BY SANDRA GUY
Our collective COVID pandemic experience has forced us to confront our humanity and, whether we want to admit it or not, our mortality. We’ve confronted a potentially fatal diagnosis at every turn.
Who can tell us how to embrace and discern this moment?
Chicago media veteran and theater critic Ed Tracy, host of the Conversations (@PicksInSix) podcast featuring commentary for the performing arts, music, dance, literature and new media, and former Pritzker Military Library leader, offers a way, while at the same time reminding us of our own personal care responsibilities.
Tracy has had his own harrowing experience with his mortality — and his new book, “Gorilla In the Room and Other Stories,” provides a mindful roadmap for confronting our COVID-era angst and emerging triumphant.
He found out after his first screening, at age 53 in June 2008, that he had Stage 3 colon cancer.
He had had warning signs: A lack of energy, trouble staying hydrated, certain foods firing off what he had thought was irritable bowel syndrome.
Yet after his cancer diagnosis, he turned to writing — the work that he had always turned to in times of grief and despair.
The resulting book, due out Feb. 23 [https://www.conversationswithedtracy.com/gorilla-in-the-room], comprises an uplifting, heart-rending and ultimately energizing collection of a stage play, essays and intimate letters and stories that serve as a pathway for anyone confronting a life-transforming diagnosis or wakeup call.
“I’m trying to destigmatize the whole process,” says Tracy, who writes convincingly that the bowel-prep potion and process required before a colonoscopy pale in comparison to cancer treatments.
“My general feeling is that I am not an expert,” he says. “Rule #1 is that cancer is, ‘Nobody’s cancer journey is the same.’”
It’s a particularly timely message because March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Colon cancer generally starts in one’s large intestine. It can start as small, non-cancerous clumps of cells called polyps that form on the inside of the colon. Over time, some of these polyps can become colon cancers, especially if they’re not caught and removed during a colonoscopy.
At the same time, Tracy, who describes himself as “an incredibly positive person,” turns to his role models for even more inspiration. First, his father. Though Tracy’s outings with his dad on hunting trips were unsuccessful, he recalls, “I find now that walks in an open field are the best things I can do for myself. I am often on my way to or from a stream teeming with trout or walking along a path that leads to the stunning view of an autumn sunset. It’s times like these that I think about all the hours I have spent alone in a vast field, wondering about all of the stories that I want to share with you, old friend.”
Tracy says when he started getting chemotherapy, the cancer-fighting drugs in his system enabled him to recall very specific and lasting impressions of experiences throughout his life, and the memories all flooded back at the same time.
Readers benefit. They meet Medal of Honor recipients, theater and media personalities from Chicago and beyond, doctors, Tracy’s family, and even Werner Klemperer and Buster Keaton’s widow. It is meant to inspire you, the readers, to face the challenges in your own lives, live with and learn from your mistakes, practice forgiveness, cherish accomplishments no matter how small, and remember to respect and honor the people who had faith in you along the way.
And it took work. As Tracy describes the play-writing process: “It’s the product of getting up every day and using your imagination to get through to the next story — like any director [does].”
And the letter writing, too: “I don’t think we write enough letters to people. A letter is an opportunity to really think about words and how important they are. People have found those to be really impactful.”
To his daughter: “I wanted to be sure that before whatever happens does, I have taken at least one brief moment and one quiet time in my life to reflect and write to you and tell you how absolutely proud I am of your work, your energy and your love of life. Don’t ever lose that. These are your most endearing qualities, and I love you all the more for them.”
And the memories, including of Tracy’s close friend, the late newsman John Callaway, who served as an internet justice of the peace when he presided at Tracy’s wedding to his wife, Denise, on Dec. 31, 2008.
Tracy writes, “The letters all start the same way: ‘Dear John, I’ve been thinking a lot about …’ and then we’re off into some story, the end of which I rarely know. Eventually, I discover a point, remember lessons I have learned, reminisce about people I have met or who have influenced my life along the way, or rediscover a particular event worthy of writing about.”
Of his mentor, Ed Feidner, professor emeritus of Theatre at the University of Vermont, Tracy recalls Feidner’s great stage performances and the important lessons he imparted.
Tracy writes: “I screened Kenneth Branagh’s masterpiece Hamlet recently and thought about Ed Feidner during many scenes. I was mysteriously transported back to a class or a rehearsal or a cup of coffee in [Feidner’s] office when he would tell me about the significance of the ghost, how its appearance might be magically staged — or where and with what lighting and costumes.”
From these renewed appreciations, Tracy says he considers himself “a cancer veteran” and part of “the Club” of every other such veteran.
“I’m still a fighter,” he says. “If I don’t make the right choices every day, I’m putting myself at risk.”