'Alice & Oliver' Novelist On Marriage, Cancer And The Pain Of Uncertainty
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Charles Bock's daughter was about 5 months old when his wife was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. This blood cancer was destroying her immune system. The treatment - high-dose chemotherapy and radiation and a stem cell transplant - is itself life-threatening. She had two transplants but didn't make it. She died two and a half years after her diagnosis, just before their daughter's third birthday.
Charles Bock has written a new novel that's based on that period. It's called "Alice & Oliver," and it draws on his late wife's journals from that period. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan said that Bock is unflinching here in his depiction of failures of the body and the spirit. "Alice & Oliver" is both haunting and raw, a rare novel about cancer that in this case doesn't try to find meaning in serious illness, but rather gives its random malevolence its full due.
Welcome to FRESH AIR. Charles, why did you write this book knowing that you'd have to relive probably, like, the worst experience that you've ever been through?
CHARLES BOCK: That's a great question, Terry. I wish I had a simple answer. One big part of it is I very much wanted my daughter to understand what her mother went through and how much her mother wanted to be around for her. That was a - probably a number-one big thing. A second thing is it is a hugely dramatic event and a big event in my life and a huge event in her life. There's no way around it. If I would have tried to write a bank heist or a 19th-century art forgery keeper, it still would have had a very, very mourning, devastated person at the center of it.
I just felt great art takes things on and that this had the makings of the best stories, which has tragedy and love and life and laughter and puts it all there. "Death Of A Salesman," "Streetcar Named Desire," these are the things that when I was growing up made me want to be an artist. And I thought, well, this is what's on our shoulders.
At the start, I would look at my notes, and I would get in bed for three hours. And that would be it. That's my day because it was devastating. As I continued writing this, I found I very much wanted to remember, and remembering is better than forgetting. And it gave me material that I could manipulate and change and use and that I had a chance at writing something that could matter.
GROSS: Why is remembering better than forgetting?
BOCK: Well, I very much loved by late wife, Diana Joy Colbert, and I'd rather hold onto what I can. This was a tremendously hard time. It also had tremendously tender and loving moments. After my wife was in - had her first induction chemotherapy, and she'd been in the hospital, been bedridden for weeks, they make you start to walk laps around the floor. We would walk those laps every night together, and we would hold hands. And we would do the little, stupid arm exercises. And we would try and sing songs to one another.
It's such a tender and wonderful memory. I don't want to forget that memory. It was a very hard time and a time that tore me apart, but I also think that it was the time we had and that it was laden with meaning because she really wanted to make it through to be there for our daughter. And that's worth something.
GROSS: So do you remember how you and your wife reacted when you got the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia?
BOCK: Oh, yeah. It came in stages because first, we went to a ER room in Brattleboro, Vt., where we had a very long experience there. And at first, they thought, well, maybe it's just a pneumonia. And we waited, and we waited. And they did a second round of blood tests that took a long time to come back.
When that doctor came back into the room - and we had our - we had the child with us at the time - when he came back into that room, the look on his face and the seriousness of how he felt - and he said you have to get to a hospital right now. We have to admit you. We're arranging to admit you at a hospital that was two hours away in New Hampshire.
We wanted to go back to the city. No city hospital would take us because it was quite possible that Diana would not be alive at the end of that trip. But the doctor would not say it's definitely cancer, it's definitely leukemia. But in all mannerisms and all seriousness of his demeanor, there was no question this was a bomb, and this was very serious.
GROSS: In the novel...
GROSS: ...A doctor tells you both, whatever you are about to go through, you'll be able to get through it a lot better if you can learn to live with not knowing the answers. It's the patients who handle uncertainty. They're the ones who deal with these situations better. Were you and your wife equally equipped or unequipped to deal with the uncertainty of having an illness that could very well be terminal?
BOCK: We were not equipped (laughter). I don't know that anyone is equipped to hear these things. But...
GROSS: Some people handle uncertainty with more grace than others.
BOCK: That's absolutely true. That's absolutely true. Some people do. My wife - bless her - she also - she was someone who meditated, someone who was a believer in Buddhist ideas. And she tried very hard to accept. Her big challenge and the thing that isn't the novel, and the thing - one of the things that was - is so compelling in what she wrestled with is Buddhism says you have to let go.
How do you let go of a 6-month-old baby who's still breast-feeding? Who's never known anything but mother's milk? There's no answer for that. There's no Zen koan for that. We did the best we could which was we both made a decision to focus on the things that we need to do. What's in front of us? What's that day? What can we tangibly take on? And that was as good as we could do. I was also in knots and torments because there was a lot coming at us.
On the one hand, there was the fact of this illness, which is just unavoidable and a sledgehammer. On the other hand, there were insurance issues. On the third hand - or on the foot, you know - on the foot there's taking care of a child and our life situation, our finances. And pretty soon - coming out of your ears and coming out of your eyes and dripping from your nose. It's just one thing after another. I think we handled it all right, yeah.
GROSS: So when your wife was undergoing a stem cell transplant, which basically requires killing the immune system...
GROSS: ...And hoping that the immune system will come back because until it does you are prey to every infection...
BOCK: That's right.
GROSS: ...You know, known to man. And some people don't survive the transplant. When you saw how helpful meditation and Buddhist teachings were being to your wife during this period of suffering, did it make you re-evaluate what those things meant in her life? Like, did you feel that it had a more profound effect on her life and her capacity to endure than you would have guessed before she got sick?
BOCK: Well, I always supported and was intrigued by the nourishment she got from her spiritual practice. I may not have felt the same way or felt the same nourishment, but it was something that I'll always - it's something I loved about her and was very impressed by and probably even jealous of. It was a great boon. And it's something to watch a woman who's had chemo, who's - has a low immune system, stand in her hospital room wearing the lead gown and the mask and move through tai chi. It is awe-inspiring, and it's beautiful.
GROSS: Have you started meditating, too?
BOCK: I'm not really a meditator. I'm, like, a napper.
GROSS: (Laughter.) That's definitely one of the Buddhist practices, I think.
BOCK: It's really a good one. It's really a good one.
GROSS: You found that your wife had kept a journal. Did you know that she was keeping a journal through her illness?
BOCK: We talked about it constantly because Diana very much wanted to write a book that would be inspirational and helpful to women who were in her - the same situation she was in. She knew that I was working on a novel or that I would be working on a novel. And we discussed her illness being part of it, so we would talk about that. I did not look at it until probably 18 months after she passed. I couldn't have handled it.
GROSS: There's a section of the novel that's written in first person.
GROSS: That seems to be the section most inspired by your late wife's journals. There's a section from that part that I'd like you to read.
BOCK: (Reading) So OK, goddess, the first day wasn't so bad. I need to keep letting go. Maybe I just need to sleep. Here's not so bad. Here is where I am. Just keep focusing on what I can do in here. I can write. I can read. I can meditate. I can draw. I can knit. I can paint in my limited, clumsy fashion. I know that I want to be a clear channel. The truth is I'm not miserable.
This little part of me nags, a dog nipping at heels, yipping, wanting me to be sad, to worry. Remember, you're miserable. Remember, this is terrible. But haven't I lived with the black box on my chest for so long? When I'm at my best, which is not often but sometimes, I know I don't have to live inside my fear. I can carry its weight. I wonder what happens if I open the ribbon to my black box and pull off the lid. What happens if I put soil inside, plant seeds, add water and regular light? Look at how life has surprised me today. Look at all the ways I was taken care of, all the ways I had fun.
GROSS: How directly does that passage come from your late wife's diary?
BOCK: That passage is - there are sentences from my late wife's diary. There are definitely sentences that I played with. But a fair amount of that voice is her voice. There are things I had to take out and things I added and things for plot purposes and things for writing purposes that are continuations of other parts of the novel. But that passage for sure, her spirit or her soul or her voice infuses it.
GROSS: Were you able to maintain that in-the-moment-I-am-not-miserable kind of attitude that she was trying to achieve and often did achieve?
BOCK: I would say I was miserable a ton. I would say it was really hard. I also made certain decisions that around Diana I would not be miserable, that I would take the time with her and make the most of it, that we would have a lot of fun together, that I would try and keep the financial pressures or the worries about what was happening away from her.
I would talk about this with my therapist. I would talk about this with my friends. When I had time alone to decompress or what have you, I was probably a basket case. But around her, I knew what was most important, so there was - I probably had a little bit of a split in terms of inside the room and outside the room.
GROSS: We have to take a short break here. So why don't we do that, and then we'll come right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Bock. His new novel is called "Alice & Oliver." This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Charles Bock. His new novel, "Alice & Oliver," is based on what he and his late wife experienced when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and then underwent a stem cell transplant. Two and a half years after her diagnosis, she died.
So you waited a year and a half before you could read her journal. When you did read it, did you find things that she would not have confided with you at the time, but that you were learning, you know, after the fact, through the journal?
BOCK: Well, there's one sentence in there that was huge to read. It's a - was very powerful to read. (Reading) Charles is often miserable. I am not.
That probably keyed the novel. It keyed my understanding of a lot of things or it cleared it. And made it clear in terms of what should I be doing?
On one level, with these characters, what are their paths? You know, I could add weight and put more on their shoulders. But in terms of personality, they're coming from two very separate places. And that becomes clear. And that becomes interesting for the purposes of fiction and for narrative.
So yeah, I think there were things that I learned, and that I saw. And many of them are very beautiful because it's a chronicle of a woman who's really struggling and trying to find a level of peace and trying to find a measure or a path that can guide her through something that does not have logic and does not necessarily have a path.
GROSS: Did you learn things about what she thought of you and what she thought of how you were dealing with her sickness and how competent or not you were being in helping her through it? Did you learn these things by reading her journal?
BOCK: I did learn that she saw how hard I was trying. And to be quite honest, we had a lot of successes. There were a lot of things we managed to do together and a lot of negotiations of the medical system and of just the world where we were successful, where things were working. If the second bone marrow transplant or the first bone marrow transplant would have kept her in remission, it could have been an amazing, amazing success story as opposed to a love story.
And I think I saw that she saw these things and had appreciation and also could be frustrated as any wife can be frustrated with her husband or any husband can be frustrated - or any partner can be frustrated with the other, that you see someone who loves and who you love, and you see them do well. But maybe they could be classier about it. Maybe they could clean things up now and then. Maybe stuff could get off the floor. I think I probably saw levels of that.
GROSS: Another thing that Oliver, in the novel, goes through that I'm sure you must have gone through, too, is that he's really worried about scarring his baby by exposing her to his wife's suffering or ultimately to her death.
What were your fears and how did you try to protect your daughter from those fears?
BOCK: You don't want your infant daughter to see your wife dead. You don't want to see her in pain. We were lucky in certain senses. Diana was filled with love and brought to life by our daughter. The time they would spend together, they were both very, very happy and filled with a lot of joy. Before our daughter could speak, we were saying to her, mommy is in your heart. You are in mommy's heart. Before she knew language, she knew this.
One thing that we did was just try and fill her life with as much happiness as possible when she was around. When Diana would have to be in the hospital, sometimes Lily would have to go to her grandma. Sometimes she would be with me or with other people. We always tried to have people around who had great attitudes and were filled with a lot of light. I sometimes was not that guy. But I also knew my job, and I loved my daughter. And I did the best I could.
Probably in the years when I was writing the book, when I was alone and a single parent, I was also filled with worry and scaredness that I'm just not so great at this. And that I might be - my temper and my best attempts might not be good enough. The other way I'd look at it is, hey, just more stuff for the therapist's bill when she's 16, you know, added on. I'm doing the best I can...
BOCK: ...Whatever. We'll figure it out later. So fine, you know, eat a Bomb Pop for dinner, you know? Great, that's what's going to do. Although, I didn't actually feed her a Bomb Pop for dinner. But that attitude of this is what I can do right now. I'm doing the best I can.
BOCK: I think a lot of people in the world - that's just how you get by. You do the best you can.
GROSS: My guest is writer Charles Bock. His new novel is called "Alice & Oliver." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about his late wife, and we'll talk about how he grew up in his parent's pawnshop in Vegas. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charles Bock. His new novel, "Alice & Oliver," draws on the last two and a half years of his wife's life after her diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, a form of blood cancer. When she died after high-dose chemo and two stem cell transplants, he became the single father of their daughter, who was about to have her third birthday.
In the novel, both the husband and the wife, Alice and Oliver, are, you know - are changed by her illness. And some of their changes head in different directions.
GROSS: You know, they're changing in different directions. And I kept wondering, like, are they going to fall out of love with each other as they change, as they become slightly different people than they were?
Can I ask you if you were ever worried that you'd fall out of love with your wife because she was being so transformed by disease, and the responsibilities and the worry and fear were changing you, too?
BOCK: You may certainly ask. It's a big question. The beautiful thing that I can say about our time together was that we also got time at the end of the night. After all the treatments, I could join her in her hospital bed. And we could turn on the DVD player and pop in the little, red envelope from Netflix and watch "Top Chef," if that's what she wanted to watch, and sit there and laugh about whatever the challenge was.
We were able to have time together, and we were able to talk and be a loving couple. And that sustained us. It sustained to me. I think it sustained her. There was always the hope and the belief that we would manage as a family. There may have been questions after all this was over, how are we going to do things? How will we get by? But while everything was happening, thank goodness we were really a pretty strong unit.
GROSS: If it wasn't for your daughter, who was only a few months old when your wife was diagnosed, do you think your wife would have gone through to stem cell transplants? It's such a punishing procedure.
BOCK: There is no way on earth. She would've went into the mountains of Western Massachusetts and found an ashram or something, and she would have meditated and eaten grass or something and had yogurt and wheat germ. And she would have went through the process that way.
She went through everything for her daughter, for me also. She wanted to be with me and wanted to be around for me. But she loved our daughter. She had worked very hard to become a mom. She very much had wanted a natural childbirth and went through it and to - as a matter of pride, so she could feel the process of giving birth. And she went through all the chemotherapies and all the - both bone marrow transplants, so she could get through the other side and be a mother to that little girl.
GROSS: Do you think that when she was dying, she knew she was dying?
BOCK: I do. Yeah, I think at the end, she did know, yes. We were told that many times by doctors from the point where the cancer came back for the last time that there was a limit as to what they could do. And there was a certain point where things weren't working, and her body was moving in a certain direction. And I do think she knew.
GROSS: And how did she take that?
BOCK: Probably with as much grace as any person can imagine. She - there were times where she cried. There were also - she spent time around people she loved. My wife was also a longtime member of a 12-step group. And she also saw her sponsees even while she was in her hospital bed and listening to them.
She wrote instructions for when she asked for a memorial. And she asked that Stevie Wonder's "Happier Than The Morning Sun" be played. She asked that so that her friends would understand how much they meant to her as a thank you. I - that's my definition of grace, and she went through this world in a way that I can only marvel at.
GROSS: This is an awkward thing to ask, but was there some sense of relief that you experienced that her suffering was over?
BOCK: No, it's an interesting question. We tried so hard. I never felt that way. I - we - at the point where she passed, she was in a new, different hospital on a drug that on paper could do some good but wasn't approved for leukemia. And the hope was so there was this wildly experimental attempt, but we were all in for it. And we were trying to prolong her life.
And even at the point where those last days, the hope was the drug would kick in, and although her blood cell counts had cratered, that they would start to come back up, that we would get past those few days and that as they had so many times during her two and a half years, things would start to get better. This came at the climax of a period where for a while there was no day that was better than the others, where they had been going downhill, downhill, downhill for a while.
When she finally passed, the level of exhaustion and sorrow and grief for me was just so huge. And maybe this is a failing of mine, but I never felt relief for her. I never felt she's in a better place or it's finally over. I just kind of shattered. I also knew that I had to get our daughter ready because in three days she would have her third birthday party, and she was very excited about that. So even when all this was going on, life was still going on. And I didn't feel that relief that you're asking about.
GROSS: Did having such a young daughter and knowing that she needed to still experience joy and to have life continue, did that help give you permission to have your life continue?
BOCK: I'm absolutely sure that it did. If I did not have our daughter to take care of, I'm sure I would have been in a alley somewhere or at the bottom of a bottle or in some dark corner of the soul instead of being at a birthday party for 3 year old.
GROSS: I think we should take a short break here. My guest is Charles Bock. His new novel is called "Alice & Oliver." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Charles Bock. His new novel, "Alice & Oliver" is based on his experiences when his wife was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She had two stem cell transplants, didn't survive. She died two and a half years after the diagnosis when their daughter was about to turn 3. You've since remarried.
GROSS: You're married to the writer Leslie Jamison. Did you have to give yourself permission to have a relationship and ask yourself is it OK to fall in love again? Would your wife approve of that even though she's gone? And are you still, like, cheating in some way? 'Cause I know people go through that.
BOCK: After Diana passed, I did not believe for one second that I would remarry or that I would be in love again. Diana, in fact, left me a note saying, don't let the darkness swallow you. She felt I should mourn, but that I should still live. And I didn't believe that I would have love as a part of my future. After years, that was different.
At the point when I was lucky enough to meet Leslie, there had been some wonderful women that I had met that I was not capable or ready or able to move things really forward with. Psychologically I just wasn't in a place where I could go there.
When I met the woman who is now my wife, who is a superb writer and who is also a huge, generous thinker and who also happens to be - who's just an amazing person, I was at a place where I could give myself permission, where I could allow it to happen, where I wanted it to happen, and also with a person that it was right to move forward with. And I feel very, very fortunate every single day.
GROSS: When your daughter was really young, how did you explain her mother's death?
BOCK: With the help of a psychologist who told me what to say.
GROSS: (Laughter) What was it?
BOCK: But I waited 'til after her third birthday party. And I had to sit down with her and say, mommy's in heaven. She loves you, but she was very ill. And she wanted to stay, but she couldn't. She is in your heart, and you're in her heart.
And, you know, I'll always remember the look on my daughter's face when I was telling her this. It took her - it's still something that she has to carry and that she lives with. And it's a hard thing, you know, and it was especially hard those years after because she was so, so, so little. She's just 3. She doesn't understand. She sees all the other mommies picking up her classmates from pre-K and kindergarten. It is a hole, one that she does live with. But we also talk about it.
And she would say, you know, it's not fair. And I would say, you're right. It's not fair. And she would be sad, and I would say you get to be sad. You're allowed. It's not right. And I would also say at a certain point, that's not all we get to be. We still have to love each other. We still are present for one another.
But it's a big deal. It's a big deal and we're very fortunate in that after Leslie and I were married and told Lily, the first thing she said in reaction was, do I get to call her mommy now? So now she has mommy Leslie, who is around every day. And she has mommy Diana, who is in heaven and who is in her heart. And so now she gets to have two mommies.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Bock. And his new novel is called "Alice & Oliver." I want to ask you about a previous book, "Beautiful Children," which is about runaway teens in Vegas.
GROSS: You grew up in Vegas. Your grandfather and your parents ran pawn shops.
GROSS: So I'm trying to imagine what that was like, like, always seeing people down on their luck, selling things, often things that would be precious to them, selling them cheap, so that they could have immediate money.
GROSS: And that - you know, and knowing that that's what kept your family alive is, like, negotiating prices with desperate people.
BOCK: Well, my parents are still there, you know...
GROSS: In the pawn shop?
BOCK: ...Yeah, they are. And I...
GROSS: And in Vegas no less, where people...
BOCK: In Vegas, no less. They will be listening to this show in that shop. Hello, mom and dad. And my brothers - and I have two brothers who also - who work there with them. It is, and it's a trip. There's no way around it. It's a singular experience. We would go down after they would close up, and we would all go to eat at like a buffet at the Golden Nugget or at the - or a coffee shop at the California or at the Vegas Club.
And you don't know until later that this is odd because in your childhood, this is childhood. This is just what you got. Later, as a teenager and then really in years during college and after college, then I started to really understand just what I'd grown up in. And it is a different world.
It is wearing to see the transactions and the narrative and the counter-narratives that take place, kind of the negotiations that are taking place in the store, even as there's also regular customers who are - who come in and come out. And they talk about sports or they talk about politics or they just hang out for a little while with my parents. There also could be moments where a Sheikh could come in. And the store would get closed down, and they would negotiate over probably high-level watches or jewels.
GROSS: You know, as somebody who became a novelist, it must have been, like, fascinating when you were young to see all these stories walking through the door, you know? Like, everybody who comes to the pawnshop to sell something has a story about why they need to sell it.
BOCK: I agree completely. It was fascinating. And I think also feeling for the people on the other side of the counter, knowing that they have a story or they need help or they need something, and then also feeling for my parents who aren't going to give them that much money because the item is not worth as much as they say it's worth or they - or because the loan can only be for so much for it to be worthwhile to them.
And seeing the conflict or the friction between them and wanting both sides to come out OK and wanting everything to be OK. I think that that's a huge thing in my personality or in my psyche that makes me a novelist or that has developed and made me and allowed me to become a writer is that I could really feel on both sides of the counter.
GROSS: So one more question...
GROSS: ...And this gets back to your novel and your experience after your wife's death. Did watching her two and a half years of severe illness and two stem cell transplants and the real downhill spiral at the end, do you think about your own death any more than you used to? And do you worry about your own death any more than you used to? Who will be there for you and how painful will it be? Will you be suffering or will it be sudden? That kind of stuff.
BOCK: I'll tell you. Over the holidays, I had to have a tooth removed for emergency surgery. And during that they give you the gas or whatever. And I wasn't knocked out, and I had a bad trip on the gas. And I did have flashbacks - or did have moments where I really was back in the hospital room, and I was imagining things for Diana.
But then I was also imagining me closing my eyes and going to sleep. And like I said, it was a bad trip. And my mortality was in that room with me, and I was seeing Diana. And I was seeing my daughter. And I was seeing Leslie and my parents. And I was having the whole experience that included really feeling for her in those last seconds and projecting my own last moments and imagining not seeing these people I loved.
It was really intense and horrible. And that's as close as I've had to going forward and projecting my own last seconds because ideally my last seconds are going to be, you know, 98 years old and having sex and doing heroine.
BOCK: You know? Like, if I'm going to go out that's ideal. But I also I did have that trip, you know.
GROSS: Next time, I suggest the Novocain.
BOCK: Yeah, that's probably right. That's probably right.
GROSS: Well, that sounds like one awful experience.
BOCK: Yeah, it was not good.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good health and a long life. And I thank you so much for talking with us.
BOCK: Oh, thank you, Terry. I had the - this was a amazing conversation. And I'm really honored to be on your show, and I'm so very thankful. And my best to you as well.
GROSS: Charles Bock is the author of the new novel "Alice & Oliver." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.