In 1984 a large cancer was discovered in Reynolds Price's spinal cord. Here he recounts without self-pity what became a long struggle to withstand and recover from this appalling, if all too common, affliction. He charts the first puzzling symptoms; the urgent surgery that fails to remove the growth and radiation that temporarily arrests it; the trials of rehab; the steady rise of severe pain and reliance on drugs; the sustaining force of a certain religious vision; the discovery of help from biofeedback and hypnosis; and the miraculous return of his powers as a writer in a new, active life.
Beyond the particulars of pain and illness, Price tells of his determination to get on with human interaction, the gratitude he feels toward kin and friends and some (though by no means all) doctors, and the return to his prolific work.
More than the portrait of one brave person in tribulation, A Whole New Life offers honest insight, realistic encouragement, and inspiration to others who suffer the bafflement of catastrophic illness or know someone who does or will.
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About the Author
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
Read an Excerpt
So far it had been the best year of my life. In love and friendship I was lavishly endowed. I'd recently published a new play -- my twelfth book in the twenty-two years since my first, A Long and Happy Life. They'd all been received more generously than not by the nation's book journalists and buyers. I'd been steadily rewarded with understanding readers of many kinds; and I'd earned a sizable income from a brand of work that was mostly deep pleasure in the doing. For twenty-six years I'd also taught English literature and narrative writing at Duke University. The annual one semester's work with good students was not a financial necessity for me but a test of sanity against the touchstone of merciless young minds. I'd lived for nearly two decades, alone by choice, in an ample house by a pond and woods that teemed with wildlife; and in February I'd turned fifty-one, apparently hale.
The previous fall, October '83, I'd gone with a friend to Israel. It was my second visit in three years to a place that had fed my curiosity since childhood and was promising now to enter my work. To save at least some of the goodness of the year, I'd begun to keep a daybook called Days and Nights. It consisted of quickly written poems, each triggered by some aspect of the pile-up of happiness and recompense in the long calm days. By the spring of 1984 I'd finished the first third of my sixth novel, Kate Vaiden.
But as the son of a father who'd always doubted his rare good luck and who died at fifty-four, I'd begun to hear occasional ominous chords. In all the elation of recent months, I somehow knew I was on a thin-aired precipice. Iknew I'd come down gently or hard; and by early April the daybook poems, more alert than I, were well aware that an end was near. One poem called "Caw" even sounds a knell for the run of luck.
Splayed face-down on the last pool of sleep,
I'm gaffed by caw-caw from one distant crow.
What Roman would rise to face this day?
Half an hour later I loom at the pond window,
Glum while my two globes of barnyard cholesterol
Gurgle behind me in salt-free fat
To the tune of the radio voice of charles Simic
Who suddenly flings out a cold crow poem.
What human would join me to face this day?
But I barely listened to the curious warnings, and the next few poems are about new love. My main response to the racing days still had to be thanks, thanks and the care to save these memories against an ending.
Then on a clear day in mid-April, I was walking through the crowded Duke campus with a friend and colleague, George Williams, a man more watchful than most. After a few silent yards, he said "Why are you slapping your left foot on the pavement?"
I laughed at what seemed a rare error in his observations and said that I wasn't -- I was wearing thong sandals that tended to shuffle. But I took a few more steps and heard he was right. This was no shuffle; I was lifting my left foot higher than usual and slapping it stiffly down on the pavement. If I thought the motion was more than odd at the time, I didn't act on it or begin to worry.
A few days later in my neighborhood video-rental store, I was laughing with the manager about our mutual plight as temperance fiends in a nation drunk on exercise. She said she'd started to jog at home on a stationary platform beside the TV. On the spot I tried to jog a few steps in place. My right leg wouldn't flex back off the floor. I could easily pull the foot backward with my hand and touch it to the back of my thigh, but on its own it couldn't respond to a mental command -- couldn't or wouldn't? Before I could register puzzlement, my friend said "You're even worse off than me."
We laughed and dropped it, but later that day I phoned the cardiovascular-health unit at Duke to ask about joining a new middle-aged exercise group in which a few of my contemporaries were already thumping and jerking and lunching on sprouts.
And that same evening I started at least to face what I believed was the problem. I was just past fifty-one years old, weighing 167 -- thirty pounds more than I'd weighed in high school. In measuring my height recently, I'd discovered that I'd somehow lost an inch -- I was now five-nine. Age was firmly staking its claims; I was starting to soften. For several years, when walking down stairs, I'd felt a sense of risky balance -- I'd sometimes even take the arm of the person beside me -- but I chalked that queasiness up to the bifocal glasses I'd worn in recent years.
Over the past months I'd also noticed a slowing down in sexual need and exertions; and though that need had won me a large part of the pleasures of my life, oddly the slowing didn't alarm me. I didn't feel unmanned, I didn't feel compelled to retire prematurely from an ongoing joy, I felt a natural change under way and was ready to let it define its course. Then in roaming the steep hills of Israel, I'd damaged the cartilage in one of my knees, but that eased quickly once I was home and took a few weeks of an anti-inflammatory drug.
From memories of my own father's early fifties, and from watching older male friends through the years, I'd assumed such losses came with the territory. Hadn't Father often fulminated that "These damned bifocals will kill me yet"; and hadn't my mother always said "After forty, it's maintenance, maintenance, maintenance"? Well, now I'd need to admit there were problems and begin to confront them. But the prospect of regular huffing and puffing with squads of garrulous heart-attack survivors in designer sweat suits was hardly beckoning, so I pushed the unattractive details of the cardiac-health unit to the back of my desk. Drastic remedies didn't seem called for. I'd handled this aging body on my own.
On my own had been the motto of most of my life -- in exercise, in work and much else. As a boy who spent his early childhood with no brothers or sisters and no playmates, I'd missed an early exposure to communal games. My pastimes were mostly solitary. And once we moved into town among other boys when I was in the third grade, I was soon aware not only of my inexperience on teams but also of a full set of butterfingers at the ends of both arms. I caught and threw badly; and after a burst of hard play, I'd often need to stand very still till my jumbled vision and whirling head could take their bearings. By the age of nine, with the private help of an older boy, I'd grown into a dependable touch-football lineman, a middling batter in softball; and later I became a roller-skate ace; but I loved none of them and was often the last team-member chosen from a motley pool. So once I was past compulsory gym class in high school and college, I gladly quit the playing fields.
Even in the bone-chilling torpor of my graduate years in the Thames valley of England, where I'd gone on a scholarship that expected physical vigor of me, exercise was never more strenuous than the odd walk or occasional swim. Generally I saw both activities as pointless interruptions of all that mattered, which were love and work -- friends often called me "The Great Indoorsman." And now, by the early eighties, the exercise fads of the 1970s were alarmingly widespread. In the late seventies I'd bought my first pair of running shoes and glumly circled my big upper pasture for a few months at the urging of an orthopedist whom I consulted about a stiff lower back. But I soon gave in to the boredom and bugs and retired the shoes. Surely this new flock of driven joggers and jerkers were insuring a future of agonized joints. Why not take comfort in the memory of my numerous kin on both sides of my family? They'd been virtually motionless through long lives yet were clearheaded straight to their fully dressed deaths.
Reading Group Guide
1. Price's account of the medical community is often devastating, while differentiating the care provided by physicians from that of nurses and other therapists. Why are many physicians unable to respond to their patients in a human way?
2. Does knowledge of the various stages of the grief process actually help when you are grieving? How can we use this knowledge to better help us deal with crises?
3. How do we deal with both the physical and psychological pain in our lives? Is pain and suffering the result of some wrongdoing on the part of the sufferer?
4. The author attempted to control the pain of cancer through the use of metaphors or pictorial language. How important do you think Price's ability to describe his condition was to his eventual recovery?
5. The "whole new life" that Reynolds Price built was an aesthetic creation consisting of literature, poetry, music, art, humor and laughter. Do you think of these aesthetics as luxuries or as basic necessities of life? How can the aesthetic play a greater part in our own daily lives?
6. Dreaming was crucial to Price's recovery. How do our dreams affect our lives? How can we learn to listen and respect our day dreams as well?
7. Like the author, we all must rebuild our lives after tragedy strikes. How do we go about this process? What do we need to be told and by whom? What support do we need?
8. Throughout his ordeal, Price is sustained by faith. How does his relationship with God change, if at all, as a result of his illness?
9. Price would not press his doctors about the details of his illness, acknowledging that "on balance I think the choice of a high degree of ignorance proved good for me." Do you agreewith his approach? How might the outcome have differed if he had more information? What would your preference be?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reynolds Price has taken the devastation of acute and chronic illness and given it a unique perspective, one of acceptance of the disease that is trying to destroy him, and in fact, reverence for said disease. This book is a fascinating read and a tribute to Reynolds Price's huge talent as a writer. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is a 'searcher' on the path of spiritual understanding, as well as for anyone with chronic illness, for whom Price wrote this book.