Saturday, January 22, 2011

Reynolds Price--A Profile in Courage

I heard it first on NPR Friday. Reynolds Price, age 77 had died. Reynolds Price was one of my favorite writers. He could take our language and make it sing. He wrote a multitude of books but the book I remember best was his autobiographical account of what happened to him some twenty-plus years ago. The Doctors discovered an eight-inch malignant tumor wrapped around his spinal column just below the neck. After a series of operations and radiation treatments Mr. Price was left paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told his brother in 1984 he might live eighteen months. He died January 22 of this year.

After the removal of the tumor he was left with unremitting pain. He tried many remedies but it was hypnosis therapy, which, though not resolving the pain, helped him to begin to manage his life. So he told the story of that hard and winding journey of pain and recovery in the book, A Whole New Life. Through the years I have quoted from that book in sermons many times and recommended the book to many people. It tells is story of his (his words) inch-by-inch journey back from the edge of death to a new life as a different person.

Toward the end of that book he tells what he has learned.

“1. You’re in your present calamity alone, far as this goes. If you want a way out, then dig it yourself, if there turns out to be any trace of a way. Nobody—least of all a doctor—can rescue you now, not from the deeps of your own mind, not once they’ve stitched your gaping wound waiting to give you everything on Earth but your main want, which is simply the person you used to be.

2. Generous people—true practical saints, some of them boring as root canals—are waiting to give you everything on Earth but your main want, which is simply the person you used to be.

3. But you’re not that person now. Who’ll you be tomorrow? And who do you propose to be from here to the grave, which may be hours or decades down the road?”

Price was a deeply religious man without a trace of piousity. He said that verse in Deuteronomy helped turn him around: “I have you life and death, choose life.” And he did just that. He made a commitment, hard though it was, to find a whole new life. And he did.

Since his surgery he wrote many books. He won the National Book Critics Circle prize for his novel, Kate Vaiden. He has been praised as our one of our finest authors. An hour-long documentary on his life was viewed on national television. Besides writing he also taught writing and the poetry of Milton at Duke University.

I love A Whole New Life because it is a book of hope for all of us. It is a book of second chances and future possibilities. The book tells us that our lives really are in our hands. Reynolds Price was a man of prayer and he said “that one hard night" he asked God, “What now?” And the answer came back plain and clear: “ More." And in the light of that vision he has found his way.

He ends that book with these words:

"I’ve long since weaned myself from all drugs but a small dose of antidepressant, an aspirin to thin my blood, an occasional scotch or a good red wine and a simply acid to brace my bladder against infection. I write six days a week, long days that often run till bedtime; and the books are different from what came before in more than age. I sleep long nights with few hard dreams, and now I’ve outlived both of my parents. Even my handwriting looks very little like the script of the man I was in June of ’84. Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, with more air and stride. It comes down the arm of a grateful man.”

Life is hard for many people. We lose those we love. Life takes a wrong turn we did not expect nor want. People disappoint us . When we look into the mirror we know that we have disappointed ourselves. Yet—any of us despite the burdens we carry can find the way if we choose. Reynolds helped me understand this powerful truth and this is why I have passed his book to so many people. Reynolds Price—You have fought an incredibly good fight—rest in peace.

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