What I learned from dying: Who was I?
By Dave Taylor
I watched a documentary the other day about Val Kilmer, the actor whose career was cut short by throat cancer, and I found myself tearing up after it was over because I identified with his story so much.
It didn’t help that I’d just seen him in the sequel to Top Gun, where his character couldn’t speak but I was unaware of his real life condition, where he can barely speak and even then it’s hardly understandable.
During the documentary, shot and produced over many decades by Kilmer himself through home movies, we see him at his prime on sets like Top Gun and Batman, interspersed with current footage of him talking, as much as he’s able, about his current life and condition.
We see him as a virile, young actor. We see him how he used to be. But we also see him now as an aging man who has to hold the hole in his throat in order to speak, but who still makes jokes, which vaguely land because it’s such an odd dichotomy to see someone look like they’re dying while making jokes, both audible and physical.
Kilmer mentions that he has been reduced to an actor who’s trading on who he used to be, selling autographs at shows to fans of his former self.
I felt that deeply.
While Kilmer is struggling to stay alive he’s not struggling to live. He’s making jokes and insightful commentary. He’s still in there, just different.
I too am still here, just different.
But who was I?
I like to think I was virile, that I was hearty and young and capable. I used to take secret pride in how I never asked for help, in how I was able to figure out any problem and solve it myself, never technically needing anyone or anything.
Like Kilmer I’m now fed through a tube, and I wear down and have to take breaks from the most basic of tasks. In the documentary we see him stop signing autographs in order to lie down, but first he throws up in a trash can. I know that feeling far too well, where I’ve been doing something that was once easy, like taking a short walk or just standing for a while, and I have to take a break to lie down, often accompanied by a quick puke in one of the red cups I keep with me at all times.
What look backs would there be in a documentary about my life? Who was I? Would it show my home runs in softball? Would it show me laughing, enjoying time with my friends? Who was I?
Who am I now?
I still make jokes, just not as often. I still have preferences on my clothes, my cars and my home. I still love going to car shows. I still love hearing good music. I still love seeing my wife and stepson play with our chihuahua. I still think of myself as strong even though I know for certain that’s no longer true. I still initially think I can do anything I set my mind to, even though I know now that’s not remotely true either.
But I am still me, just a little different.
Despite the fact that I write this column all about my battle with cancer, there’s so much more to me than cancer. In fact I give it as little thought as possible most of the time. I want to think about God, about art, about cars, about making the house look better, or about how much I miss the taste of pizza.
Please think of me not as Dave the guy who has cancer, but as Dave the guy who loves cars and who still wears skateboard clothes even though he hasn’t skated in years, as Dave the guy who played lots of softball and still buys magazines and never reads them.
I’m still here, just different.
Hi Dave, I’ve followed you in the paper with such respect and awe. I have a favor to ask…I have a dear friend who’s son has esophageal cancer in Henderson Tennessee who isn’t getting good results. Would you mind contacting him and offer him an ear? He only has his parents who are both in their 80’s. If you would do this could you text me that you are and I’ll let him know to expect a call. His name is Darryn Busby and his number is 731-879-0179. Confirmed best wishes to you and your bride.
May God bless you!
You are an inspiration …I pray you have more days free of puking….May God continue to bless you!