War Stories

By Tony Gorry

father-son-gorry1

Ed note: Scroll the “page within a page” with the inner scroll bar (below) to read Tony’s essay, originally published in War, Literature and The Arts, vol.24, 2012.  Reprinted by permission.  Scroll using the scroll bar to the far right to read the other parts of Tony’s memoirs. Your comments are welcome.

 

Postscript

In the two years since I published War Stories, I have wandered in ominous terrain. Not war-torn Troy or France, but the dark regions of chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. Stigmata testify to my body’s suffering. Loss of hair, skin blotches, stiffness, and newly prominent veins tell of an inner war within. As does my stooping posture, a consequence of so many steroids for so long. But a fragile truce now prevails.

My father and the poet inspired me. They taught me about living in the face of death. With their guidance, here is what I taught myself.

My illness had come to me alone. And the path was mine alone to walk. Family and friends could ease the trek, and perhaps my doctors could lift some of its burdens, but only I would meet my fate. Death might well wait around the next turn, but agonizing wouldn’t chase it away. If I thought that moaning would scare off death, I’d devote my days to complaining. Or to praying, if that would do the trick. But wishes and fears regarding tomorrow are like leeches. Left unchecked, they will suck the present dry.

I recall an old banner from the sixties. “Be Here Now,” it admonished. I’ve found that attention to the present moment, like a candle, illuminates the doings of my everyday life. It wavers in inevitable moments of doubt and fear, but it never fully dims, even in the shadow of death. So here I am with my family and friends, with my teaching and writing. Moment by moment…

Of his illness, Tony further explains: “[I was] diagnosed with leukemia 4½ years ago. Lots of chemo, no cure. Stem cell transplant, no cure. Second transplant, cured of leukemia, but now with chronic graft-versus-host disease. My immune system destroyed, then rebuilt from a stranger’s stem cells. It views my body as foreign and so attacks various parts. My doctors counterattack with medicines and exotic treatments. As I wrote in another piece [linked below], a war has been waged in my body, but now a fragile peace seems to be holding. When I was in the hospital the first time, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has recovered. But walking together in the shadow of death, although very difficult, proved liberating.

“I still teach and manage a large training grant in biomedical informatics, but will retire from Rice in two years. I’ve written lots of academic papers. Now I only write essays and fiction. Difficult but liberating as well.”

The Here and The Now

On my desk lies what might be a hand-drawn map of a barren land crossed by lonely roads, most of which lead to dead ends. A map it is, but not one for an ordinary trip. Instead it charts an uncertain and arduous journey of body and spirit. A hematologist drew it more than four years ago, when he told me I had leukemia. Since then, I’ve wandered that ominous terrain. I’ve been tracked by countless blood tests, x-rays, scans, and bone marrow biopsies. And treatments have sharply altered an intended original course. Early on, I often studied this rumpled page, wondering where my journey would take me.

At first, doctors dripped potent compounds into my veins, agents intent on obliterating my bone marrow, the den in which leukemia lurked. They were vicious mercenaries, unconcerned with collateral damage: the nausea, fatigue, vomiting, headaches, skin rashes, and swelling that were consequences of their mayhem. My physicians hoped my bone marrow would be reborn from this devastation free of disease. But leukemia smoldered in the ruins and soon renewed its attack.

A fork on my map led to stem cell transplantation, a risky intervention. Debilitating chemotherapy would again destroy my bone marrow so that stem cells from someone else could build a new immune system. But derived from the stem cells of another, my new immune system could attack my heart, lung, liver, skin, and eyes, all of which it would view as foreign. The virulence of its assault might prove as deadly as leukemia. Nonetheless, faced otherwise with a dead end, I took that turn.

After the required chemotherapy, the transplant proved uneventful: a short infusion of donor cells followed by a quick recovery. But several months later came bitter news: leukemia had again returned. I now had few markers to guide me. Transplanted stem cells from a different donor offered a last, small hope. Another turn, another path. Two years after my second transplant, stigmata testify to my body’s suffering. Loss of hair, skin blotches, stiffness, and newly prominent veins tell of an inner war within. As does my stooping posture, a consequence of so many steroids for so long. But a fragile truce now prevails.

One afternoon a couple of years ago, the map I had so often pondered suddenly looked different, like a familiar drawing of a duck that on second glance surprisingly reveals a rabbit. In its penciled lines, I saw narrow roads north of Taos New Mexico, one of which leads into the mountains to the Lama Foundation. Some thirty years ago, I sat on a bus rolling along that road. For several months, I’d been reading books on Buddhism and sporadically meditating. But I felt like someone learning to swim by doing exercises on the riverbank. It was time to jump in. So I committed myself to a week’s meditation retreat at Lama. As the time drew closer, I began to worry that I wasn’t ready for such a drastic withdrawal. In Taos, the night before, a second margarita (maybe even a third) bolstered my resolve, and in the morning, having filled my pockets with energy bars, I boarded the bus to the unknown. As we headed north, in the absence of tequila, my doubts about the venture grew.

I’d been right to worry. At Lama, experienced meditators were busily arranging mats and benches throughout the hall—settling in. Nervously, I claimed a spot along a back wall. I held that spot for the week. The days wore on. Boredom, sleepiness, aches and pains, and impatience for the end occasionally gave way to acceptance, peace, and even exhilaration. The last day, I felt calm and centered.
On my way back to Houston, I stopped in Santa Fe, where I sat still for a while on a sun-drenched bench in the square. Time seemed to stop. No yesterday, no tomorrow. Just peace. But amid the bustle of travelers in the Albuquerque airport, peace started slipping away. Perhaps it couldn’t flourish in my everyday world.

Still, my practice at home became steadier. For several years, I returned to Lama for solitude, reflection, and rejuvenation. In time, however, my devotion to meditation faded. I no longer went on retreats, and I eventually stopped meditating all together. Yet thirty years later, lost in a medical wilderness, I discovered that a flame from the mountains still flickered within.

A soft knock on my hospital door preceded the cautious entry of a slender young man, a minister, who had come to offer me comfort in “my situation.” It soon became clear that he wanted something in return. My hospital record said I was a Buddhist, a designation from of my Lama days, when I had been in the hospital for some tests. Over the years, my notions about myself had changed, but a computer had retained that label to the day of our meeting. As he understood it, for Buddhists there was no God. Where then, he asked, could I find comfort in my time of trouble? Didn’t I feel alone?

Well, the illness had come to me alone, I replied. And the path was mine alone to walk. Family and friends could ease the trek, and perhaps my doctors could lift some of its burdens, but only I would meet my fate. Death might well wait around the next turn, but agonizing wouldn’t chase it away. If I thought that moaning would scare off death, I’d devote my days to complaining. Or to praying, if that would do the trick. But wishes and fears regarding tomorrow are like leeches that would suck the present dry. They desiccate the only life I had. He looked at me. He seemed ready to ask another question. But after a short silence, he put his hand tentatively on my ankle, and smiled weakly. Then he turned and left the room. And he left me to wonder: Did I believe what I had told him? Or had I simply wanted to sound brave?

In time, I realized that my words echoed teachings from decades before. Yes, my body, abused as it had been, would never again be the same. But my body wasn’t me. How, then, had I been scarred? In my mind? My feelings need not be me either. In that long week of my first retreat, doubt, confusion, boredom, and exasperation, swirled in my mind. Yet peace had emerged from watching, not from clinging; from attention to this moment, not from absorption in what had been or what might be. I needed to regain that peace amidst the fear, doubt, anger, and sadness now buffeting me. I had to listen to my own brave words. I had to live the life they implied.

For me, this meant imagining myself back on that park bench in Santa Fe. Just being in the moment. Fortunately—remarkably—the ineffable glow from Lama had abided unnoticed for years. Day by day, I took it up, as I might a candle, to illuminate the doings of my everyday life. It wavered in inevitable moments of doubt and fear, but it never fully dimmed, even in the shadow of death. I recall that old banner at Lama had told me how to tend the flame: “Be Here Now,” it admonished. So here I am—with my family and friends, with my teaching and writing. Moment by moment …

Add your comments below.

Back to Yale ’62 Home

Comments
  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.

  • Jim Kelly July 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I put off reading this until I had enough time to reflect on what you have written. I cannot be more glad that I did. The epic story of your father, kept to himself alone, and your response in the terms of your life provide a much needed perspective to look forward on a world seemingly going mad,

  • Richard Davis June 23, 2014 at 10:23 am

    “War Stories” is a beautiful and inspiring essay. It reflects both the unchanging human condition, and the ancient Greek gift to us of articulating it.

  • Bill Stott June 19, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Very touching essay, Tony. You made us be THERE, now, with you. A great gift. Prayers and love. Bill

  • John (Jay) Hatch June 19, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Thanks you for sharing…I will try to remember what you shared when I am in need.

  • Charles Merlis June 18, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    If you have children, your writing is a great legacy for them, for your friends, it is an affirmation of why they respect and value their relationship with you, and for your readers, it is a gift to them. Thank you.

  • William Hamilton June 18, 2014 at 7:10 am

    Bravo Tony. A beautiful, mysterious essay.