This weekend Duke University will celebrate 50 years of author and educator Reynolds Price teaching at Duke. I studied with Reynolds during my undergraduate years at Duke, and I ended up working for him in 1987 as an assistant at a time when he was still struggling with his cancer diagnosis and it’s aftermath. I wasn’t able to attend, but I sent along my own reflection of working for him at that time in his life, reprinted below. Since that time Reynolds has published more books than he had before the diagnosis, as well as continuing to teach undergraduates.
I left Reynolds in the care of Lawrence “Bubba” Wall when I graduated from Duke in 1986. I had been assisting Reynolds twice a week on class days, driving him into campus for our Long Narrative writing class followed by his Milton class and office hours. In between those classes Reynolds napped in his office while I read a book or took a walk. His assistant, Bubba Wall, was a frequent source of conversation because he was strong as an ox, loyal as a hound, loved music and religion as much as Reynolds did, but he couldn’t cook, at least not as well as Reynolds would have hoped. As hard as Bubba tried, his latest menu provided for some laughter and shaking of heads on our trips back and forth. I left Reynolds to more of those menus that summer when I joined my girlfriend in the food capital of the US: San Francisco.
Late that year a call came to me in the industrial workspace we had sublet as a live-in studio: “You’ll never guess what Bubba served last night…” It was Reynolds. He asked how I was doing and wondered if I would be willing to take Bubba’s place in the kitchen the following year, 1987. I should have expected this call, but days of watching the options floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange boil in the heat of junk bonds and hostile takeovers had distracted me. I said I’d think about it and get right back to him. I talked to Alison about it, and without blinking she said, “of course you’ll help him,” because she had not been so distracted and she knew this question might come. I arrived in Durham at New Year’s turn.
I arrived to a new house that Jeff Anderson had just created: a southern wing overlooking the heron’s pond where Reynolds could roll into and out of from the original house — no more tugging or yanking up to the bedrooms, plus a large accommodating bathroom. I still can’t believe Reynolds spent two years negotiating the original split-level house plan in his wheel chair which offered slim and no space around the toilet and shower.
I had met Reynolds my sophomore year at Duke when we walked up to his garret over Perkins for my first class with him. I visited him my junior year in Duke Medical Center as he recovered from the radiation that paralyzed his legs in the effort to slow the tumor. I worked for him my senior year, learning to lift him in and out of the wheelchair as required to get him to class. In all these circumstances he always met me with smiles, good cheer, and a serious determination to continue the work that was his life. It was no different that New Year, and I recall what pleasure I had emptying his pantry of mixes and instant food, replacing them with as many fresh and favorite items as I found at Krogers so I could immediately lift his dining expectations. I believe I made my first batch of pimento cheese spread within 24 hours of my arrival. Very soon after that we shared our first steak au poivre dinner. The semester of teaching began, and we quickly loped into a familiar rhythm.
I worked hard to develop menus and routines that accommodated us both, but it became obvious that the methadone I regularly acquired for him at the pharmacy shortened his day considerably. Yet, despite increasing doses of the powerful pain killer, he still reported horrible pain in his legs and back.
As the Carolina winter receded, and the days grew longer, Reynolds’s room grew darker and there were days when he did not want to get out of bed. Advanced surgery had been able to free him from the grasp of the poisonous eel of a tumor, but the resulting pain from repeated surgeries on his spinal column appeared ready to drown him. We visited his miracle surgeon who reminded him that additional work could be done to cut other nerves in an attempt to block their now faulty signals. Reynolds listened closely, but he clearly dreaded facing more cutting and scar tissue. The doctor also reminded him that Duke Medical Center offered other therapies — specifically bio-feedback and hypnotherapy — that were worth considering.
The resulting turn that summer is well documented in Reynolds’s book “A Whole New Life” but it’s worth reporting that the change I witnessed echoes descriptions of Jesus’ touch from the Bible. Within two months of beginning a program of learning to communicate with his body and his sub-conscious, Reynolds was lifted up from the woozy haze of pain and opiates up to a bright and shining and nearly drug-free clarity. This was not the miracle of a laser scalpel capable of assassinating cancer one cell at a time; this was a simple effort of properly focused will.
I learned many things during my time assisting Reynolds (besides intelligent bathroom design), but the most important lesson was the most simple: we control our own joy. We often use art or God or family as symbols of that joy, but as long as we recognize that joy, and can focus on it from time to time, we can find joy no matter our physical circumstances. And that joy is contagious.
“Bubba, would you pass me another half of pimento cheese sandwich?” Reynolds inquired as we ate lunch one summer afternoon sitting on his bedroom porch in the shade of the beech trees overlooking the small pond.
While Reynolds’s mood lifted and his days lengthened over the summer, Bubba Wall had returned to our thoughts almost as a totem of that returning joy. Reynolds recalled more endearing stories of Bubba Wall’s tenure, such as his breakfasts of Coke and a Twinkie, and his fondness for listening to organ music. Reynolds and I began calling each other “Bubba” I think because it’s hard to say “Bubba” without smiling, without lifting joy from the simple use of this Southern endearment.
And there we sat, in dappled sunlight, the musky scent of the pine woods drifting in the light breeze, the cricket’s tenor and bullfrog’s baritone our only soundtrack, enjoying a good lunch. “Could this,” I thought, my eyes closed but my mind wide open to everything of that moment, “be joy?” I opened my eyes and lifted half a sandwich from the stack on the serving plate and said, “I’d be happy to, Bubba.”