Letters from the land of cancer

wangerinI began reading Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin Jr. nearly a year ago. However, I didn’t finish it. I think I felt a little overwhelmed by it. The topic, the intensity, the unrelenting discussion of cancer and death. I wasn’t yet ready to read 22 letters by a man reflecting on his cancer. I set myself the project of reading it all this week. If I was planning to write a book about living with cancer, then I needed to consider what it felt like for the reader. This probably makes me one of the more motivated of his readers. We share the same cancer, a similar profession, same number of children, grandchildren (that’s right – I’m awaiting delivery in October), love of motorcycles, and more.

The obvious difference is that Walter Wangerin is a world-class, well-respected, writer. That makes WW a WWW! (Grandad joke!) He’s a teacher of English literature and a prolific writer of fiction. He’s a wordsmith. He’s eloquent. He’s poetic. His writing is thick, like treacle. It’s deep, intense, heavy, profound. His words are disturbing, niggling, probing. But they’re also light and fresh and invigorating. They stir the soul to action. At least, they did mine. I’ve written so many notes and comments and questions.

I found this book hard to get into, but harder to put down. I wanted to know what happened next. What did you learn? How is your treatment? How is your wife? What are the doctors saying? What are the results of the next scan? How does this mesh with your faith? What is important to you now? What will you make your priorities? What’s it like to be on oxygen 24/7? Why don’t you pray for your own healing? Why do you look forward to death? How do your family feel? What leads you to say your cancer is an adventure? Or a blessing rather than a battle? I suspect that I was vicariously travelling this journey with him, and that these are more questions about me than him.

This book worked for me. It pushed me to reflect, to reconsider my own experiences, to look again to God. It’s heavy, but he’s writing about heavy stuff. Reading 22 letters one after the other is a bit like watching a still frame motion picture. You know, the ones that show a seed being planted, a sprout emerging from the ground, a plant growing to maturity. All frame by frame. One picture per day. It’s like that. We see the outside journey experienced by the Wangerins, and we also learn of the inner journey, the impact on his mind and heart, his faith and convictions.

I’m not sure who I’d give this book to. My dad has read it, so I’ll have to ask him his thoughts. I suspect you’d want to be a serious reader to tackle it. I also suspect you’d need to be willing to be confronted heavily with your own mortality. It’s no coincidence, that I wrote the poem, Pain, while reading this book. It’s an intense book.

Following his journey throughout this book, I fully expected the final chapter to be posthumous. Perhaps, a final word from his wife, speaking of Walter’s passing. But no. It’s all Walter. The cancer was discovered in 2005, the final letter of the book written in 2008, the publishing date 2010. As soon as I finished the book, I hurried to my computer and googled his name. So when did he die? According to his website he has a speaking engagement on May 31 in West Virginia, so I’m guessing not yet!

I’d love to meet this man. I think we’d have a lot to talk about!

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