Disability and Elderly Issues

Rain: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

“Boy, I got vision. The rest of the world wears bifocals.”

— Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy ( written while I am wearing bifocals.)

”All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.”

John Wayne once granted me a telephone interview on his experiences with cancer. For those readers too young to remember [a concept that defies imagination], John Wayne (nicknamed The Duke) was an Academy-Award winning actor who appeared in 142 movies. His cowboy and other macho roles served as an icon for my generation on how a real man is supposed to behave.

This is a column about fear. Miriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines fear as, “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” Fear “implies…loss of courage.” I am familiar with the fear that comes from:

Having an oncologist look up from my pathology file and say, “There is no doubt about it. You have cancer.”

Sitting for hours in radiation waiting rooms as my fellow patients look at each other and wonder who will live and who will die.

Experiencing the side effects of radiation slowly burning my spine and resulting in the odd experience of standing at a jogging track ready to run (forcing myself to run) and being unable to do so.

Being unable to walk across a room without falling—I once fell in front of a prospective employer three times during a job interview.

I cannot go from my bed to the bathroom without transferring to a power chair. I know about courage and my lack of it, about appropriate and inappropriate anger and the need to put my past behind me and be human—not a cripple; human. Here in my apartment in State College, I recognize my New Year’s resolution must be to behave (to excuse the sexist expression) like a Man.

Twenty-one years ago I was an arrogant journalist writing an article for The New York Times on the emotional effects of surviving cancer. At the time, society was still pondering such questions as whether it was a good idea to tell patients that they had cancer. Doctors thought it prudent not to disclose likely side-effects. The newspapers, examining the statistics on cancer mortality, featured headlines on the failure of the War on Cancer. By doing so, the media had masked the remarkable progress being made especially among children and young adults. At a time when my mother refused superstitiously to say the word cancer out loud, spelling it letter by letter, parents of cancer survivors had trouble conveying the reality that when a child has cancer it need not be a sentence of death.

I was not sufficiently savvy to realize that the vagaries of life were mirrored in the familiar vagaries of journalism. As I later learned, the chief editor of the Times’ Magazine made it a practice to reject the first draft of every free-lancer. Wendy Moonan, my immediate editor, wanted my revision to include an interview with John Wayne. Wayne had lung cancer and since 1964, despite the objections of his business managers, he served as a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. His commercials, which featured a pitch for early detection, were model John Wayne sounding essentially like someone who would shoot you without pause if you did not immediately send a check, which many viewers did. Wendy warned, “You cannot tell him where you got this telephone number.”

I dialed. John Wayne [JOHN WAYNE!] answers the phone and says, “Unless you tell me where you got my phone number, I am going to hang up on you.” I turned in my editor without a moment’s thought.

Two weeks after the doctors removed Wayne’s lung, he was back at work making a movie. “I jumped into a river with handcuffs on in January…and that was tough. It kept me from developing a protection which I thought I needed but which I didn’t need.” I replied that my experiences with cancer left me with unresolved feelings that were getting in the way of living my life. He dismissed the idea that I should, as he put it, feel sorry for myself. John Wayne said, “The thing to do is just try your damndest without telling anyone else about it.”

For its own reasons, The Times published my first draft which did not include the Wayne interview (making this a Voices exclusive). Less than a week later, I was on Good Morning America feeling sorry for myself for a brief moment of public acclaim. Less than a year later, Wayne died of stomach cancer. Today, I still remember his advice with reverence, despite the fact that I detested Wayne’s politics. In February, I plan to discuss:

  1. The wisdom of John Wayne
  2. How to implement that wisdom here in Centre Country to help reduce fear among our disabled and aged population.

(Our community’s considerable private and academic emotional counselors are invited.)