Shifting from a writing desk to an operating room table in less than a week was a pretty precipitous change, to say the least. But there was a sense of peace in the speed with which events had progressed, the way a jetliner can sound almost silent to a passenger even while traveling at over 500 miles per hour. I wasn’t even nervous about the surgery itself; it was simply something that had to be done, whether I wanted to or not. There was no decision to be made, no real thoughts to be had. There just wasn’t time.
But after the operation—during the long, latent days in the ICU, the thirty daily radiation treatments, and the twelve monthly rounds of chemo—time with your own thoughts is one thing you have in spades. And you spend much of that time reading online journals, hunting for statistics on how long people with my type of tumor tend to live. I’m five years out now, and no matter what study you check, that means I’ve already beaten the odds.
But that doesn’t mean I’m free and clear. I won the first round, not necessarily the whole fight. The worst isn’t necessarily behind me. In fact, for me, it’s not a question of if, but of when. When will an MRI show some measure of tumor re-growth. When will I see a bright, highlighted blotch in the black-and-white image on my neuro-oncologist’s computer screen, and say to myself, “There you are, you stealthy little fuck. What took you so goddamn long?”
People will argue this by saying, “You could be struck by lightning tomorrow. You just don’t know.” But we’re not talking about lightning here. And cancer does strike twice.
I’m not a Boy Scout, but I am prepared. When cancer wants a rematch, I’ll accept. Eagerly. Gladly, even.
Some people might consider this a pretty fatalistic mindset. But for me, it’s actually been liberating. I can watch Doc Holliday’s death scene at the end of the movie Tombstone and say, “Those are some great last words. Maybe I’ll steal ‘em.” I can chuckle at the fact that everything I’ve ever written or translated will instantly go up in value, and that an editor somewhere might actually make an offer on the novel I wrote while going through treatment. But by far the most fun I’ve had has been in planning the soundtrack to my own funeral.
The first song that really got me thinking about mortality was “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, ostensibly about the death of their close friend, Troy Dixon, a.k.a. Trouble T. Roy of Heavy D and the Boys. It was 1992, and I was in Iowa City, about as far away culturally as you can get from Mount Vernon, NY. But when I would return to Iowa City five years later to attend the funeral of my aunt, who had died from uterine cancer, I felt as if the song had been written, in advance, for her. Now, it could become mine as well.
In a different sort of genre, there’s “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. I don’t believe in either heaven or hell, and thanks to the partial blindness left after brain surgery, I won’t be driving down any highways anytime soon. But when I hear lyrics like
Don't need reason, don't need rhyme;
Ain't nothing I would rather do.
Going down, party time,
And my friends are gonna be there too…
I can’t help but picture my funeral as a party: a reunion for friends and family.
Bon Scott wrote that song not long before he died in February of 1980, at the age of 33, the same age I am now. In July of that same year, the band would release “Back in Black.” And with lyrics like the following, sung this time by Brian Johnson,
Yes I'm let loose
From the noose
That's kept me hanging around.
I keep looking at the sky
'Cause it's gettin' me high
Forget the hearse 'cause I'll never die.
I got nine lives,
Using every one of them and running wild…
I knew it would have to be played at my funeral as well.
While those AC/DC songs were clearly dark and coolly hellish, “Alive” by Pearl Jam has more layers than an onion, and its significance is much harder to discern. The first time I heard it—like most other PJ fans—I assumed it was inspirational, uplifting, an homage to the strength required to endure, to exist. But Eddie Vedder later revealed that it was far deeper and sadder than that. When Vedder was a teenager, his mother informed him that the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather, and that his biological father had died some years before. To Vedder, having to live through such a revelation was a curse, a burden, a weighty cross to bear. Eventually, however, the audience’s reception changed the meaning of Vedder’s own song. “They lifted the curse,” he admitted during an appearance on VH1’s Storytellers. I won’t be alive when this song is played at my funeral, but the curse of my cancer won’t be alive anymore, either.
Two decades after “Alive” was released, Audioslave came out with “Like a Stone.” I dug the band immediately, and caught shows at the legendary Hammerstein Ballroom and atop the Ed Sullivan Theatre marquee. While watching the special features on the DVD of the band’s 2005 free concert in Havana, Cuba, I learned that bassist Timmy Commerford originally thought Chris Cornell’s lyrics were about a long lost love who might or might not ever come back. It was only later that he realized it had to do with a lonely old man waiting to die. Or, as Cornell himself explained, “it's a song about concentrating on the afterlife you would hope for.” But in any interpretation, the song is as plaintive as a Portuguese fado, and when I one day find myself in that nameless, faceless old man’s room, I too will reminisce over the things I’ve done, on the people who I’ve blessed and who I’ve wronged. There are things I regret every day of my life, and I expect that will continue, as the lyrics go, “until the day was gone.”
Much more savage, and no less lethal, is Metallica’s “Creeping Death.” I’ve spent many late nights hanging with my buddy Seth, discussing this very song. And I interpolated those late night jam sessions into a scene in my novel “The Morning Side of the Hill.” Here is an excerpt, where one character offers his analysis. Which, of course, is my own, and the reason why it made my funeral soundtrack:
Oh yeah. That’s what’s so great about this song. See, everybody thinks it’s just some cold-ass Jules Winnfield shit. But what it’s really about is an affirmation of life. I mean, sure, it’s all about the final plague in Exodus and the killing of the firstborn, but it’s told from the archangel’s point of view. So the only people dying are the slave masters. You know, “lamb’s blood on the door… I shall pass.” And the Israelites are freed. I listened to it all the time when I was first diagnosed, wondering whether I would be one of the people whom cancer would eventually pass over.
Later in that same scene, the musical discussion makes a sharp turn towards the classical. Beethoven. 9th Symphony, 4th Movement. The Ode to Joy. Here’s how it plays out in the novel:
Here, there’s one more song I want to play for you. It’s by my old friend, Ludwig Van, full of bliss and heaven!
Many years later, wherever and whenever he would hear it, Willie was to remember that night, for it was the first time he had ever heard Opus 125, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor. It opened up in a torrent, a tumultuous rush that transpired into a strong, clear, driving theme, as if a feral horse were being broken and bridled for the first time. He listened as it galloped on, spurred to speed by tympani and trombones, until variations in the theme emerged: buoyant, nimble horns, brisk, energetic, alert trumpets, and frolicsome, high-spirited violins. But the choral finale is what shook him the most. Willie felt completely disarmed and thoroughly enlivened. He spoke not one word of German, but he knew what Elysium was, and that even deaf men can smell fields of asphodel. When it finally concluded in a burst of beautiful, prancing sparks of joy, Al looked to Willie for a reaction. She was beaming.
I’ve never heard anything like it.
I think it’s the most complete work of art ever made.
Because its creativity involves so many people. Beethoven composed the music, Schiller wrote the poetry, the orchestra plays its instruments, and the vocalists sing the lyrics. It includes everything, mind and body alike. It’s got the stuff of both strength and courage in it, and that makes it greater than any novel, any painting, any song, or any sculpture. It’s both heart and soul, bone and blood, painful flesh and surpassing spirits. That’s why I think it’s so full, so complete.
There are a half a dozen or so other songs that I've short-listed for the funeral. There’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (both the Dylan and Guns ‘n Roses versions), “American Pie” (it’s about the day the music died, after all), “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony (R.I.P. Eazy Eric Wright), “Lie in Our Graves” (even though I honestly can’t stand most Dave Matthews songs), “If I Die Sudden” by John Mellencamp and “Die Young” by Black Sabbath (for obvious reasons), and anything by Bob Marley, since he died from cancer himself. But no matter what other songs ultimately make the set list for my funeral, the one to close out that grand and joyous night will be “Swingin’” by Tom Petty.
I’ve explained my reasoning behind all the others. This time, dear reader, I’m leaving the explanation up to you.