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One especially fine afternoon in April 1997, I received two letters, both unexpected and each with contents that complicated the pleasures of the day. The first I opened was from Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. It invited me to give the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at the Seminary sometime in the coming autumn. Their only specification was a lecture on a freely chosen subject of interest to the students of such an institution. Lately, obliged to concentrate, I've declined opportunities to speak in churches or other religious institutions of whatever creed; so I folded the letter from Auburn and thought I'd surely decline it.
The second letter of that afternoon, however, was as compelling a communication as I've ever got. It was a blunt inquiry from a young man named Jim Fox a stranger to me who'd recently been forced to withdraw from medical school because of the recurrence in his body of an avid cancer. He had read a book of mine, A Whole New Life, published in 1994. It's a book that recounts my ordeal in the 1980s with spinal cancer. The young man's letter was of such a brief and un-self-pitying eloquence that despite my inadequacy in the face of its enormous questions about the existence of God and the nature of God's care, if any, for his creatures I knew I had no choice but to answer it.
Haste was plainly called for, so I responded quickly and no doubt helplessly in a single telephone contact. That helplessness left me feeling, before the week passed, that I should take the opportunity of the Rudin lecture at Auburn and make myself face the young man's questions more thoughtfully and at greater length. I'd write the lecture as a longer reply to my young correspondent. I accepted Auburn's offer then, began to read and think; and I continued sporadic correspondence by e-mail with the young man through the summer as his health seemed to worsen. We were hundreds of miles apart, had never met; and our brief exchanges were unconcerned with his first big questions. But I hoped that these simple exchanges might say the better part of what I meant on the matters that troubled him.
In the summer he sent me the manuscripts of a few short stories he'd written. They expressed a watchful eye and a patent intelligence, but I was unable to think they were publishable. I suggested instead, and honestly, that I suspected his fruitful subject would be his ordeal. There is still a very slender body of readable witness from the endurers and survivors of the kind of scalding he knew so intimately. His next note seemed to take my suggestion in good spirit. All the while, I was reading and making notes for the letter I intended for him and for Auburn. Unsure that I'd have even the scaffolding of an interesting response, I delayed telling him of my plan or its progress.
In the early fall, he wrote to say that he'd decided against returning to medical school for the coming term. A new form of treatment was proving hard. That news hastened me forward in my plan. It seemed better that he see my letter than that Auburn get its lecture. Midway through the fall, then, when I'd finished what felt like a presentable draft and before I risked intruding on a man in more trouble than I knew I wrote to my correspondent. No answer. Soon I tried phoning again, in the attempt to invite him to New York for the lecture and the dinner that would follow. At the very least, I hoped to send him my manuscript; but though his pleasant taped voice still spoke on his answering machine, he made no contact in return.
Since his home was far off, and I knew no one among his family and friends, I saw no other immediate choice; and on November 3rd 1997, I read that initial draft of my letter at Auburn Seminary to a courteous audience of students, faculty, and guests. In a brief introduction, I told the audience of my correspondent's April letter; and when I'd completed the reading, I replied to a question about his present condition by saying that I honestly feared he was dead. Once home, I phoned again. No reply beyond his taped calm voice.
Saddened that a stranger who for months had been so near the midst of my thoughts that he'd come to seem a friend should have vanished, I resolved to return to work at once, expanding and clarifying the letter in the hope that, failing to reach its original aim, the text might find some use in the hands of others. Additions have more than doubled the length of the draft I read at Auburn. It's longer now than anything I'd have risked volunteering to send to a gravely ill person. But its shape, its tenor, and its steady concern for two large questions remain unchanged. Its title is the merest acknowledgment of my friend's hope and the failure that I must have added to so many others he experienced.
As I was at work on this final draft, I felt the compulsion to know his news at least this unseen man who'd caught my attention. Yet there was, after all, the chance of the slow but extraordinary kind of recovery that I and some others had experienced. If that had occurred, then all I'd written should at least have the light of his rescue raked backward across it. So I made another call in early December and again reached his tape.
Baffled and beginning to wonder if his family had somehow kept the recorded voice intact after his death, I left another request that he phone me. By then I was allowing for the possibility that, whatever his health, he might have regretted the request he'd made and no longer wished to talk with me. Unknowingly, I might have failed some expectation he'd had in making first contact eight months earlier.
But that night I received a call from a friend of his, a woman who said that he'd asked her to phone me. Through her, he sent me greetings but told me of his reluctance to talk. His friend spoke of a rapid decline and deep depression and said that she could not imagine his "making it far into the new year." He had told me, in our only phone conversation, that he'd entered medical school after several years on Wall Street, but I hadn't wanted to ask his age.
I was familiar, from my own dark time, with such a reticence in lives under active assault. It often flows from a shutting down on all other concerns and distractions except the still hard glint of survival. The focus on that glint can blank all else and can often prove crucial in the hope to last. That radical clear aim can also become a serene death watch. In the face of such news then, I felt that to send the letter so late might border on cruelty. I knew that few of its ideas would seem new to a well-read adult, but a number of my questions and suggestions are hardly conventional consolation. So I sent him my best hopes through the woman. Then I wrote him briefly of the service he'd done me with his questions, and I mentioned having read the letter at Auburn.
If he'd had the strength, the need, or the patience to read it, I'd have sent it on; but I heard nothing more till Jim's friend phoned again on February 24th '98 to tell me of his death the previous day. She'd been right. He hadn't made it far into the new year, and he'd died at the age of thirty-five. She said that except for a few last unconscious days he died as himself, closely tended by his family and in his own home.
No other response can stand for the one I didn't receive. In one large sense, I'm left in the baffling silence of one hand beating the empty air my lone hand oaring in the wake of a friend's departure. I'm unlikely, soon if ever, to know his estimate of the sanity or the wasteful folly of the time I've spent or the words I've ventured (the recommendations for further reading, listening, and looking were added after Jim's death). But I'm surely grateful for his willingness to reach out on the near-edge of a stark abyss and honor me with his questions the largest of all. Subsequent thanks go to the faculty and staff of Auburn Seminary for their welcome in November 1997, to Jack and Lewis Rudin for their generosity in establishing the ongoing lecture series, and to Carolyn Reidy, Susan Moldow, Nan Graham, Frank Lentricchia, David Aers, Daniel Voll, Eric Larson, and Harriet Wasserman, who made helpful suggestions and encouraged its publication. After my correspondent's death, his sister Mary contacted me generously. She has since told me much of her brother's vivid life; and she's given me a picture of him, taken only eight months before his death. The face is almost startling in the boldness with which his Celtic blue eyes and bold jaw confront the world still with a watchful readiness, no trace of fear.
Copyright © 1999 by Reynolds Price