Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss

Last week, in our post “Cancer, Risk, & Otherwise,” we wrote about our friend Adam Schmitz. We grew to know Adam when we were all students at Knox College more than twenty-five years ago. At the time, we had our whole lives ahead of us. As William Wagner wrote this week in “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” we felt as if we had time “to get where we want to in life, to be successful. […W]e’ll get there eventually.” We had what seemed like all the time in the world.

Adam & Wooten

After graduation, Adam packed up for sunny California and wrote for Disney. He met Wooten and fell in love, and they had two kids. Adam and Wooten opened a baby store called The Milky Way, and Adam coached his son’s baseball team. He had dreams of teaching, of writing, of who knows what else. After college, he went on with his life, full of people we don’t know who have been more present in his life these last two decades than we would ever be again, and we went on with our life. We kept in touch, sporadically but also as one long conversation that we could keep reentering every few years.

Adam & Willy
Adam & Willy

But no one has all the time in the world. In January 2012, Adam was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain cancer with a terrible prognosis. Adam faced this fact straight-on. He had always been an in-the-moment person, always immersing himself in experience, throwing his body and mind into every conversation. We all knew—or should have known—that the friendships we had in college would shift, perhaps suddenly upon graduation or slowly over the years. Adam seemed the one of us who could cultivate the intensity of each friendship in the moment while already being nostalgic for it, for each moment that was so individual and delicious in its own way that it could never be replicated exactly.

The first couple of paragraphs of our post last week were picked up right away by 2Paragraphs, and the editor suggested that the end of the post might work for them as well. So we re-posted the last couple of paragraphs there on Saturday.

Only, by the time we woke up on Saturday morning, Adam had died. We rewrote the ending of our re-post because the ending had changed, had become an ending.

Loss is a word that means destruction, from the verb to lose, which, in the Old Norse, referred to the breaking up of an army. In a way, Adam’s death is the “devastating loss” that William Wagner names because it’s a breaking up of the interconnectedness we had forged more than two decades earlier—and all the interconnections that Adam created since then.

Madhavi & Trish

Adam is the second college friend to die from cancer this year. Madhavi Samala was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in March 2011. We’d lost touch after college, for a while, and then shaped a new friendship as adults based on the foundation we had from years earlier. She had only recently built a career she really enjoyed; she was an occupational therapist in the schools, working with kids who struggled with tasks most of us take for granted. She was raising a son and traveled the world whenever she could, even after the diagnosis, perhaps especially after the diagnosis.

Adam with the Leahy Women
Adam with the Leahy Women

Adam and, the previous year, Madhavi each went to our college Homecoming weekend knowing it would probably be the last, that the group was being broken apart in ways we hadn’t expected yet. “How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss asked. In July of this year, Madhavi’s body was covered with flowers, and today marks Adam’s memorial service. We miss them both the same and each differently—and we know that others miss them all the more even as they cherish the time they had together.

Loss is also related to words that mean to separate or loosen, so it’s no wonder that such losses feel like unmoorings. It’s difficult, though, in these days immediately following Adam’s death to know whether he’s the one unmoored or it’s all the rest of us—especially Wooten and their kids, Adam’s parents and sister—who’ve become loosened.

Perhaps, the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov put into words the crux of this unmooring when he opens his memoir, Speak, Memory, with the following observation:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

Life and loss, then, are about time, about the vastness and abstraction of time and about the cracks of light that each of us becomes in that vastness. Each moment we experience is a moment between the eternities of past and future. That’s what Madhavi lived, even in what she knew were her last years and months, as she rekindled and built anew. That’s how Adam approached life twenty-five years ago, and that’s how he approached life a month ago, as his friend Willy wrote, “He explained that love is strongest when you accept that you’ll have to let it go at some point, and his smile grew brighter and more convincing with each word.” Adam was one of the most convinced and convincing people we’ve ever known. Convince, of course, is from the Latin meaning to conquer together.

If I could, through myself, set your spirit free
I’d lead your heart away, see you break, break away
Into the light and to the day.

To let it go and so to fade away.
To let it go and so fade away.

“Bad,” U2 (video, 1985)


8 thoughts on “Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss

  1. Thank you for searching observations on living while dying, lasting friendships and the joy of life despite terminal diagnoses. Lessons for all of us, young and old.

  2. So sorry for your losses. We too just lost a longtime friend to colon cancer just a few weeks ago. He was only 52 and leaves behind four children ages 14-24. He was best man at our wedding and godfather to our son. We thought there would still be “all this time.”

  3. Very sorry to read about Adam. I haven’t seen him in years but I remember him well from several of my literature and film classes at Knox. Not always predictable, but often a very good student, and always a joy to have in class. I especially remember a film class in which he and William Wagner and Anna and I shared our love of movies.

    1. So good to hear from you and that you remember us. We had an amazing time in that film class, and it changed the way we watched movies. All three of us turned out pretty well in the long run, though it’s sad that Adam is now gone.

      That was also the term that I (Anna) had two Ed Niehus finals on the same day. You told me I should have said something so we could have rescheduled, which would have been a good idea because your finals were something with which to wrestle, but I did okay in both classes. In fact, I think that Adam, Willy, and I probably learned a lot more than our grades sometimes reflected.

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