Tom Davis
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Tom Davis, Christ Weeping Into The Taconic


The Dark Side of Death
By Tom Davis

    The good news: my chemotherapy is working and I’m still buying green bananas.

    The bad news: two years ago, before we knew it as MDD (Michael Douglas Disease), I was diagnosed with tonsorial squamous cell carcinoma, a/k/a head and neck cancer.   After surgery, I elected to go with radiation therapy sans complementary chemo, which was probably a big mistake. The malignancy unexpectedly spread to the bones of my pelvis and lower spine, where it has been munching away without thought of its host’s well-being. It’s now described as “exotic and aggressive,” but it’s getting its cancerous ass kicked by taxotere, a drug that imitates the chemistry of the European Yew tree. Made in China, of course. I’ll be using it, or a related drug “for the rest of my life,” which could be as long as two more high-quality-of-life years. I’d be thrilled with that.

    There are side effects, the two weirdest being a “recall effect,” in which radiation sores reappear, and neuropathy in my fingernails, which are in the unpleasant process of falling off. Ow. I’ve lost hair from all over my body. With only a little bit of white fluff on my head, I visited my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease in Minneapolis.

“Now I want you to take all your medicine and your hair will grow back,” she said cheerfully. “I think you look a little like that bird Woodstock in Peanuts.” I’ll take that; better than Uncle Fester.

    My old comedy partner (Senator) Al Franken, volunteered to draw my hair back on with a magic marker, which would be funny for about two days. We’re planning to write something for him to read once I de-animate, the final Franken and Davis piece. We’ll see. Typically, we would wait until the last minute.

    I’ve lost about 50 pounds. (I needed to lose 49.) It’s great to wear jeans from the 70s, although I remember making a few people laugh when I said I would save them in case I got cancer. Once, in the early eighties, Franken and Davis appeared on the David Letterman Show as “The Comedy Team that Weighs the Same,” a piece so stupid it was really funny. We dressed in bathrobes and Speedos for the final weigh-in on a huge scale. David asked if any other comedy team had weighed the same, and I said “Laurel and Hardy, but only near the end of Ollie’s life,” which got a good groan laugh. Maybe I tempted fate a little too often.

    My grocer at the Claverack Market, Ted the Elder, recently asked if I had heard that there are two stages in life: “youth,” and “you look great.” Wish I’d thought of that.

    Several close friends have asked if I was aware of alternative medicines, therapies, protocols, doctors, clinics, and books. One offered personal testimony. His colon cancer was supposed to have killed him several years ago. He attributes his survival to an exclusive diet of blueberry smoothies.

 My fear is not death; my fear is spending my last years slurping blueberry, whey and soy powder shakes in a rock star hospital in Houston, surrounded by strangers. No.

My daily regimen begins with half a medical marijuana cookie in my oatmeal,
and ends with dinner at a fancy restaurant with friends or family. And before bed, ice cream.

False hope is my enemy, also self pity, which went out the window when I saw children with cancer. I try to embrace the inevitable with whatever grace I can muster, and find the joy in each day. I’ve always been good at that, but now I’m getting really good at it.

Before I was diagnosed, I was also good at getting high recreationally. “Pain management” is another ballgame, the goal being to recreate the feeling of “wellness,” while minimizing the side effects of taxotere. My extensive past experience enables me to fine tune my protocol. These days I get my marijuana through airport security by hiding it in the morphine.   

    I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person. I want to remind you that dead people are people too. There are good dead people and bad dead people. Some of my best friends are dead people. Dead people have fought in every war. We’re all going to try it sometime. Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude.

    Many people in my situation say, “It’s been my worst and best year.” If that sounds like a cliché, you don’t have cancer. On the plus side, I am grateful to have gained real, not just intellectual empathy. I was prepared to go through life without having suffered, and I was doing a good job of it. Now I know what it’s like to starve. And to accept “that over which I have no control,” I had to turn inward. People from all over my life are reconnecting with me, and I’ve tried to take responsibility for my deeds, good and bad. As my friend Timothy Leary said in his book, Death by Design, “Even if you’ve been a complete slob your whole life, if you can end the last act with panache, that’s what they’ll remember.” 

I think I’ve finally grown up.

    It is odd to have so much time to orchestrate the process of my own death. I’m improvising. I’ve never done this before, so far as I know. Ironically, I probably will outlive one or two people to whom I’ve already said goodbye. My life has been rife with irony; why stop now?

    As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I’ve always believed that the source of all mankind’s problems is overpopulation. I’m finally going to do something about it.

Tom Davis was an original writer for Saturday Night Live, and half the comedy team of Franken & Davis. He is the author of the recently published memoir, “39 Years of Short Term Memory Loss” (Grove/Atlantic). He lives in Livingston and he huds in Hudson.