“‘It is a question of will, Mr. Wells,’ he said, striving to imbue his slurred voice with a tone of authority, ‘That’s all.’”
~Felix J. Palma
Every now and again a story comes around that pierces the heart. The reader becomes so intensely immersed in the story that the author has to share that the reader cannot help but come away from the tale unchanged. The characters become so real, so life-like, that they melt into the life of the reader, leaving the mind and emotions reeling from the lessons learned as a fictional character bumbles and stumbles their way through life. These are the stories that remain in the heart of the reader forever, leaving one, to use the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “a sadder and wiser man” (88). As one who has had my life radically impacted by the lessons to be learned from the lives fictional characters and the passions of the author that lie beneath the surface, I feel compelled to share the lessons learned, just like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, with those who are willing to take the time to listen.
Since receiving the diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer and leaving my job, I have felt God calling me to start a blog and share these life lessons. Since feeling this call, I have done my utmost to avoid following through, and my cancer has provided the perfect excuse to be negligent in this calling. It is so easy to make excuses; however, the calling has become more intense with each passing day. Then I picked up a book that shattered through the fear and spoke volumes to me. It is a book whose title may cause many to pass it over for something a bit more exciting; something that speaks of adventures, fantasy lands, or is the latest edition in a beloved series; however, for me, it was the subject that was intriguing, the Oxford Dictionary. Strange I know, but I love words, lexicography, and etymology so this book was perfect.
In this story, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester tells the story of Dr. William Chester Minor, a Civil War veteran who was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. At the end of his tale, Winchester makes an interesting observation. Today, a person suffering from schizophrenia can receive medications that help them to have “some kind of dignified life,” a benefit that was denied to Dr. Minor (214). However, it was because of this lack of understanding and proper treatment offered by modern medicine that Dr. Minor was able to complete his incredible work for the Oxford English Dictionary. Had modern medical science existed, Dr. Minor might never have been compelled to work so diligently in compiling definitions for this incredible work; a point that Winchester notes as a “truly savage irony” (214). This point left me with the nagging question, has a God that has the power to heal left me with a “thorn in the flesh” for the very purpose of providing me with the time necessary to share my message with those who are searching for answers? I have to agree with Winchester that this appears to be, indeed, a savage irony.
Roughly a six months later, this savage irony was brought home to me yet again in a tale written by Felix J. Palma. I picked this particular book up on a whim. Its title caught my eye; however, it was the question that the author posed that really set my mind awhirl. Through three unique, yet interwoven stories, the author seeks to answer the question of what happens to the present if we seek to rewrite the past. I have spent much of my time in lamenting the past, wishing that somehow I could go back in time and change the outcome of my diagnosis. Was there a point in time when things could have been different? Was there a point in my array of symptoms this cancer could have been found sooner, before it had metastasized and became incurable? I was making myself crazy with the thought and sought to seek solace in Mr. Palma’s story and learn from his characters how to move forward with life.
The lesson I was to learn was not one of the dangers of rewriting the past, but one of learning how to live well in the present. In his fictional story, Palma writes of an encounter between the very real H.G. Wells and Joseph Merrick, better known in history as the Elephant Man. During this encounter, Wells admires a beautiful cardboard replica of the church across the street from his hospital room. It is intricate, delicate, and extremely beautiful; the product of an artistic mind and steady hand. As their conversation continues, Merrick tells Wells that he will become a great writer, a compliment that Wells cannot accept. Merrick turns Wells attention back to the cardboard church and holds out his hands; hands that Palma describes as “mismatched…the right one was enormous and grotesque while the left one…that of a ten year old girl” and Merrick pointedly asks if Wells “would believe that these hands could make a church of cardboard” (167). The answer was obvious; however, the proof of the accomplishment lay plainly before Wells. The response Merrick gives is chilling, “it’s a question of will” (168). It is a question of will…as Palma’s fictional Wells sits back, stunned by the realization that he was only held back by a lack of self-belief, I realized that I, too, suffered from the same affliction (168).
Today I am stepping out in faith. I am taking hold of Merrick’s fictional words that are supported as truth by history. Just look at his complex church, it is stunningly beautiful and intricate, a creation made by mismatched hands but formed from a keen eye and loving heart. Of all people through history, Joseph Merrick had the most reason to give up self-belief and question the existence of a good and holy God. History tells us that he did no such thing and Felix J. Palma’s fictional encounter brings that point home. What will follow in the days and months ahead is my personal reflection on the stories I read, the characters I meet, and the impact that each and every one has on my heart. I am going to share with abandon my heart and my life with anyone who chooses to listen. Today is the day that cancer stops holding me back. Today is the day that I abandon my mourning of what was and step into a future made a bit brighter by the lessons of the past. To share one last lesson, a lesson taught to me by Mr. Palma, there is a time machine that awaits us in our mind. All we need do is step inside, imagine ourselves back in time at the moment of our deepest hurts, regrets, and pain. This is the moment we need to face those demons, stand firm, and shoot them dead. By conquering our past we can live boldly into the future and that is I what I intend to accomplish with this blog. Will you join me?
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Boston: Educational Publishing Company.1906. Web.
Palma, Felix J. The Map of Time. Trans. Mick Caistor. New York:Atria. 2008. Print.
Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Harper. 1998. Print.