In the Summer of 2009 I began to notice that I was becoming slightly winded as I went up the stairs, and that a profound fatigue was beginning to nestle into my body.
On the next visit to Dr. Wolf in June of 2009, he mentioned I was becoming more anemic and he wanted to see me again in a month.
I returned a month later to see that I had become even more anemic, and he informed me it was important to immediately start chemotherapy. As I went through the process of having many tests before treatment, I began to get more and more fatigued, until when the therapy actually began a week later I was close to needing a blood transfusion.
And so it began. I just avoided needing a transfusion as I responded very well to therapy. I began to actually feel much better and I went through a six month course of infusions without losing my humor or my hair. Ironically my hair stubbornly refused to fall out, which was a surprise and good news to all.
Over the last few years I have had two more treatments for reasons I won’t bore you with but at the moment all is well.
As I wonder to myself about the silver lining to my illness, for example, shouldn’t it make me re-evaluate my life, or change direction, refocus my efforts, change my priorities, or simply appreciate life for it’s beauty every day, I find actually that none of this has happened.
But do not feel any sorrow or pity for me because as I have gone through these last years with its many ups and downs, I have realized in most ways I am living the life I want. Sure I would love to have more time to spend with my wife, visit friends more, achieve more acclaim, see my son more, but if I look at my life as a whole, as the life I have actually lived for these past 45 years, I find I am doing what I want. I am living the life I dreamed about, I am resting as much as I need, and most of all I don’t think I would change much.
Continually reflecting on my decision making with the help of guidance over these past years has helped me choose the life I wanted to live then and not waiting for something traumatic to happen to make that change.
So as the world turns, and I along with it, I wonder what I will meet along the way. But with the past that I have chosen and hope for the future, I find myself looking forward to the road I must travel ahead.
The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.
And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the starts down into loneliness.
We are all falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.
And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
By Rainer Maria Rilke
The Book of Pictures, I
It began with a small whimper
One morning while in my early fifties I had a simple flu and went to the local clinic for some medicine and comfort. By now I had mostly expunged my dreaded fear of doctors, and although still very trepidatious, I was able to overcome my resistance, and forge my way forward to seeing doctors.
It had been some years since my first encounter with doctors and physicals, and I now found my fears of sickness and doctors slowly dissipating. In fact, I was actually beginning to feel myself in good physical and mental health.
While at the local, clinic the doctor made a routine check of my blood to evaluate whether the illness was viral or bacterial, and to his surprise my white blood counts were very high.
He was quite sure there was something wrong with his machine (as he had had problems in the past) and asked me just to return in a few days to check my condition out further.
I’m not exactly sure of what happened next, but I do remember going to see an internist in Manhattan.
At this point in my life both in story and reality there was and is no going back. For years I have debated whether I should be telling you what I am about to unfold. For years I’ve kept this information mostly private except for friends, associates, neighbors, and a few others, so I’m not sure what purpose it serves to disclose it now, but then again I have tried to provide full disclosure. And with this promise as my guide, I am now proceeding to tell all.
When the internist evaluated my blood he became quite alarmed and nervous. For an hour he was trying to figure out what malady I might have that wasn’t that serious, all the time fearing that I was quite sick. Interestingly enough as I noticed he was getting more and more agitated and probably quite concerned I noticed I was becoming calmer. My blood pressure probably went from off the roof to normal. How could this be? All my life up to this point, I had imagined this moment and dreaded it. These fears had paralyzed me for a good part of my existence, and here it was happening right before me, and as the doctor was becoming more and more concerned I became calmer. How do I explain this?
I remember him commenting about how peculiar it was that I should be calm when most people would be so nervous. In conclusion he recommended that I have a biopsy of one of my lymph nodes to see what malignancy I had.
My wife (Leslie), and I left his office in a stupor. I was totally confused as I felt fine. Leslie’s father who was one of the wisest men I knew, strongly suggested I should not get a biopsy until I met with a hematologist.
At this point I began to change from continually fearing sickness to believing I now truly was, but instead of becoming immobile and paralyzed as I always had feared, somewhere I began to find strength.
We went to visit my college friend Michael, who I had rarely seen, because he was a doctor, and I was terrified of him. Luckily, he knew me well, and immediately saw us and helped us begin to figure out a strategy. I was also lucky that Michael is very smart and a very distinguished doctor so I was ready and able to take his advice. He told me quite bluntly, in agreement with Leslie’s father, that before doing anything, I should see a Hematologist who he recommended. And so began my relationship with Dr. Wolf.
On my first visit he did extensive blood work and a bone-marrow exam, and came back to us after examining my cells and told me I have chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
By being chronic rather than acute it can stand watching and doing nothing for some time. I am told my immune system is greatly compromised, and I must be very careful about getting sick as my system has a hard time curing itself, but otherwise there was nothing to be done at that time.
So this is the way it was for some years. My lymph glands were the size of oranges and I had some fatigue, but otherwise I was fine. I became a regular at Dr. Wolf seeing him every three months, until four years ago when things began to change.
Until next week.
As noted in the past, on a peaceful summers midday afternoon in August 1972 my father collapsed in a restaurant in Manhattan while having lunch with some associates.
Just like a sudden snap of a falling majestic oak tree, he collapsed and died instantly. For years afterwards I too was sure I was dying without him. I invested in every conceivable malady sure this was the one that would bring me down. I was convinced that the bind that tied me to my father was unbreakable, and that without his strength and power to protect me, I would fail miserably.
My early adult life was filled with anxiety and hypochondria, which surrounded my conscious life with failure and sickness. Deep down though in the very private unconscious realm that resides within us all, I was surviving, progressing, and actually flourishing as a photographer.
From my early childhood, and especially in my adult life I was terrified of doctors. What might they discover by their probing tools and penetrating eyes on this weak and frail person. Just a thought of visiting a doctor ignited an anxiety attack. For years I simply avoided doctors. I was easily able to talk in front of hundreds of people, but seeing a lone doctor for an annual physical was out of the question. Standing naked and vulnerable in front of a doctor who was more knowledgeable about health and sickness than me was terrifying. Face to face confrontation was simply tortuous. If I let someone in, all they would find would be a failing sick person who was hiding under the veneer of health.
For me a visit to a doctor was even more emotionally intimate and revealing than physical intimacy with a woman, although being close and intimate is what I have most craved and needed my whole life. I was filled, even overwhelmed with desire and attraction but so fearful of it. My early adult life was so confused and anxious that real intimacy was mostly a dream and hope rather than a realization.
But not in my pictures. It was with my camera that I began to find intimacy. With a camera, I responded to this sick frail person I perceived myself to be, with a strong YES. The pictures were strong, powerful, and invincible.
I see it all now, all so clearly. I truly understand with over forty years of introspection with a doctor in New Haven. I took my mothers love, and it’s perceived withdrawal because of her sickness, and I then attached all the guilt I felt in the belief that my strength was the fault. If I remained frail, sick, and did not stick out too far by being overly assertive or strong then everything would be alright. I could keep things under control. I needed her love so badly that I would even take her sickness on to me. I would do anything to keep her alive. and well even if it destroyed and changed me. So at age five I turned a powerful vibrant smart young boy into a sickly failure for all to see. How could a mother abandon a child so in need of her love. I thought my strength was killing her and I changed everything to keep her alive. Instead of accepting my new state internally, I was always unconsciously fighting it with ruthless determination. This conflict in the end led to years and years of enormous anxiety.
Then I remarried at age forty, started a new life, and things began to change. As my fiftieth birthday loomed closer on the horizon this wife of mine insisted that I didn’t need my head examined anymore but that “now it was the time to get physical”. No matter how much I feared it. It was now time to have an extensive physical exam. My psyche was in good shape but how about my body. For me it was now time to open up and finally find out what was wrong with me. I was now going to let some doctor probe, inject, and look closely into my being and my heart (which I was sure was failing) and face my fears straight on.
So one Spring we went off to the Pritikin Institute for a thorough physical and the start of a new lean diet. I was finally going to face all my fears. I was going to let my father die. So with the help of many Valiums and enormous encouragement of friends and family I set off on an adventure of a lifetime.
This is just the beginning but until next week it is the END.
Forget dinner in Singapore until next year, we have dinner right here in the good old USA.
Everything is as it should be, except for one small minor detail. Instead of turning up the heat, preparing the hearths for Yuletide fires, we are turning on the air conditioning.
Except for the bizarre fact that it is hot when it should be cold we are in a frantic pace, to prepare ourselves, our home, and our lives for what lies ahead.
This is our early winter, pre spring, Christmas activity. The house is abuzz with activity. All engines are humming along with a nice sonorous tis the season… as we prepare not for Babettes Feast but rather for our annual Christmas Roast.
Savannah, our daughter, is home for the holidays, and is baking every conceivable concoction of desert including a Yule log, a Bourbon pumpkin cheesecake, a red velvet bunt cake, a chocolate buttermilk cake, and various pies.
Since she has been surviving on college food for the last months her mind has obviously wondered off into the land of fanciful deserts, which she is fulfilling in the days before Christmas.
She has taken over the kitchen in preparation for her all-nighters of baking. There is flour sifting everywhere, moulds, cake pans, bunt pans, and pie pans being greased and caressed. Even our bird Melody is humming Christmas carols along with Savannah as she dons her apron singing I’m dreaming of a white Christmas while it is 70 degrees outside and focuses on her tasks ahead.
There is the aroma of Bourbon and pumpkin wafting through the house and as I make my way into the kitchen there are endless mounds of butter, flour, sugar, and chocolate. Enough good food to give any good set of eyes and nose good cheer.
Outside the final leaves are being raked, the lawn pristine with dew, the gravel driveway is being raked and manicured for our guests.
Inside the tree is glowing with decorations, and mysteriously mounds of presents seem to find there way under the tree.
The couches are being vacuumed, windows are being cleaned, beds are being made and slowly the house begins to shine its Christmas best.
And now we prepare the table for the feast. The handmade linen tablecloth is carefully ironed and with all hands on deck, is carefully placed perfectly over the large dining table.
Next my mother’s Royal Copenhagen china from the early 1950s is carefully placed around the table along with the silver tableware. The wine and water glasses are placed by each serving. The silver candlesticks are carefully placed in the center of the table, and beautiful flowers are placed throughout the house. Often there is the smell of peony, lilac, vibrant tulips, lush hydrangeas, and exotic roses perfuming the Christmas Feast.
Special wine has been selected and the house begins to shine with all its glory as it prepares to welcome those who come for this special feast.
As Christmas day approaches I love the smell of the fir Christmas tree and the decanted red wine. I love seeing my wife and daughter cooking, laughing tasting together in the kitchen. I love our housekeeper scurrying along with great purpose as we all prepare to carve the roast and give thanks that there still are traditions and values worth preserving, that in the preparation of a great feast one can find beauty and great purpose.
For me as I sit down to Christmas dinner and give thanks, to the year before, I relish the traditions that I still implore and hope that as we make our way into the next year we are able to hold on to some of the life we knew before. Happy Holidays to you all! Until next year.
We arrived at the terminal at 9:30PM on our day of departure for a late night eighteen hour nonstop flight to Singapore. We were off to participate in an opening of my work at the FOST Gallery in Singapore. Leslie, my wife was convinced that leaving late at night was a good thing. We would arrive at the airport already tired, and we would simply get on the plane and sleep our way luxuriously to Singapore.
I, on the other hand, was not so sure. I am a morning day person, grumpy and irritable at night, and was not sure how well I would do with the window blinds closed for the whole flight. We were traversing the world flying east in eighteen hours of continual night.
At 11PM sharp we departed on a large Singapore airlines plane, converted to only one luxurious class, and off we went on an adventure, my feet will never forget.
As we began our long travel we relaxed into a four hour dinner, and despite consuming alcohol, drugs, and wishful thinking I found myself unable to sleep but rather staring at the flight-map for eighteen hours as we slowly made our way across Europe, all across Russia, down the edge of Iran, through the entire length of India, down further past Thailand, and lastly finally touching down at the immaculately, clean, precise, and ultramodern airport of Singapore. The third world may be all around you but you are in an oasis of first world modernity.
For eighteen hours I had not blinked once watching the TV map progress ever so slowly in front of me. I was totally transfixed. I knew as well as the pilot our longitude and latitude at every given minute. I was a sitting GPS. Unlike all the intelligent people on the plane, who had slept luxuriously flat on a bed made by stewardesses, I had remained upright, for some unknown reason, for the entire flight. Everyone arrived ready to go. I arrived ready to sleep.
No wonder I arrived in Singapore with spots in my eyes. These little black spots floating across my vision, I am convinced started by staring at the map for eighteen hours.
We were met at the hotel by our most gracious hostesses, who for the duration of our stay made every effort to be our companions and take care of our every wish. Here I was surrounded by two young beautiful gracious Asian women, who took care of me. What could be better for an old man like me. It was pure bliss.
Every day the question would be. Do I need a foot massage, a back massage, a leg massage, a nap, a meal, or anything else that they could do to make our stay pleasant and memorable. The art of hosting and graciousness is definitely not lost in the East. Woe to America.
Every day as the clock struck 2PM it was time for our daily reflexology. We would be ushered into a quiet store, where women would message and rub intimately your toes, your ankles, and oh those aching legs.
For 60 to 90 minutes my legs where caressed as I blissfully napped off into total ecstasy. People often say the stomach is the way to a man’s heart. Who knew it really is through his toes. I was in pure heaven.
After an hour of near orgasm I was ready to be fed, napped, and then ready to take on the Singapore world. I had interviews with magazines, newspapers, and radio stations. I met with wonderful clients, went to the gallery, and prepared for the opening.
We had dinners with friends, clients, prospective clients, and met friends at their homes for dinner. During our stay I traversed from one end of Singapore to the next.
The opening was a success and a few days later we continued our journey east, this time in daylight watching my map every step of the way until finally landing in New York where it all began.
But there is a subplot to this story of traveling so far East that it actually meets the West.
On the road to Singapore I met a man and his wife who had me to dinner. And what a dinner it was. Stay tuned.
Death ends a life, but not a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution . . .
Robert Anderson I Never Sang for My Father
You can see it in many of my pictures. It’s there below the surface, residing often in the very molecules that comprise the image. Deep below the whimsy, and the joy is a loneliness, a slow whiff of sadness and an everlasting melancholy.
Although I am shouting yes to life, to goodness, to beauty, and exalting on the wonders of our existence, I am forever fighting a looming large and very dark presence that is saying No.
It’s as if my pictures are my response. They are my strong defiance, even my “ruthless determination” to refuse or accept the verdict that I am a large No.
My response to these very deep lingering feelings tells a personal story that was only partially played out in reality. The pictures tell a story of triumph, joy, and are filled with hope, when in my own personal history this partial triumph over despair, this anger that fueled my determination to find a small yes and overcome this great No, was only played out in a small office, deeply alone with only the help of one doctor in New Haven Connecticut over many many troubling and confusing years.
It ended and started one very late morning in the early Spring of 1968. I was home for Spring Break in my junior year of college, and for some reason my father and I were alone together in New York City for a day.
I don’t remember where it started but somewhere, some morning, outside of our Manhattan apartment my father got very angry at me. You would think that by this time in my life I could handle his disappointment and annoyance at me, but even at this ripe old age of twenty-one I still was unsure where to place his disappointment with me. Was I to accept his stated and unstated view of me, or was I to fight back with all the rage that was lodging in every anxious and fearful sinew in my body.
By now I had excelled at things he knew nothing about. I was an A student, an academic, a boy of confused and smoldering ideas with feelings that had no place to go, especially where they belonged. I was engaged to be married into a world somewhat distinct and removed from my own, but still I felt unacceptable and unequal to this diminutive man, who remained a very dark towering presence standing mightily over me.
For a few hours after breakfast while I tagged along with him as he did some errands, my anger smoldered and churned within me. For as many years as I could remember I had never once stood up to this man, fought him fairly in battle. The odds had always been on his side. Today I was going to change that.
In the past I had quietly gone my own way, looking like the obedient son but rebelling in my interests, my loves, and in my thoughts. I looked like the dutiful son but who was I really?
By the time we returned to the apartment in the late morning I had finally after twenty-one years of a lingering, agonizing, deep seated anger intwined with tremendous fears and anxieties finally reached my tipping point.
When we got back he noted with disdain something I had done wrong when in fact I had done nothing. I started to say something that now reflected all the years of silent self-destroying resentment that was contained in my soul. Just as I started to raise my voice in rage to sing my song of rebellion, my fathers voice came down on me like a sledge hammer. He became furious, dismissed me abruptly and walked away angry.
For hours I fumed and he in his fashion spoke nothing to me. Finally some hours later, with the battle lost before it even really began, I apologized, he nodded and never spoke again of our encounter.
On this same Spring Break in 1968 I went to see the permanent collection of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sealed my fate. It was there on that early spring day that I realized that I wanted to be a photographer and immerse my soul far away from any control he had over me.
So in the end I found my special voice and I was able to scream at the top of my lungs not at him but for him. To this day I am still begging for this man, my father, to notice me, and to see me for all I am worth and to realize finally I am worthy of his love.
Two years later my father was dead. I was left with forty years of trying to find a way to come to grips with the complicated man I called Dad.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all.