A Whole New Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this autobiographical volume, Reynolds Price focuses on a particular event that, beginning in 1984, changed his life. In that year, Kate Vaiden (1986), which was to win a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, was about one-third finished. Price was already a writer who had established a solid international reputation.

His first novel, A Long and Happy Life (1962), received the 1962 William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novels. More books followed with clockwork regularity: The Names and Faces of Heroes (1963), A Generous Man (1966), Love and Work (1968), Permanent Errors (1970), Things Themselves (1972), The Surface of Earth (1975), Early Dark: A Play (1977), A Palpable God (1978), The Source of Light (1981), Vital Provisions (1982), and Mustian (1983).

In 1984, Price had recently completed a term as acting chair of the Department of English at Duke University, where he had taught since 1958 and had become James B. Duke Professor of English in 1977. His next publication, Private Contentment: A Play (1984), was in press.

One April day, his colleague George Williams commented that Price seemed to be slapping his left foot to the pavement as he walked. Price blamed his thong sandals. Alerted to the problem, however, Price soon realized that Williams was right, but he viewed the movement as a slight physical aberration and thought little more of it.

Toward the end of April, Price discovered that messages from his brain were not being transmitted accurately to his lower limbs. When he thought, “Run,” his legs, although not paralyzed, failed to respond. On May 26, serving as best man at the wedding of Lettie Randall and Jeffrey Anderson, who eventually became his closest neighbors, Price could barely climb the gentle slope to the tent beneath which the reception was held.

The following Monday, Price consulted an internist at Duke University Medical Center, who checked his reflexes and immediately summoned a neurologist for consultation. Further tests, including a myelogram, revealed that nearly a foot of Price’s upper spinal cord had swollen, crowding the area dangerously. The neurologist, suspecting a cyst or a tumor, urged immediate surgery to determine precisely what was awry. Price almost refused surgery, but neurosurgeon Allan Friedman told him that without treatment, his condition would worsen rapidly.

During the long weekend before surgery on Monday, June 4, Price, buttressed by the attention of his brother Bill, sister-in-law Pia, and close friend Will Singer, wrestled with memories of his mother’s brain surgery in the same hospital in 1963 and of his father’s unsuccessful battle against lung cancer in 1954.

The ten-hour surgery revealed that Price had a ten-inch tumor crowding his spinal cord. Friedman removed about 10 percent of it and chiseled away some of the vertebral bone to relieve the compression in that area.

Bill Price called Paul Bennett, a physician married to their cousin, to consult with him about Reynolds’ condition. Upon hearing the pathology report, Bennett said that it meant “six months to paraplegia, six months to quadriplegia, six months to death,” an opinion not contradicted by most of the Duke physicians familiar with Price’s condition.

Meanwhile, Price, who always tended to process information visually, began to visualize the intruder into his spinal column as a malevolent eel. The prescribed follow-up treatment for his condition was massive radiation, during which he visualized the conquest of this consuming eel, although he was far from sure that the conquest would result in total victory. By the time Price left the hospital three weeks following his surgery, he was able to walk, at times without the platform cane he used to steady himself. He navigated within his house and was able to walk briefly in the fields surrounding it. Friends provided food and slept over until Price was steady enough to be left alone at night.

A numbness in his feet made walking hazardous, but he managed, even thinking that he would be able to drive himself to his radiation treatments. By June 30, he was back to his writing, producing a poem that, along with many other poems that relate to his illness, is reproduced in the book.

Even with physical therapy, however, Price was not making the progress he had...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)