by Thomas H. McNeely
On a bright winter day at the end of 2010, after weeks of botched biopsies, I walked out, blinking, into the noontime bustle of Harvard Square. Christmas decorations hung from iron lampposts; a red ribbon was tied, as always, to the digital clock atop the bank building across from the subway. A bite was in the air, but real winter snow had not yet fallen. The homeless man hawking Spare Change newspapers made his perennial pitch to passersby: “Young man! Young man!” All of it, deeply familiar to me, had become suddenly strange.
The ear, nose, and throat doctor who diagnosed me was apologetic. For weeks we had clung to the vain hope that the growth in my lymph node would prove benign, the result of a viral infection, though I knew this would not be the case. Outside Burdick’s, where I was going to meet a friend for hot chocolate, I lit a cigarette, took a few deep drags, then dropped it, horrified by my thoughtlessness, by the stubbornness with which I clung to this habit.
The doctor, who looked a little like Groucho Marx, had glanced up at me, raising his eyebrows just like Groucho, then looking at a point above my head: Stage IV sarcoma, metastasized from my tonsil to my lymph. Treatment would have to be aggressive and immediate.
I was not a young man. At 43, I knew that I would have to change; I had no idea how profound that change would be, or how strange the road that lay ahead of me.
* * *
The winter of 2011 in Boston was particularly harsh: a bitter northeastern wind; wet, heavy snow that caved in porch roofs, back-breaking to shovel. Friends emerged bearing food, rides to appointments, companionship, advice. One of them, whom I will call Sarah, had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, and guided me to the Dana Farber Cancer Center. Another, an emergency room surgeon, came up from Texas to be with my wife, four-year-old daughter, and I. In the midst of hardship we found new connections, and old ones strengthened and deepened.
During that winter and summer I lived in a world of waiting rooms: waiting to be weighed, infused with drugs, scanned, examined, stuck with a variety of needles. For months I was nauseous from chemo, my throat scalded with radiation; I ate through a feeding tube stuck into my stomach, constantly drugged to blunt the pain. Every day became a lesson in survival, a reminder of the finiteness of my physical being. Faced with this reality, I did what I could. I participated in an acupuncture study to lessen my nausea; Sarah, who was pursuing non-traditional treatment, suggested a cornucopia of vitamins and herbal supplements. I discovered in my friends and family a kindness and generosity of spirit that I had never known.
Alone, however, I was very afraid, and merciless with myself—for smoking, for my active alcoholism earlier in life, for my failure to publish the novel I had been writing and revising for years. I had been working on Ghost Horse since my time as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, and during my tenure as a lecturer there from 2003-06. I revised it through my family’s move to Boston in 2007, the adoption of our daughter that same year, the beginning of my new life as a father.
At Stanford, I had felt like an impostor. I had the tremendous good fortune to study with Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Tallent, and John L’Heureux, as well as the gifted fellow writers in my workshops. But it was also intimidating. My colleagues included Adam Johnson, ZZ Packer, Stephen Elliott, and other writers already publishing books and building careers. Meanwhile, I labored myopically over Ghost Horse. Agents and editors expressed interest, but with an arrogance born of insecurity, I kept revising, insisting that it wasn’t finished.
There was another reason I didn’t finish. In 2003, in the midst of my time at Stanford, my father committed suicide. For months I had talked to his wife, his doctors, and him, trying to help him and at the same time repelled by his behavior, the final phase of the mental illness from which he had suffered his whole life. The day before he died he called me, manic, saying that angels had saved him when he’d fallen asleep riding his motorcycle—and that this, surely, was a sign that he should live, wasn’t it? The next day, the phone rang. I was writing a description of the ghost horse, an imaginary creature, opening his wings, ascending. The phone rang and I sat in my chair, convinced that it was my father, unwilling to answer.
* * *
Ghost Horse is the story of a divorce seen through the eyes of a child, Buddy Turner, who seeks escape in an animated movie he is making with his friend, Alex Torres. It is also the story of Buddy’s fraught relationship with his father, which is destroyed through his father’s manipulations and deceptions. Because it is told from Buddy’s perspective, what remains unsaid in the book, and yet acts on the family like the visual distortion of heat on cement or a funhouse mirror, is the father’s undiagnosed, unacknowledged mental illness.
The difficulties I faced in revising Ghost Horse were both artistic and spiritual. I was aiming straight for the heart of a dilemma through which I had lived, and I did not have the tools at hand to tackle it. I had to find or invent them, painstakingly and awkwardly, year after year. Complicating this process was my father’s death—not only death, but suicide. For over a decade, the novel held me in thrall as a magical object, a portal to revisit and perhaps revise the past. My father’s death, and my fantasy that I had somehow failed to save him, made the novel a fetish, a way to communicate with and seek forgiveness from my dead father. It took my own illness, my own brush with mortality, to free me from this fantasy.
* * *
By September 2011 I was recovering from the final phase of my treatment, a surgery to resect the lymphatic tissue from the left side of my neck. For a week, a tube was stuck through the incision to drain fluid from the resected area. The incision was stapled shut. I forced myself to look in a mirror, to confront my fear that my neck would split open like an overripe fruit, that I would disintegrate.
Slowly, that fall, I began to recover. My wife supported our family. Emerson College generously held a teaching position for me until the next year. Over the previous six months, I had lost 35 pounds; I could not climb a flight of stairs without getting winded. I began walking, practicing yoga, attending physical therapy sessions to strengthen the muscles in my neck. For the first time in my life I took care of myself, physically and mentally. For my six-month follow-up appointment at Dana Farber, I biked from Cambridge to Boston.
Still, there was the fate of my book—and with it, I believed, my career as a writer. At the beginning of 2010, a year before I was diagnosed, I had sent Ghost Horse to a list of New York agents. I was confident, given earlier interest, that I would receive at least one positive response. As the weeks passed the emails appeared, each with variations on the same message: Thanks; no thanks. My list narrowed. I cut pages, revised the beginning, sent out a new batch. Finally, I gave up.
I could blame the fate of Ghost Horse during that first round of submissions on the change in the book industry, which had gone into a financial tailspin along with the rest of the country. But it was also true that it was still not finished.
This was something I had known in my heart even before I sent it out. After a decade of revision, it was not a welcome thought. The pressure I felt, internally and from my colleagues, was to publish or move on. Yet I also knew that I had resisted suggestions that would make it a better novel.
To make those changes, I had to let go of my attachment to Ghost Horse as a magical object. I had to also let go of my expectations about publishing it at a major house, with all of the attendant status that would bring. I had to do the best job that I could, in the time that I was willing to give it, and accept that it would only be the best book that I could make it.
In the end, it was a matter of survival. Unpublished, in its ideal and potential state, Ghost Horse was a crutch, a magic token, a burden. It felt safer, in many ways, not to finish it. The pain of not finishing it, finally, had to outweigh the fear.
I often thought of an old Alcoholics Anonymous phrase: “You don’t see the light until you feel the heat.” As unthinkingly as I’d reached for that cigarette, I had clung to Ghost Horse as a way to reach my father, to forestall and deny loss.
In both cases, the addiction was killing me.
* * *
In 2013, Ghost Horse was chosen as winner of the Gival Press Novel Award, and published in October of last year. I have become neither rich nor famous. My insecurities about my Stegner colleagues’ careers remain. I still ask myself what would have happened if I had answered the phone the day my father died.
In truth, I have no way of knowing if it was a wrong number, or a telephone solicitor. The reality is, I stayed in my chair. I worked.
I have tried to be grateful. My friend Sarah, a gifted poet, did not survive. The last time I saw her, two weeks before she died, we had coffee at Harvard Square; I complained that Ghost Horse had not been accepted by a major press. She looked at me with a mixture of love and impatience and disdain:
“Live,” she said. “Live.”
Thomas H. McNeely’s short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other magazines and anthologies, including Algonquin Books’ Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the J. Frank Dobie Paisano Program. His first book, Ghost Horse, was published in 2014 as winner of the Gival Press Novel Award; he teaches at Emerson College and the Stanford Online Writing Studio.