Monday, August 13, 2012

David Rakoff's Last Dance

Last week, essayist and author David Rakoff passed away at age 47 from cancer. Since then, I've been listening to old podcasts--he was an early and frequent contributor to This American Life--and rereading his excellent writing, especially his later pieces where he dealt frankly and compassionately about aging and mortality, grounding it in his experience of his own illness.

Unlike a lot of writing about illness and overcoming, Rakoff's words never rang falsely optimistic.  He argued for the right to your negative feelings. Yet at the same time, he never railed against the unfairness of the situation. This is what he said in interviews in the months leading up to his death:

"Writer Melissa Bank said it best: 'The only proper answer to 'Why me?' is 'Why not you?' The universe is anarchic and doesn't care about us, and unfortunately, there's no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it's not a question I feel really entitled to ask. 
"And in so many other ways, I'm so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it's great because I'm privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I'm not making sneakers for a living, and I don't live near a toxic waste dump. 
"You can't win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say, 'Why am I not winning this contest as well?' It's random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren't me? Absolutely. I still can't make that logistic jump to thinking there's a reason why it shouldn't be me."

In this clip from a live recording of This American Life, Rakoff discussed losing feeling in his arm, following a surgery to remove a tumor. While as always, he humorously described how doing daily chores became more annoying, he more touchingly talked about how he hadn't really been able to dance since losing feeling and motion in this arm. Except that recently, he did some exercises at a makeshift barre, and discussed this thusly: "The gestures themselves, their repetition, their slowness--it all hollows one out."

Shortly thereafter, he stopped speaking mid-sentence and starts to dance, slowly and carefully. And it was wonderful. After spending two weeks watching the athletically gifted perform at the top of their game, I can honestly say that what Rakoff pulls off is more beautiful than anything I saw at the Olympics. (Dance begins at 11:35 but you should really watch the whole thing. I guarantee you that won't regret it. Have I ever steered you wrong?)

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