“He really was an enchanting person. In some way he was like the spiritual father of everybody…. It is hard to imagine Central Park without Charles Kennedy.” Marie Winn, author of Red-tails in Love, and close friend of Charles, remembering him after his death in October 2004

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dancing with the Cancer Blues-Revised

   It seems life is always presenting us with new "dance partners"––many pleasant, some disagreeable. My mom just learned that she'll be learning to dance with cancer. Bad things really do happen to some of the very best people...happens all the time... period. In October of 2004 we lost Charles to a vexing, perplexing mass of lymphoma. Now his sis-in-law, my very own sweet mother, has come down with cancer. 
     Cancer is always an unsettling partner, so everyone is concerned, of course. But there is good news. Mom is very resilient and she has battled through some very tough stuff in her life. We believe, along with Mom, that her crack team of docs is on top of things and has an effective treatment plan for her. Yea!  And, of course, Dad is there, strong and supportive as ever, helping her navigate. The person most in command of the situation is Mom herself: facing her fears and hopes with aplomb, using her strong faith in God as balm and bolster, and her prior difficult and peak life experiences as guideposts. She is laughing, playing with her grandkids, hitting the nearby casino for pure fun, asking for the prayers of friends and family, and sharing hope and light with us familial worry warts. We'll all be with her as her treatment begins in earnest next week with surgery. We are confident it will go well and that she'll do well. Go, Mom!
     Unlike my mom's case, Charles's 'C' went undiagnosed for too long. But he, like his favorite in-law, took a head-on, positive approach to his situation––even when he was gravely ill. It was never hard to see why he and Mom had such unabashed admiration for one another. 

Note:   In addition to getting Charles's books into posthumous publication, I've been slowly chipping away at building his biography. Here is an excerpt of a draft piece for that project, based on notes I scribbled on the subway after my last visit with Charles. It includes one of his pieces previously posted on this blog.

Fortunate Lives

From photo-essay collection "Owl"

      Frankly, I don’t believe that a Saw-whet owl is likely to be mistaken for the Christ child.  However, it was Christmas Eve. 
            Because it really was Christmas Eve of the first year I ever owned a camera, because I knew that the Saw-whet was roosting in a small group of hemlocks on the south edge of the Shakespeare Garden, because it was a holiday eve and I was magically alone, because it was between 4:30 and 5:00 pm and the exquisite owl would not have flown out yet to go to its night’s labor.
            Because it was a soft December evening and I had the passionate feeling that there was nowhere I would rather be.  Thus I had no choice but to break a park rule—a small one.  There was a three-and-a-half foot high rustic fence twixt me and the owl.  So I looked over my shoulder several times while awkwardly climbing over the fence, hoping to locate the owl for its Christmas close-up.
            Owls tend to reuse the same spots for daytime roosting and for the previous week this one had its residence in one of the two small conifers very close to where I was clambering over the fence.  Owls are such cryptic masters that I didn’t know exactly where the bird was.  So when I stood up straight I was a bit too on target and bumped a branch that brushed the owl and it flew.  And this is how my life has been.  It flew perhaps two feet and landed on another hemlock where the photographic light was even better.
            Saw-whets have many unique traits, and just then the owl illustrated one.  They sit tight.  This owl, a very small raptor, proved that its defensive style is to stay put, even on Christian holidays.
            The Freud of us birders, the man who invented birding, Roger Tory Peterson, actually gave instructions in a book that he wrote in the 1970’s on how to pick up a Saw-whet.  This bird is so committed to its defensive posture that according to Mr. Peterson, one can wiggle fingers in front of its face and with the other hand, from the rear, pick it up.  For years I had dreamed of holding a Saw-whet, but now, with the perfect opportunity, I wanted the photograph more!
            So I backed up a few feet, got my camera ready, stepped forward and bingo, a perfect Christmas Eve.

   Charles believed in serendipity.  He also believed that the world was an absurd, unfair place where Fortune smiled on some more than others simply because Fortune felt like it.  The saw-whet owl essay reveals his innate gift for appreciating his own modest good fortune and his natural compulsion to share it with others in a variety of ways.  Charles believed in sharing wealth in all its myriad of forms.  He was an atheist and a compassionate humanist––and he was, of course, in love with the natural world.  Talk to anyone who spent time with Charles in any venue and they will say that just to be in his presence was to feel comforted, encouraged, and uplifted.  This was so even to the end of his life.
     My brothers and I were with Charles two weeks before his death.  He was in an Upper West Side medical rehab facility (not far from Thelonious Sphere Monk Street, Charles pointed out.) The small ward scene was unsettling; four beds, three occupied. Next to Charles was Billy, a handsome 80-year-old former Broadway show dancer who had recently broken his neck in, of all things, a fall.  The graceful dancer was now a quadriplegic. He exhorted us to open his trunk full of artifacts related to his life and career and then regaled us with stories about his encounters, some quite intimate, with great stars of musical theater.  Next to Billy was David, who sat at the end of his bed, with wild white hair and beard, fully dressed for traveling, and anxious. He looked physically well and he occasionally peered out of his dementia to loudly appeal to anyone who came near to, “Take me home, right now!”  He spent most of every night in dialogue with unseen characters, especially someone named ‘Charlotte, dear’ beseeching them to retrieve him from that “wretched place.”  And, of course, there was Charles––gaunt and physically wracked with stage-four lymphoma, he still managed to illuminate the entire ward with his undimmed charm and presence.
     After my brothers had gone, Charles and I spent our last two hours together. Charles was reading the above essay from his recently assembled photo essay book titled, Owls. (Spurred by the rapid decline in his health, Charles had been busy for some time finishing essays and assembling the final collections of his essays and photos.  He had conscripted his closet friends to assist with the latter task, masterfully maneuvering them to finish his beloved projects while simultaneously keeping them from obsessing about his physical condition.) I sat looking across Charles’s bed out the window toward the sailboats and wheeling terns along the Hudson River.  My mind was occupied with recalling the excited phone call a couple of months earlier announcing the birth of this essay. And I had developed heartburn trying to find a moment to have a serious talk with Charles.
     He caught me off-guard with, “Look, Kid, I know what you want to talk about.  You just need to know that if I spend more than about five minutes thinking about dying, I will die.  So, with whatever I have left this is what I’ll be doing: I’ll be getting Billy to talk about his luscious life because that is what he loves to do and I am so entertained by it.  I want him to remember himself as he must always be, with his unbroken neck holding a beautiful face of one-third its eighty years and making great comical four-limbed leaps with no harsh critics, only critical awe. 
     I’ll make sure my physical therapist’s assistant knows her work matters; that her amens and testifying are a balm to me.
     And these beautiful orderlies from Haiti and other hard places are going to hear from me over and over that they are singular and that I so welcome their caring touch and lovely spirits.
     I want my physical therapist, Shourin, to teach me everything he can about his PhD study connecting human learning and piano playing because he loves to teach and his accent is pure music.  He loves Beckett, you know, so we are of a kind, he and I.
     Speaking of Beckett, I’m going to keep on writing a special play for David called “Waiting for Charlotte.”  He is our Estragon, you know, and she is his ‘Godot.’  I want to make his part in this madness important even if we can’t connect with him.  That dear man is right to be mad and is as mad as he is right.
     And more than ever I realize that we are lucky guys, you and I!  We have had such full and fortunate lives!  What a kick it has been, the whole thing.”


Craig said...

Steve. I'm sorry to learn of your mom's cancer. Please pass along that DeAnne and I will be praying for her during her treatment.

Cancer treatment has come a long way in the past 10 years. I hope your mom can benefit from the learnings.


PS - I'm really enjoying your writing, Steve.

Steve Kennedy said...

Thanks so much for your words of encouragement, Craig. It means a lot to me and I know it will mean a lot to Mom and the rest of the family.

ombsmith said...

Beautifully written, Steve. I spoke with your mom last night and she sounds just as upbeat and resilient as you say. My thoughts and love are with you all at this time; please let me know if I can be of any help in any way.


Steve Kennedy said...

Thanks so much, Marsinay. It's good to hear from you. I'm glad you checked in with Mom. We'll be sure to stay in touch. steve

Steve Kennedy said...
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Harvey said...

Spoke to your mom this morning and assured her that our thoughts and prayers are with her. We also spoke of all getting together in NYC after recovery.
All our best.
Ronni and Harvey