Last June while reading the New Yorker, I turned the page to Max Ritvo's Poem for My Litter. I read a lot of poetry but had never heard of Max before that day. As I read his poem to the mice who test treatment options for the rare cancer he has had since he was 15, I started sobbing. Not little tears that can be wiped away as you turn the page, but full on crying that originated somewhere deep in my abdomen - the place where my own cancer grows.
When you have cancer you develop a radar for cancer stories and you quickly learn that they are everywhere. I read these stories as if they are tea leaves offering guidance and direction on my future with this disease. Depending on the day and outcome of the story, I can be left hopeful or despondent. But Max's poem was different. Through his creative ode to mice he named Max after himself, he suggested to me that both hope and fear for the future can coexist. That maybe they actually sit right next to each other inside our souls. After I pulled myself together, I turned the page with a wish for Max that his litter of Maxes would save him.
A couple months later I would find myself alone in the car on a long drive and by chance, I'd hear what would turn out to be Max's last interview. Just as his poem had grabbed me, hearing his voice speak about the power of words and poetry, bravely living with cancer and staring down death multiple times was too much. I pulled the car over so I could listen intently and cry freely. At the end of the interview, I learned that he had just died. It took me a while before I pulled it together enough to drive home weighed down with immense grief.
Then last week this beautiful essay by his mentor and professor at NYU about Max crossed my path. Exasperated, I thought how many goddam tears can I shed for man I never met?
The pain in my back has increased lately and with it the worries that my cancer is back and growing. The pain starts a cycle I know well of trying to forecast and control the future. I start evaluating everything through the lens of "what if" and begin to back myself away from commitments I might not be able to follow through on.
Max Ritvo continues to haunt me because he has a message for me. Live, Terrilyn, Live.