The New Yorker
[I hope that you have not been where I have been. I hope that you never go there. But if you have been there, you will know why I needed to cover this piece.]
October 12, 2016 [Just found this.]
Sam Park and the author in their college days.Courtesy Curtis Sittenfeld
If you’re trying to tell the story of a friendship, do you start when the two of you met? For Sam and me, that was in the late summer of 1996, after we became co-editors of the arts and entertainment section of our university’s student newspaper.
Do you start with the beginning of your friend’s life? Sam was born in 1976, in São Paulo, Brazil, the younger brother of two sisters, the son of parents who’d left Korea two years earlier and who, in 1991, would resettle in Torrance, California, just south of Los Angeles, and work as garment fusers.
Do you start with your friend’s personality? Sam has always been loyal and generous, neurotic and melodramatic, wickedly but unostentatiously smart, frank and funny and someone who makes the people around him feel funny, too, because he laughs frequently and hard.
Or do you start the story with the day everything changed? Which was in 2014, right around his thirty-eighth birthday, when Sam was given a diagnosis of Stage III-C stomach cancer. For the enviably uninitiated, about nine per cent of people who receive such a diagnosis are alive five years later.
But to return to the middle: In college, Sam and I both had literary aspirations and tendencies to develop crushes on preppy guys who didn’t like us back. Pretty much from the start, however, we were crazy about each other. I suspect that if I were to look now at issues of the arts and entertainment section we edited, which was a Thursday insert, they’d make me blush, but we certainly enjoyed ourselves. One issue featured the “50 Most Beautiful Sexiest Men Alive of the Year at Stanford.” (Hey, we needed to get to those preppy, aloof guys somehow.) Another included a quasi-review in which, with unabashed undergraduate narcissism, we chronicled a “date” we’d gone on at a just-opened Mexican restaurant on campus.
I was a year older than Sam, and the night before my graduation he sent one of the kindest e-mails of my life, all about how much he adored and believed in me. And really, though I had other close friends, there was something unique in Sam’s affection, a miraculous kind of blind spot: he always, unfailingly, thought that I was hilarious and wonderful, and that everything I wrote was brilliant. In the current age of social media, we all, of course, have the ability to publicly pretend we’re always hilarious and wonderful. But for someone to know the real you, the non-social-media you, the awkward and bad-jeans-wearing and years-away-from-publishing-novels you and still think you’re great, just as you are, is an extraordinary gift. And Sam’s inexplicably generous view of me never diminished. A few years ago, I attended a lecture at which the speaker recommended that people marry their biggest fan. Uh-oh, I thought. My biggest fan is Sam. When I expressed the sentiment to my husband, he laughed and said, “You should tell Sam that.”
After college, Sam and I lived in different cities—he earned a Ph.D. in English in L.A., and then became a professor in Chicago; I moved around before settling in St. Louis. We saw each other every year or two, and I remember fragments from this decade-and-a-half stretch: the key chain that I gave him featuring a silver charm in the shape of a book, with “Pride and Prejudice” inscribed on the cover (yes, it was kind of cheesy, but Sam was a Jane Austen super-fan who, as an undergraduate, had written a play based on her most famous novel); the time we were at the beach, and I went swimming, and he didn’t remove his clothes, including his socks and wingtip oxford lace-up shoes. (If he swam, he told me later, “I think I was afraid of the fun I might have.”) In 1999, my younger sister and I had a long layover at LAX, and this was when a person without a ticket could still get through security; Sam met us as we deplaned and bestowed on me an enormous, impractical, beautiful bouquet of flowers.
We read early drafts of each other’s work, and it was Sam who supplied me with the Korean dialogue used by one of the characters in my first novel, “Prep,” which came out in 2005; I blurbed his first novel, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” when it was published the following year. He stayed with me and my boyfriend (I’d finally snagged one) when a short film he’d written and directed was part of a festival in Philadelphia; when my boyfriend and I got married, at the drunken hotel gathering after the reception, Sam sat on the lap of my friend’s cute husband; and when my first child was born, Sam brought her a pink-and-white striped sweater. In other words, the years passed, we grew up, and I probably took a lot about our friendship for granted. And then, in April, 2014, I e-mailed Sam an article from the Times that I suggested could serve as inspiration for his next novel. He responded, “Curtis, I have cancer.”
Sam returned to his parents’ condo in Torrance in order to receive treatment at U.C.L.A. Surgery removed ninety per cent of his stomach, which meant that in order to avoid losing a dangerous amount of weight—and Sam had always been thin—he was supposed to consume about six small meals throughout the day, in addition to taking digestive enzymes. But he often felt too sick to eat. He was chronically constipated, and the radiation and chemotherapy left him sometimes nauseous and often exhausted. Remarkably, he still pulled off the feat of writing the first draft of a novel during his recuperation. We texted often, but when I asked if I should come visit he told me to save the trip for if the cancer returned, because that’s when his prospects would really look bad.
Sometimes we texted about Sam’s sickness, but often we discussed matters that were far more mundane (Did we identify more with Abbi or Ilana on “Broad City”?) or downright gossipy, like a huge advance that someone had just got for a novel, or the guy we’d known in college who’d married a woman and, according to Facebook, now appeared to be dating a man. I’d e-mail Sam sections of my novel-in-progress, which I truly felt like I was writing for him—it was a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” which is to say that it combined three of Sam’s favorite things: Jane Austen, Lizzy Bennet, and me.
In January, 2015, Sam went back to Chicago, where he reported experiencing a new gratitude for his life—his students, his friends, the apartment he’d just moved into. When I completed my novel, which I’d decided to call “Eligible,” I sent it to my editor, my sisters, and a few other writers. Sam live-texted me as he read the final pages, and he was the very first person to finish it.
“DON’T CHANGE A WORD,” he declared.
Then: “who are you!!!??? who wrote this??!!!!!”
Then: “motherhood has changed u. uve never written with such freedom joy and love of life its the most bighearted expansive novel you’ve ever written.”
I texted back, “I’m dedicating the book to you.”
To which Sam replied, “are you serious???!!! that almost makes it worth it for me to die of cancer.”
Last November, I flew from St. Louis to Chicago to hand-deliver to Sam an advance copy of “Eligible,” and I’m not exaggerating when I say that being greeted by him at the airport was—sexual orientations be damned—the most romantic moment of my life. In our delight at seeing each other, our multiple hugs, we out-“Love Actually”–ed “Love Actually.” Then we took a taxi to a fancy restaurant high up in a downtown hotel, where we were meeting our friend Shauna for lunch.
Though he was mostly still eating many small meals, Sam had kept his stomach empty in order to indulge at this one; we consumed expensive food, admired the view of Lake Michigan, and gossiped. After lunch, Shauna went home to her baby while Sam and I walked around in the cold and gossiped some more. A week later, Sam returned to his parents’ condo in Torrance for Thanksgiving, and almost immediately things started going wrong.
“Spent Sunday in emergency room after having three hours of severe nausea,” he texted. Or, “Yesterday I had severe cramps that felt like I was being repeatedly stabbed in my stomach with a knife.”
He eventually stopped eating solid food, relying instead on Boost brand “nutritional drinks” and an intravenous formula known as T.P.N. Every night, before bed, his sister would spend an hour hooking up his T.P.N. tubes. It took two months, plus multiple and often excruciating CT scans, ultrasounds, X-rays, and biopsies, to confirm that the cancer had returned.
Sometimes, Sam was too tired, or in too much pain, to text. But, at other times, he was still game to kid around. Once, when I was texting him from a children’s holiday concert and he was at the hospital, he joked that there should be a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about us, with a montage that cut between me at the concert and him in the operating room; we decided that, for maximum schmaltz, the carol accompanying the montage should be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” He also regularly invoked “Terms of Endearment,” telling me I was Shirley MacLaine and he was Debra Winger.
In February, he embarked on a course of palliative chemo. Around this time, he called with a particularly grim update about how he was doing. Then he light-heartedly added, “So anyway…” and wanted to discuss, in great detail, an embarrassing secret I’d recently divulged.
I booked a ticket to visit for two weeks hence; this was the trip he’d once encouraged me to delay until things were really bad, but now he didn’t protest. Indeed, he sounded so terrible that I wondered if I should make the trip sooner.
Flying out to L.A., I imagined that Sam and I might talk for five minutes, then I’d sit there and read while he slept. Instead, after not hugging hello because he was immuno-compromised, we astonished his family and ourselves with a marathon six-hour conversation. Sam and I talked about novels and other writers, about love and sex and marriage and friendship, about George W. Bush and adult coloring books and how the food Sam craved most was a greasy slice of Domino’s cheese pizza. We got our usually reticent friend Emily to text us a picture of her pregnant belly because it turns out that, when a person with metastatic cancer requests something, people tend to comply.
Perhaps surprisingly, for most of the time, Sam and I laughed, and, about five hours in, we both cried. Sam expressed his willingness to visit me as a ghost after his death, which was an offer of unparalleled sweetness and also one I wasn’t sure I wanted to accept. I told him about a segment I’d heard on N.P.R. describing the parents of a little boy with terminal cancer who explained their son’s impending death to him by closing the curtain next to his hospital bed, staying on the other side of the curtain, and saying, “This is just like when you’re going to be dead. I’m still here, you’re still there. We just can’t see each other.”
The next day, with characteristic self-consciousness, Sam and I texted to congratulate each other on how our visit had been like a great novel: It had contained comedy, pathos, a tearful climax, and a satisfying dénouement.
As writers, Sam and I know that the expected way to conclude an essay about your friend who has awful cancer is with his death. But fulfilling expectations is often tedious, and Sam is not dead. In fact—marvelously, thrillingly—he’s now much better than he was when I saw him in January. He was, his doctor has since informed him, literally starving then. But it appears that the chemo is shrinking his tumor, because he can eat solid food again and was able to enjoy that slice of Domino’s cheese pizza he’d yearned for. In July, I returned to Los Angeles, and we ate at a restaurant that Sam, who knows I’m a frequent People magazine reader, had selected owing to its popularity with celebrities. He was more upset than I was that, when Al Pacino walked past our table, I saw him only from the back.
Sam will continue the chemo for as long as it works, then he’s hoping to receive experimental immunotherapy treatment. To be sure, his days are circumscribed, and he spends a lot of time watching TV. But he can also go for walks and to restaurants, and he can take showers, all of which are things he couldn’t do a few months ago. His story is not finished.
That day in Torrance, I asked Sam if he did or didn’t want me to write an essay about our friendship. “I’d love it,” he said. In the months since, he has texted me the following: “I want it to be a tearjerker.” And also: “I always planned on having you speak at my funeral so this is really killing two birds with one stone.”
So here you go, Sam—once my co-editor, recently my Debra Winger, still my biggest fan, always and forever my beloved friend. Text when you have a chance and tell me what you think.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of five novels, including “Eligible: A Modern Retelling of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ ”
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