Looking back at these dispatches, I see that I have made Cancerland out to be a pretty grim place. And, for the most part, so it is, grim as Moscow in the bad old days, with in fact more than a few similarities. Here too there are lots of long corridors ending in windowless doors marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. And nowhere else, I think, do you see so very many of those bizarre yellow and black RADIATION signs tattooed on the walls.
But, to be a good reporter about this, the Republic of Cancer is not always and everywhere grim. There are oases hereabouts. For instance, before you go on the Petscan ride, while the barium you’ve had to drink seeps into your system, you are taken to one of many Quiet Rooms. Here you stretch out in a recliner, feet up, head back, with a nice clean white blanket over you and a pillow under your head. Once you get over the fear that you are being made ready for the embalmer, this is actually quite nice.
And then the trustees here (all those who mind, manage and mend the many involuntary Cancerlanders) are really quite wonderful to be around: chipper (fantastically, relentlessly chipper), bright, cheery, warm and encouraging. The milk of human kindness spills all over the goddamn place whenever they walk by.
Also, Cancerlanders do have their amusements and pastimes, the most popular of which is the Longevity Game, an activity for two or more players, in which each tries to outdo the rest by telling a hard-to-believe story of cancer survival.
My cousin knew a guy, doctor told him he had ten minutes to live, he’s still around now, forty years later, and just married an 18-year-old chick.
Yeah, well, my landlord’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in Nineteen Oh Four, and last week she ran in the Boston Marathon.
I myself play a variation of this game, but strictly in private. Haven’t ever given it a name, but I guess for current purposes Puzzling Lifespans would be okay.
I think of two people, one of whom clearly did not live long enough, and another who just as clearly lived far too long.
Take Zero Mostel and Rudolf Hess.
I have already had a year more of life than Zero Mostel ever would have. That is a real poser, at least to me. The world could certainly have used more of him, and he himself certainly seemed entitled to more.
And then, on the other hand, Rudolf Hess — Hitler’s opening act at mass rallies, his warm-up man, fercrissake — lived to be ninety-three, spending the last twenty years of that inexplicably long life as the only inmate at Spandau prison.
So one of the most richly gifted comic artists of all time gets sixty-two years, while a raving lunatic who helped Hitler take and keep murderous power in Germany, a man who said at the end of his war crimes trial in Nuremberg, “I regret nothing,” that man gets ninety-three years of life. And might have had more! He either killed himself (the official conclusion) or (as conspiracy-theorists have it) was murdered. Meaning that he was cut short at ninety-three. Whereas, to say this one more time, that genius Mostel’s aorta gave out at sixty-two.
I’m belaboring the point, I know, but I want to be clear: Zero Mostel, who was born nineteen years after Rudolf Hess, died ten years before him. In other words, from 1977 to 1987, the world was without Zero but still had crazy Rudolf in it, at Spandau, by himself.
The conclusion is unavoidable.
Be you deist, atheist, pantheist, agnostic…be you animist, satanist, warlock, wiccan — whatever you are, there is no escaping what these examples mean.
They mean that we get our allotment of years based on nothing at all.