Writing In The Face Of Death


Even when David Lehman can barely walk, he can write, and he can listen.

Throughout the three years of his struggle with bladder cancer, he writes every day. He has crafted those paragraphs and pages into “One Hundred Autobiographies” (Cornell University Press), a stirring memoir that unfolds in 100 short chapters.

The title was a gift from a friend, the poet Mark Strand, who told Lehman that he wanted to write a memoir called “One Hundred Autobiographies.” In 2014, when both Strand and Lehman were battling cancer, Strand told his friend that he could have the title “if he didn’t get there first.” Strand died later that year.

Lehman is a distinguished poet, writer, literary critic, teacher and anthologist who divides his time between New York City and upstate Ithaca. Among his many books of poetry are “New and Selected Poems,” “Yeshiva Boy” and “The Evening Sun,” which was part of his five-year-long project of writing a poem a day. He inaugurated and edits “The Best American Poetry” series, and also published nonfiction works including “The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets” and “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs.” A prolific writer, he contributes a regular column to The American Scholar.

In the summer of 2014, Lehman is in pain and senses that something is wrong. Cancer is the last thing on his mind. He is sent to a series of doctors and undergoes many painful procedures before being diagnosed. And then there are more tests, surgery, other procedures, some redone a number of times; he is at times on the edge of life.

He describes chemotherapy as “a preferred modern term for the valley of the shadow of death.” He writes, “During my descent into that lonesome valley, I found that writing every day, no matter how bad the pain, was one way I had to keep myself going.”

Now, he still faces many complications, but is cancer free — “good for the doctors and good for me.”

“The doctors are right to make you feel that the cure is provisional. It’s wise so that you don’t get complacent. You have to keep monitoring it. I’m well-tutored in the frailties of the human body as it grows older. Anything can happen,” he says in an interview at the Century Club in Manhattan.

There have been many cancer memoirs, by both those gripped with the disease and by their caregivers; some dwell on science, others on emotions; they project hope, grief and loss in different configurations. Lehman’s memoir pulses with life and memory. At times, he describes the progression of the disease and his treatments, the loving care and the caustic remarks (“Hey, I didn’t think you were going to make it,” a young doctor says), and then he might make a connection to earlier days or cultural references, like a Clint Eastwood movie, a reimagined Sholem Aleichem story (“an homage,” he says), a book by Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano or, often, a melody, whether Ray Charles or the Gershwins. From one short chapter to the next, there are links, some quite subtle.

Lehman grew up in an Orthodox family in Washington Heights. His father, who was born in Furth, Germany, was a businessman whose true passion was Talmud. Lehman says that he still loves to sing and chants a bit of liturgy — in a room where it probably has never been heard. After studying at Breuer’s yeshiva in Washington Heights and Stuyvesant High School, he went on to Columbia University and the University of Cambridge in England, leaving Orthodoxy behind. He was, he explains, “seduced by America.”

His prose is honest, sometimes playful. He revisits baseball games with his father, or adventures in Europe as a young man, or dreamscapes. He imagines a time he might choose to return to if it were possible and the lives he “could have lived but didn’t.” And he lies in bed and imagines the world without him.

With a poet’s eye for detail, he notices the cheerful screensavers on the nurses’ computers, and the tender ways wives and mothers fuss over their loved ones getting chemotherapy. His own wife is a rock of strength in caring for him. One friend drives from New York City to Syracuse to drive David and his wife back to Ithaca, and then returns to the city in the early morning after pruning their trees.

He describes the book as “a fake memoir,” as he mixes in some fiction. He explains, “I believe the book is true, but there are obvious deviations from fact.

“I tried hard to entertain the reader,” he says. “I tried to be as optimistic and uplifting as possible.”

Lehman, who belongs to a downtown Conservative synagogue, tells a story of meeting a very special Chabad rabbi, who was also a cancer patient, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. The rabbi invited Lehman to daven with him and use his tefillin.

“I felt a spiritual connection to him. I can’t explain. A really important thing happened to me. I will never forget it. I just wish he were still alive.”

In conversation, Lehman turns to God and says, “I believe in God. I feel very close to God. Apparently, I haven’t fulfilled all that is expected of me. Here I am.

“I’m grateful to God and to American medical practice that I’m still on this earth.”

Another extraordinary and unusual book about, among other things, a cancer struggle, “Letters from Max: A Poet, A Teacher, A Friendship” by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo (Milkweed Editions) is a collection of letters between Ruhl, a playwright, and Ritvo, a poet who had been her student at Yale while in remission from pediatric cancer. Over four years, as his health declined, they shared spirited letters filled with love, wisdom, emotion, poetry, complexity, literary themes and the practical details of life. This is a gorgeous book exploring life and death, art and friendship; its power lingers. Ritvo died much too young, at 26, in 2016.