Cancer brought me to David Rakoff. Like him, I survived Hodgkin’s Disease as a young adult. Directly following my graduation from college it occurred to me that I should curate and edit an essay collection about young people whose ascents—not into careers so much as full adult lives—had been quashed or at least delayed, sometimes chronically, by infirmity. He quickly agreed to write a piece for my book, and he kindly referred me to the late Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), a cancer survivor herself, who agreed to contribute to the anthology, too. I would pair hugely successful talents like these writers with my own work and that of other young writers who had yet to break through.
I never got around to completing the project. Soon after its conception I fell ill again, had to work, had to make excuses not to devote time to something that could not finance my hospital holidays. It was a shame, not least because it kept me from getting closer to some of the great people who would have contributed to the project. Soon, we lost Lucy Grealy. But David kept on writing, living.
Before I knew it, I’d moved to Los Angeles, lost touch with some of these more senior literary influences, found myself picking up piecemeal work just to get by. This happens when you’re riding the bumps of chronic illness and the effects of the sub-lethal treatments you have weathered: frightening, sometimes random occurrences, perhaps secondary cancers, that can keep anyone unfocused, on edge. Waiting. But I kept reading and listening to David.
Recently, to my delight, I learned from a magazine that I could not publish a specific essay they liked because the publication had already commissioned one from David that touched on similar subject matter. “You’ve been Rakoff’ed,” it was said. I felt proud. I was glad not to have published something so that the world could have more David. I’d get them next time, find another outlet. In my last very brief note from David he apologized for a “long delay” in responding to me. He’d only taken a few days. Months go now before I might write or hear from a very close friend. David lived in Realtime.
This is not a formal memorial essay or an obit. I didn’t know David well enough to write the former; the latter I leave to the death-writing pros. I just want the world to know how much this man meant to me and to my work. I sometimes lose track of my projects, find myself derailed for one reason or another—an MRI, fight with the insurance company, a need to pay my rent, self-imposed punishment and exile for not being Half-full enough. But I was about to revive this anthology project soon (enough already with believing that if I finish it I may end my own story) and ask for David’s contribution again.
His life, the idea of it—albeit in a disconnected, remote way, perhaps how some of us feel that we know those who send us e-mails—helped keep mine moving forward. That void will not be filled by another more senior, more accomplished, more everything writer. What's bizarrely sad about the loss of David Rakoff is that his first piece about illness concerned his guilt for having only a lower-stage case of Hodgkin's. He wrote about feeling like a "cancer tourist." As a colleague remarked this morning: "wonderfully self-effacing."
David will be deeply missed, on the page, the radio, the stage, and very occasionally, in the inbox. He gave me hope, direction, without knowing it, and despite our now-searchified, GPS'd world, that is often a very hard thing to locate.--Adam Baer