier for one’s mind to wander as images flicker by and exploit persistence of vision, fooling the mind into seeing those images as a flowing approximation of reality. Books demand focus, and that focus holds reality at bay.

In my english class, way back in 1958, there was a sign on the wall that said a book is like a ship to sail me lands away. I always thought that it was an odd statement and never really appreciated how profound a statement it was until I endured treatment through chemotherapy. The treatment skewed my sense of reality and enforced moods that fueled despair, and of all of the things at my disposal, only books distracted me from my own situation to the point of offering a respite from dark thoughts. Of course, with the memory affects of chemotherapy, I managed to read some books more than once, and like an Alzheimer’s patient I greeted them anew with each read. But still they worked a kind of magic that took me away from my troubles.

I’m glad that I’m a reader. I attribute a lot of my emotional health to my ability to bury myself in books. They were the blanket I pulled over my head to defend myself against the waking nightmare I was living through. For every blow my life sustained, it was a book more than anything else that deflected the severity away and shuttled the pain into the same fictional realms the books I read were based on. It didn’t matter whether the book was made of paper or photons, it was all the same effect, and it was a good effect.

This is the answer I gave when people asked me how I was able to stand the rigors of the treatments I chose to undertake. It is still my answer today. When the nausea and body aches, the burning and chill of neuropathy was almost too much to bear, my books were like ships that sailed me lands away.