Books 5 & 6, read June 2018
Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life (Eugene O’Kelley & Corinne O’Kelley)
These books are memoirs about the glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) experience; they have some things in common so I review them here together. Chasing Daylight and So Far, So Good are both about middle-aged, powerful businessmen who suddenly come down with GBM to the shock of their families and colleagues. Both books cover diagnosis through death, with quite detailed descriptions of the latter.
Chasing Daylight is mostly written by the brain cancer patient himself, Eugene O’Kelley. His tumors were inoperable and radiation didn’t touch them, so he died the full-on natural GBM death, fast and furious in about 3 months. O’Kelley does not regret a life spent mostly on work and emphasizes how his skills as a CEO help him to manage his death process, which will strike you as either inspiring or absurd. After being diagnosed, he immediately quit his job as CEO of a large company and began writing and closing down his relationships with acquaintances, friends, and family. So his tragedy has a somewhat romantic element and a lot of clarity, because death was surely imminent. No prolonged, medicalized death and billions of decisions and cycles of uncertainty here.
But Pete Nadherny’s journey in So Far, So Good (recounted by his wife Kathy Beechem) may end up closer to the reality that many GBM patients and families ultimately endure. Nadherny received extensive treatment, including several brain surgeries, radiation, and a wide variety of conventional, experimental, and alternative treatments. The book is long and the story is tortured: as Nadherny’s condition worsens, improves, and worsens, Beechem’s emotional state and requests to God waver accordingly. Sometimes they hope for a cure, sometimes they’re resigned to death. They continue making plans, and keep remarkably many of them, but others must be scrapped as the decline picks up. In the end, Nadherny lives just over 2 years post-diagnosis, and the story is a mixed bag without a clear message. Was he a fighter? If so, did he lose? Did Nadherny and Beechem get what they wanted out of the end of his life? What did either of them learn, exactly?
Of course, there’s one way in which neither man is representative: both of them are quite wealthy and their diseases do not strain their families’ finances, present (or, apparently) future. It seems to me that someone more solidly middle or working class might chafe at the tales of high-end dinners and even expensive trips that the two men planned for their final months. Affording treatment, or balancing its expense against its likely benefit, never comes up in either book at all. There are times when regular folk seem to be entertained by the habits of the rich, but I imagine that in the throes of terminal illness is not one of them.
Chasing Daylight has some appeal beyond the brain cancer set, perhaps to people facing clearly terminal illness (and their loved ones) but who are not yet in a on-their-deathbed position. It has some generalizable insights, and the writing is really quite good until it becomes apparent that the cancer has advanced.
So Far, So Good is not as rewarding of a read. It wants for editing, dragging in places and lacking any kind of overall narrative or emotional arc. However, upon reflection, this is exactly right in a way. The time between a terrible diagnosis and death may in fact be hard to describe, a long slog but at the same time tragically short, and lacking in emotional clarity or ready payoff. It might be worth reading for other people whose family members have received a GBM diagnosis, who are wondering what the coming months might be like.