It’s been almost a month since we all—and I do mean, quite literally with very few exceptions, “all”—learned of not only the tragic death of comedic titan Norm MacDonald, but the ten year-long secret battle with the blood cancer that killed him.
In the aftermath of this Hiroshima haymaker of a loss, to a growing contingency of us Norm’s contributions to not only comedy but also literature with his stellar menefreghismo-infused not-a-memoir novel “Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir” go far beyond hilariously meandering paths to left field punchlines, Ohlmeyer-defying O.J. jokes, and the absurdist subterfuge of the could-be confessions of his novel… Norm’s very existence lent life a richness that, thanks to the glory of technology—the youtube of it all— will live on, but only in the hollow way a ghost “lives” on, as a still-present thing of the past that has ceased to continue to contribute anything new but still graciously rattles its chains in the attic of our hearts and minds, reminding us of what brilliance came before.
Understandably, the incidencies in which Norm mentioned cancer in either his act or in captured conversation are now churning to the fore as we forensically sift through what scant evidence and clues might have been under our noses all along this past decade while he kept his fight with malignancy pocketed and close to his chest like only a prolific gambler of Norm’s constitution could.
As an extremely open survivor of cancer (quite literally, considering I once announced my own sickness to the world via an endoscopic cam-captured photo of my bloodied, creeping colonic carpet tumor via Facebook several years ago), I’ve spent the last several weeks in daily ponderance of Norm’s decision to have instead suffered silently. Was he correct in his insistence that the noble thing to do is just that, to conceal your mortal illness from the world and hence leave your loved ones, yes, in lurch—but blessedly unburdened by the drawn out, grim spectacle of your slow, painful death?
It’s a profoundly interesting question. And, as with all profoundly interesting questions, riddled with riddles of circumstance.
How many of us have lived lives that perhaps put us in better position to keep such a secret, as did Norm? Surely fame comes with its own unique hurdles in terms of secret-keeping, but at the same time some of the very occupations that lends themselves to fame—like being, “ya know, one of them there comedians” I can picture Norm drawling in his trademark Canadian farmhouse dialect, mischievous smile drawn across his face—allow a looseness of existence that’s free of the invasive accountability of time clocks and supervisors and workplaces that would compel so many of us to divulge our diseases.
Likewise, consider the flipside of the coin—psychologically there is an ego incentive for us more common folk to clutch at the chance to claim our Warholian 15 Minutes of Fame via the social currency that comes with being a victim, be it of a bullet or a bullet-sized tumor growing in caliber as it attempts to kill you from the inside out. An incentive a public figure who prized privacy as did Norm most certainly wouldn’t have. He’d be much more incentivized to keep the secret. He was also presumably, as his mythically mercurial gambling habits had seemingly subsided (perhaps the cancer played a hand in that as well, as likely did the birth of his son Dylan), on much better financial footing than the so many of us who require Gofundme accounts to even attempt to mount a modern medicinal battle with mortality. Being rich offers many luxuries, secrecy in a strange way among them even while leading a public life—Norm’s what-the-fuck death being proof positive.
But logistics and incentives aside, there is a purer philosophical question at hand that I have struggled mightily with since Norm’s passing:
Is it better to suffer in silence?
By “better,” I mean of course the only “better” that can conceivably hold any real meaning in a moral sense: Is it more altruistic? Is it better not just for one’s own self?
When I was told I was sick, my natural predilection to metaphorically crawl under the porch in order to nobly die a quiet, stoic death as might a grizzled guard dog quickly kicked in. I rued the fact that I had gone against my trauma-induced instincts to ward off love and had opened myself to it years earlier, and gotten married… and later sired a son whose very first birthday would be absurdly marked by my very first day of chemotherapy. Were it not for my tight little nucleus of a family (to include my teacher wife’s union-fought medical insurance—as solid as the WGA’s is, it’s hard to qualify every year when splitting earnings with a creative partner as I and my brother Chris have) I feel I likely would have pulled a Norm and announced my cancer to only Chris, my mother, and probably my literary manager Sidney (as I’d feel he’d have a right to know not as a professional collaborator whose unmet expectations would arguably deserve some form of explanation—in most cases: fuck them—but because he’s a true mensch). My inner circle of those in the know would have been as small as I presume Norm’s was, and the lot contracted to secrecy as well of course (especially if I were someone who’d somehow achieved the bizarre level of fame Norm had—which I am not and, thankfully, never will be).
But, after much introspection, I have asked myself “how much of this inclination towards secrecy is to protect yourself from the unwanted lens of attention and not wanting to seem like someone milking their malignancy or worse a malingerer, as opposed to saving the world from sharing your burden?” And conversely, is Norm correct when he says, as he did in this terrific little interview, that it is “incredibly narcissistic” to make such a public announcement, and that the announcer’s intent would be merely to “bask in the pity” of such a confession of cancer?
To be honest, after all this hardcore rumination that in fact predates Norm’s death by years… I don’t know. As with all of my musings, I find myself not with a definitive answer but a direction to lean in, and that direction is this:
To kept such secrets is, in a way, an act of terrorism.
First, to reiterate: I completely understand and even on some fundamental level agree with what Norm says, but I want to also impart a little something I learned as I fought cancer. It was taught to me by a counselor named Larry who would roam the halls of the ward as we took our chemo infusions, stopping in to converse with or often even just to calm troubled souls by way of listening to the laments of the stricken. On one particular occasion he stopped in as I was wrestling with these very questions, of not wanting to be in the spotlight or milk the sickness for gain and how uncomfortable I was with all of the love I was receiving. How I felt like a con artist, as I fought my cancer with the same ferocity I live life—which is to basically say stumbling through a muted dream or better yet mundane nightmare. That I didn’t deserve such an outpouring of support because I barely cared internally if I lived or died, and no human no matter how magnificent is worthy of such pedestaling (at the same time, as one who always struggles with feelings of duality, I of course believe we are all magnificent and worthy of being celebrated and loved inherently… but that is for another column, such as my treatise on sodomy). What Larry explained to me is that you are in fact giving others a gift in graciously accepting their affections and well-wishes and more, that in times of crisis people want to help but often feel helpless in how to do so, and that by accepting the gift of a home-cooked meal or a few bucks or babysitting or a new recliner in which to recuperate I was in fact giving them the gift of a sliver of solace, knowing that they in some way helped not only myself but my wife and son and other members of our immediate family who bear the brunt on the oncological battlefield.
In that regard, to deny people being privy to your pain is, in a way, once again terroristic. Your death becomes not a collective ordeal that all or those who survive you can say they hopefully helped in some small way to ameliorate your suffering or the suffering of your inner circle, but a plane flown into a skyscraper one early morning, leaving in its wake a shocking plume of detritus and especially confounding form of misery. How many of Norm’s friends and family who weren’t in that hallowed inner circle feel robbed—as respectful as we all are of his individual decision—or wish they had known so they could merely make more time to spend with a dear, dying friend they cherished more than he’d ever know because modern life has a way of sweeping us up in its whitewater currents, so often sending us careening by those we love in harried passing as the next cliff’s edge or battering rapids fast approach. Maybe there were those who would’ve liked to make amends who have been robbed of redemption. And, while he owed nothing to the fans of his peculiar brand of winking genius, Norm’s passing came as a gutshot that still lingers not unlike that of Robin Williams—whereas, say, admirers of a Lou Gehrig could over time attune themselves to the inevitability of his death.
Death is of course inevitable to us all. To para-quote the Lizard King, it “makes angels of us, gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens claws.” And in accordance, most of us want to take on the burdens of others. We want to show our love, and do what we can to ease the Atlas weights of the dying. Facing the slow death of disease like cancer is, as painful and taxing a process as as it can be, in a way a hospitable and luxurious death in that it gives us ample time—even with the most sinister and aggressive late-stage terminal shit, months or weeks or even still days comparative to the suckerpunch of a sudden death—to come to terms with it, to make our peace, and sometimes to even live one’s remaining days with newfound Thelma And Louise-like vigor, pedal to the metal to the escarpment edge. I sometimes wish I was terminal and wonder if I would have more fully sucked the marrow from my remaining days than I have, half-heartedly limping on through the march that is life since my recovery—but maybe those are the real lessons Norm’s sudden-to-all-but-a-few death leaves us with:
That we should treat all of our friends and loved ones and even the passing stranger as if they are quietly fighting a mortal battle that’s getting the best of them. That we should check in with friends and distant family, and remind them of our love so that when one of life’s great many busses hits and sends them Meet Joe Black-ing into a brutally unceremonious ending, they will in those last few moments hopefully feel swollen with that love and not just the impregnated terror of unimaginably no longer being. That way, if a friend you cherish is in fact secretly fighting a losing battle they don’t want to burden you with, when the final shot‘s fired and they’ve taken their last mortal breaths we can find some semblance of comfort in knowing that we hadn’t neglected them those last few years, and in hoping that they wouldn’t in that waning twilight moment feel relegated to the cobwebbed back corners of the closets of our hearts and minds… like that one Norm was so famously, deeply closeted in, for you fans out there.
Is it better to suffer in silence? I don’t know—but I don’t think so. And we owe it to the people we love and to ourselves to continuously remember to make the time to reach out and express that love… because you never know when someone is. Thank you Norm MacDonald, for all the laughs and, in the end, for this reminder.