To the outside world, Alex seemed conventional enough. He never lost his St Bernard’s habit of wearing khakis and a blue polo shirt. He was quiet- shy even. Every teacher comment Alex ever got said something like: “Gee, I wish Alex would talk more in class”. He had sweet manners. Late on a Friday night in December of ‘04 when Dr. Paul Meyers told him that he had cancer, Alex absorbed the news for a bit and then asked Paul, “So, do you have plans for the weekend?” To the outside world he was a nice-looking, clean-cut, pleasant guy. A seemingly ordinary young man.
But we knew better. At all times, Alex had a three-ring circus dancing in his head: a funny, original chaos of fantasy, social commentary, stream of consciousness zigzags and nonsequiturs, all delivered with perfect timing. His specialty was analyzing the social dynamic of his family and friends: a kind of psychoanalytical gossip. He would pace around the apartment, chuckling to himself, lost in his own world. James Joyce could have been describing Alex when he wrote: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances.” Night after night at dinner, Alex would place himself strategically in front of the mirror the better to admire his performance, and off be would go: the Alex show. Alex was an authentic, original observer, and his favorite target was himself. He embraced with verve his own shortcomings: his self doubt, his awkwardness with girls, his Olympic lack of organizational skills, the fact that our cats always chose his back pack on which to pee. He was supremely capable of skewering others’ foibles as well- Laszlo was one of his favorite topicsand there was much banter and teasing of brothers- but it was all with such affection. We laughed and laughed. There is a reason we have such trust for each other in our family, and it’s because from early on Alex set the tone. He was kind in his very bones.
Alex shared his circus with the outside world in two ways: One was his writing- all about himself, naturally. Hewas funny. He was good. He won some national awards. An admission officer at a college to which he applied wrote him a letter- even before be got in- telling Alex that in 20 years of reading essays, Alex’s was the first to make her laugh out loud. Once at Princeton he managed to write his way into advanced creative writing classes, no mean feat for a freshman.
The other way Alex shared his circus with the world was through acting. For a guy who was so shy that he wouldn’t talk in class, it was surprising that Alex could get up on stage and be anybody- the more outrageous, the better. At Trinity, he was George in Once in a Lifetime, Ned in Holiday and Lucky in Waiting for Godot. My favorite of his roles was his last. In the Berlind Theater at Princeton, Alex starred as a gay guy who crooned a love song, did a soft shoe, and blew kisses to President Tilghman sitting in the audience. He brought down the house.
When Alex first got sick, he carried on in true Alex fashion. He ignored his pain, he would walk home after a gruesome day of chemo, gleefully horrifying the security guards at the Met by revealing the hydration system in his back pack, he collected anecdotes for his book on cancer (the best, ever!) on how it felt to be on the pediatric floor talking to hot young nurses about his urine.
But, cruelly, Alex never got a chance to write his book. In September of ‘05, just weeks after Alex had returned to Princeton for his sophomore year, his cancer came back. Alex underwent grueling months of chemo, radiation and finally, a tough bone marrow transplant. He knew his body well, and Alex knew that he was dying long before we were able to accept it. By August 2006 as the endless chemo was taking its toll, and his pain was increasing, Alex stopped talking. He would not join us at the dinner table. We thought we had already lost him. But we were wrong. As Alex walked in the valley of the shadow of death during the last few months of his life, he was devoting all his energy, his deep understanding, his considerable intellect in preparing to die. By early December, when we were ready to face the reality of his death, Alex had already made his peace with it. This was his last great gift to us, because it allowed us to tell him everything we had in our hearts and to hear everything he had in his. And we had our Alex back again. Weak though he was, we had a lot of fun. We had dinner. We played bocce. We threw parties. He was funny. When a friend asked him if he had any regrets he said: “Yeah. I always wanted children. And I wanted to get my ear pierced!” One night we talked about how he would like to be remembered. “I want,” he said, “to have a prize at Princeton in my name for the most creative freshman... with the worst GPA.”
Cancer is a cruel thief. It robbed Alex of his future and it robbed us of him. But we have him still in the way our family can still laugh, even as we are bowed with grief.
In his last days, as the cancer spread and Alex was increasingly weak and in pain, I cried on his shoulder. “This is not natural,” I said, “It is not right for a father to see his son die. I wish, I so wish that I could die instead of you.” Alex looked at me and said, “Dad, I wish you could die instead of me, too!”
I don’t want people to misunderstand his humor. Good humor is complex, but it is dark, too. Alex was a complicated man with many contradictions. He was sensitive and brave. He 21 was shy and bold. He was self-deprecating, yet hugely ambitious. He was kind, but he had a dark side, too. He felt always like an outsider looking in. Alex was our Hamlet. He was my Prince. “Now cracks a Noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child. It turns out that it takes a village to bury one as well. We have been blessed to have the support and love of our extraordinary family and friends, and the angels at Memorial Sloan Kettering who cared for him so well. Our journey with Alex was a long, frightening and painful one, and we could never have done it alone.
- Winky Adam
- Laszlo Adam
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