[Patch and Cookie Rose, at rest.]
My friend Patch Rose is gone. But as sad as I feel right now, his departure simultaneously serves a great purpose. It reminds me of the importance of a writer having a “community.”
He beat the odds, Patrick Francis Rose did, living two years in remission with a virulent brain tumor called a glioblastoma. But it came back, with a fury that could not be withstood. Or understood. He was buried on Valentine’s Day, which had a doubly cruel irony, as it was also the birthday of his widow, Cookie.
And yet, when I think about Patch, I think about one of the most alive and vibrant people I have ever met.
The way I met Patch has much to do with honoring those who have left us. And it has much to do with what we writers do and how important it is to pursue a somewhat nebulous term known as “coummunity.”
My mother was a writer, an actor and a teacher and she influenced me to follow in those career paths. When she succumbed to lung cancer, I wanted to honor the work she had done and the lives she had touched. So I founded the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction in 2000. I put in some money, my father Andrew put in some money and every year, I give away three prizes to the best humor writing in any form from anywhere in the world, in my mother’s name.
In 2005, without a doubt, the funniest piece submitted was entitled “X Marks the Spot,” a wonderfully absurd rumination on the religious practice of Ash Wednesday and one person’s efforts to get his ashes in gear, so to speak, during a lunch hour. The writer was some guy named Patch Rose of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Every December 24, Christmas Eve, I call the winners of the Mona Schreiber Prize to tell them the good news. And when I reached Patch and praised him and told him I’d be sending 500 bucks his way and posting his work on my website, I could hear his voice constrict with emotion. He told me about the GBM tumor that he had overcome. I told him that his story, that the conversation we were having, was precisely the reason I had founded the Mona Schreiber Prize in the first place.
I only wish that check could have had more zeroes to the left of the decimal point.
But one thing I have always known about writers is that they often toil alone and are not always the best spokespeople for their work. Writers need to connect with writers, with readers, with organizations. In a word, they need community beyond the walls of their offices and homes.
I am convinced that after the winners of the MSP have spent their modest checks—no doubt frivolously frittering it away on food, clothing or shelter—that what might remain is the idea that their work has been acknowledged, that they belong to a new circle, a newly expanded community. That even if they have to go back to some job that depletes their soul, they can remember the feeling of officially being awarded, an encouragement to continue the often less than staggeringly wealthy lifestyle of the writer.
Patch told me, after his first place award, that he was going to come out to California to visit me, bringing his wife Cookie, who had been by his side through the trauma and was about ready for a damn vacation, thank you very much.
I encouraged him to do so but knowing that many well-meaning people (especially me) make promises about visiting friends in far away places and rarely do so.
But one sunny Southern California afternoon, I greeted Patch and Cookie on my doorstep. And let me tell you, Patch Rose, to me at first glance, was utterly elfin, with an irrepressible smile and eyes that fairly glowed, that emanated a cognition of what it is to be fully alive, to have beaten, for the moment, death.
I took him and Cookie out to my favorite local restaurant, Café 50s, where posters and paraphernalia from that era adorned the walls, where the jukebox played hot stacks of wicked wax and the burgers and shakes were undeniably good.
There was only a brief moment of sadness in that, our only day together. It came from within me, not from Patch or Cookie. Patch no longer had hair, due to his cancer treatments. But he refused to wear a wig or a baseball cap or knit cap. He was completely free from the self-consciousness of those who worry about their weight or the shape of their ears or that pimple or any other cosmetic issue. And when I first saw the scar on the side of his skull, a cold chill went through me and I felt my insides spasm.
Yet, here he was, a guy who was told, after the surgery, that glioblastoma patients, at best, had a year to leave. He was about to pass that marker, and in his eyes and words I felt the energy of a man who had been given a reprieve. It did not matter how long, to him. It was a commutation of sentence. He had defied the doctors, the odds, the Fates.
And he had come out with his wife to visit me. I spoke with them about the profession of writing. Patch was no neophyte, being a reporter at the Truth or Consequences Herald. We spoke of agents and publishing and syndication and I encouraged him to finish the book of essays he had already begun, based on his columns, both funny and frightening, on dealing with cancer.
He was calling it A Year to Live? I loved the title, the question mark at the end. And I loved its other suggested meanings. How do we live when we uncharacteristically live in a compact period of time? And how is it different from how we were living before?
At the end of lunch, they told me, excitedly, they were going to drive west to the beach, to Santa Monica, to the Pacific Ocean, and feel the water and sand seep through their toes.
They said they had never seen the Pacific, that they had always wanted to do that. They looked like exuberant young children in grownup bodies.
They didn’t know it, but in that moment, I came very close to crying in front of them. I didn’t. They would have been tears of joy. But I figured Cookie and Patch had already shed more than their fair share of tears. They didn’t need to see mine.
I have met many people who think that writers are too concerned with achieving immortality via their writing. I have to rely on the old line of Woody Allen’s: I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
I say, we all have egos. Some of us invest in our artistry. Some of us invest in our children and our lineage. Some of us get facelifts. We writers cannot know what impact we will have when we are gone. Most of us will never live the dreams we had for our work. But there is a tangible satisfaction in sharing our work with loved ones, with some kind of audience while we live. It is about community. That community might be Truth or Consequences. Or thanks to the Internet, it might be international. But part of what we writers must do is try to touch people, including the ones we will never know. Because despite their anonymity, they are part of our community too.
Patch Rose lived to 43. Now, he is somewhere else. But he is still part of my community. I have a slim but delightful volume on my bookshelf called One Year to Live? And I have in my mind the memory of a man with impossibly alive eyes who changed my world, and some others, a man who managed to make a scar on the side of his head look as natural as his smile.
[Despite having health care coverage for Patch, Cookie is in debt tens of thousands of dollars. If you are able, please visit www.patchrose.com and donate what you can.]