Speaking to cancer as if it were a person

I’d known Ellis for years — he once hired me for a social work job. Yet when I think of Ellis Ledger, I remember him best the night I encountered him outside of his apartment building. I was out late walking my dog. Ellis stopped to talk. He clearly was drunk, not falling-down-drunk (he never was), but feeling no pain, as they say, and he was upset about something important to him.

It was his birthday, he told me, his 50th, and he had hosted a dinner party in his own honor, and he’d invited the owners of the city’s newspaper, the city’s mayor and a few other local civic stars, probably a prominent doctor or two, and surely somebody from entertainment, if only a local TV news anchor. Everybody who was anybody was there. Ellis had money, family money, and a lot of it.

“How did it go?” I asked him after he told me what he had been doing.

“Not well,” he said. He had a fey manner of talking. He spoke with a marked southern accent.

“You see, everything was overdone, which was what I was afraid of. It was my worst horror. We had dinner at the De Havilland, and I planned it so carefully. I instructed everyone to be subtle if you know what I mean.” I said I did, but I wasn’t sure I did. I knew that Ellis could be a very fussy person, demanding as all get out.

I recall being at a convention in New Hampshire where a friend of his (so he told me beforehand) was set to be the keynote speaker.

“Mention my name to Lawrence,” Ellis pleaded with me when he knew I was going to be there and that Lawrence Davenport from Georgia was speaking. “I knew him well once,” he continued. So after the speech, I made a point of seeking out this Lawrence Davenport.

“Ellis Ledger? I don’t think I know the man,” Mr. Davenport told me. I persisted.

“He said he grew up in the same city with you,”

“I grew up in Georgia, all right. Wait a minute. You can’t mean Zeke Ledger?” I had never heard Ellis called Zeke.

“Could be,” I said.

“How well do you know Zeke Ledger? I gathered what he had to say next, mainly depended upon how I answered his question.

“He is an acquaintance,” I said truthfully.

“Zeke Ledger is the biggest horse’s ass I have ever known!” I smiled. He went on to tell me of an incident that happened years before in a fine restaurant in Manhattan. He said Zeke was very interested in the theatre and was a backer of several small productions, and it was a group of theatre people who were together there that night. Zeke ordered a bottle of wine, and when the waiter brought it, he took a sip and didn’t like the taste, but instead of sending it back, he spat out the wine in the middle of this fine restaurant.

“Only a horse’s ass would do such a thing,” Mr. Davenport said again. I never shared any of this with Ellis, although he did ask. I said I wasn’t able to speak to Mr. Davenport.

Ellis went on telling me more about his 50th birthday bash. “Overdone, and I paid so much for the evening. The best of everything was provided, and it was ruined by the skewed ambiance.”

A year and a half after this late-night conversation Ellis Ledger was dead. He died of colon cancer for which he put up a long fight. He even wrote an account of his battle, calling it “Ninety-six Second Opinions.” I still have a copy.

He wrote in great detail of his search for a cure, or if not a cure, at least a treatment that made sense. He went from standard medical practice to what would have to be described as experimental, and several that bordered on quackery. He traveled extensively to find answers. He loaded up on vitamins. He ate special foods, all in a search for what proved unobtainable: a cure.

He went through his death at home, which on the surface sounds very civilized, but in time there were those in his upscale neighborhood who thought he should go someplace out of sight to die. He paraded his thin and sickly body on the lawn in front of his apartment building, and there was criticism aplenty. It pleased him, I believe, to know he affected his neighbors in this way. So just about every day in the summer months, he could be found in a lawn chair or chaise lounge, always bare-chested.

I had, by this time, moved from the neighborhood, but I visited Ellis about once a week to see how he was getting along. I brought him a milkshake, which I knew he liked and could still get down. He wasn’t always easy to visit, and he could be very rude to strangers.

I remember one time I was there when a new hospice worker arrived. Ellis was all right with him in the beginning, but then the young man began to query him about his travels. I guess Ellis thought he was being patronized because when asked if he had ever been to Paris, he bolted upright in his bed and replied, “Of course, I have.” I felt sorry for the fellow who was soon asked to leave.

Ellis would sometimes stumble around his apartment half-dressed, mumbling, “I’m sick of this shit! Sick of living like this. I’m just going to walk you off, you cancer,” speaking to cancer as if it were a person. Then he would vigorously pace the room, running up and down, followed by collapse from the exertion.

Sometimes his voice would sound strong, almost normal, but later, he might speak in barely above a whisper. I remember one time sitting next to him, talking quietly and out on the front lawn as usual. He was without a shirt and looking especially weak this day. I thought, There can’t be a long time ahead for him now. I had to leave early to catch a plane to Boston. I was visiting my mother in Massachusetts and would be gone for about a week. Ellis knew of my plans. I told him of the Boston cream pie my mother often baked for me when I was in town, and I said too I was sure she would bake one for him. I told him this in a conversation weeks before. I got up to leave, and he signaled for me to come closer. I expected him to say, “If I’m not here when you return, it was good knowing you,” Instead, he said, and in a whisper, “Don’t forget the Boston cream pie you promised.”

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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