I look back with my jaw hanging wide open and must conclude that my Novel knew I was sick long before I or anyone else did. And, that leaves me to reason that there is a mysterious magic within the stories we write. No matter the genre or subject.
We would do well to look for the magic within what we read and write and learn to tune our ear to its enchanting song.
Sometime in 2010, I had a great idea for a story which, as most of mine go, was intended to be short, the story not the idea, but rarely if ever do they end up that way. My words whether spoken or written have trouble staying confined to a box, and writers block is a malady I’ve yet to experience. The only way to keep my head from exploding is to write or speak the ideas that are always threatening to boil over.
Writing, for me, works better and offends the least people.
I’ve instructed my relatives that my headstone should read, Just One More Thing… including the ellipsis. Being such a loquacious individual, I love the ellipsis; It allows me continuing speaking long after I’ve shut my mouth. I could go on…
In 2010, I began work on a story about an Irish Civil War Soldier, Mike MacKenzie, and by mid-2011, I had the wireframe of a finished novel, No More Mister Nice Guy. Mike, who had started as the protagonist soon, took on a supporting role.
In the story, Mike emerges unscathed from a horrific death at the Battle of Antietam1862 and becomes a timeless Priest or Chaplain, who walks the battlefields of the Civil War up through the wars of today. Even now I am unsure exactly what Mike is, a ghost, a spirit, or an immortal, even though he operates as all of these things at one time or another during the story.
What Mike is for sure is a helper. He shows up where people are most desperate for a miracle, some he offers that supernatural help, others receive only words of advice that if heeded will turn the tide of battle and ultimately save lives. Some listen, some don’t. Those that refuse his help live the remainder of their lives in bitter regret.
Instead of blathering on about Mike, here is a significant portion of Chapter Nineteen from my novel, No More Mister Nice Guy, the beginning of Father Mike MacKenzie or Lucky Mike as some call him.
A Union Army cannon fired into an already mangled cornfield where southern soldiers were making their advance. The unique whistle announced that everything nearby was about to be ripped to bloody shreds, and there was nothing anyone, but Almighty God could do to stop it. The shell, a case shot, looked like two three-pound coffee cans packed with lead balls, nails, and gunpowder, and it landed with a thunk, sticking in the mud at the feet of a young recruit named Michael Patrick MacKenzie.
Michael looked down at the unexploded shell and froze. His brain crackled like ice when hot sweet tea spills over it and, for the longest second of time, the shell just lay there. With a glimmer of hope, he prayed it was a dud, but explode it did. In a rainbow spray of orange, red, and gray matter, it spewed a rolling cloud of smoke and dust. Faithful to its promise, it tore everything within a hundred feet into ragged little pieces. The soldier’s nerves, raw and already jangled to numbness, were thrust once again into the burning coals of war.
The survivors reluctantly rose from the blood-spattered dirt. Four of their comrades lay in tatters, dead; tiny curls of smoke issued from crescent-shaped tears in their lifeless bodies. And, as the dust cleared, an unlikely apparition appeared from the cloud.
Stunned and breathless, soldiers stood and stared with disbelief at the phantom in a gunslinger’s duster. Caked with gray dust, fragments of metal, and human remains, Mike stood unscathed except for one crimson cut arcing smoothly around the soft part of his left cheek. Blood strained to drip from the slice.
With his cap in one hand, brushing the grisly dust from his clothes, Corporal Memphis Hughson looked up into Mike’s face and, with his head cocked to one side, said, “What ‘n tarnation are you, boy?”
Mike was unsure how to answer that question and stood expressionless, his gaze fixed on the horizon as if expecting some grand apocalyptic event. Other men close enough to have witnessed what happened remained speechless, afraid to move. Some fought back tears until they could taste the salt stinging their throats.
Mike MacKenzie, the usual joker wise-ass of the group now had a face set and rigid, the look of living granite. His once muddy brown eyes were now a deep crystalline blue.
Death had been cheated big time, and Mike was unsure how he felt. He knew that he had been in the midst of an explosion, but the sound didn’t register – only the quick blowing out of a lamp, his – and then, nothingness. Hard to describe. It was nothing, but he still had an awareness of the war raging around him, only muted and seen through a cloudy haze. His former fears and concerns for the next moment in the battle, his own survival, and that of his comrades, had been dislodged.
If he had a mirror and dared look, he would have seen a reflection somewhat like he remembered, but now with grizzled leathery skin and the stoic look of granite. His once hazel-colored eyes were now frosty blue. He had gone in fresh-faced, scarcely out of his teens, and awoke moments later, looking as if he had witnessed decades, maybe centuries of struggles and wars. His once paramount cares, worries, and doubts had been canned as his mother did peaches; boiled, vacuum-sealed, and put high on a shelf out of the way, isolated from what he now sensed was his prime mover and reason to live. He owned it, but it needed time to develop fully. One minute it wasn’t and the next, it just was.
The blues of the crisp, clear sky, even though fouled with acrid smoke and the smell of death, were more brilliant than he could ever remember. The green grass stained scarlet in so many places, stood up as if singing, and the reds… Well, the red was blood, and it was everywhere. The blood burned its signature deep into his mind and far down into the depths of his soul. The blood of men being needlessly spilled was the carrier of life, every drop more precious than all the gold in the world. He barely comprehended the grieving pain that now threatened to tear him in two.
The new version of Mike MacKenzie stood frozen and looked out at the small crowd of disbelieving eyes that peeked from faces caked in grime. His voice boomed with anger that made them flinch.
“Let’s finish this war today and get all this killing behind us!” A pure and righteous indignation cried for justice and screwed its way down into the soul of every man within earshot.
Lieutenant Marcus Kirby spoke up with a drawl so slow that everyone leaned towards him, hoping his words wouldn’t drop to the ground before they reached their ears.
“Mike’s right; let’s get all this killing past us.” And with that, he raised his bloodied white-gloved hand and waved it forward, leading them right into the nucleus of the battle. “The sooner we fight, the sooner we’re done or dead.” They all charged with renewed vigor, except Mike.
Mike Mackenzie laid his guns and cartridge belt on a nearby stump; his saber he shoved in the dirt with such fury it rattled. He then walked head-on into the heart of the battle, disappearing into the midst of the maelstrom. That day, Mike tended to dozens of wounded and dying soldiers, and he finished without a scratch, earning the moniker Lucky Mike.
That was Wednesday, September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek, the bloodiest battle in United States history. No one came out the winner that day, and over 23,000 lives went out into eternity. Sadly, there was no decisive victory.
The tales of Lucky Mike spread like a virus through camps on both sides, but stories being stories, they soon became well-embroidered tales, the stuff of legends. And, as is the way of legends, most fade away into the backdrop of time, except this one.
Truth, he never ducked, he never flinched, and nothing ever hit him. He was often seen emerging from nowhere, walking out of the smoke towards a wounded soldier. Looking after the dying and hopeless wounded, he was known to sit for days with some worried mother’s son; in the end, the only witnesses were those he tended to.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve the rest of my story and why I think this book predicted my cancer and recovery.
In September 2011 with my first rough draft of NMMNG hanging from the can, I was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the head and neck. What the doctors found was a metastasization of an original tumor which was never found. Up until then, I had no warning signs beyond swollen lymph nodes in my neck, no other symptoms until the treatment which nearly killed me. The doctors kill you to save you.
Two phrases still echo in my head: The first from my wife. She said as I poked my growing glands, “You should see a doctor about that,” to which I replied or didn’t with a shrug.
The second from my primary care doctor, “Why did you wait so long?”
The standard treatment opens your neck with as much finesse as an autopsy, strips all the lymph systems away, and sews you back up with burlap yarn followed by radiation and chemo. Oh, boy!
I thank the Lord daily for the doctors who suggested deviating from the book and trying radiation and Chemo without surgery. The thinking was that if it didn’t work, they could still do the surgery.
The surgery is VERY disfiguring. It snips nerves and muscles in your neck limiting mobility FOREVER. As for the scarring, think Nightmare before Christmas.
So, down I went waltzing into the pit of perdition. Arrogant as hell and ready to defy expectations, after three weeks of bug spray (Chemo) and radiation I was humbled. As the burning increased, not the mere feeling but actual third-degree burns on the inside of my esophagus, my voice was graced with a sexy whisper, and the hair on the back of my head and from my chin came off in clumps.
The cure arrived with truckloads of misery, and the farther it went, the farther away God seemed.
To this day, I describe it like this:
Jesus: Hey Mike, I’ve got to step out and get a newspaper, but I’ll be back.
Mike: When will you be back?
(Silence, as the door closes. Also, Mike doesn’t know it, but his writing muse has vanished also.)
For a good year afterward, I could not see the evidence of or feel God’s presence. He’s God, so I could either be bitter and blame Him, or I could blame Him with the understanding that he is the Ruler of the Universe and big enough to do what he wants.
I kept at the things I knew to do, like praying and reading my bible, but still I could not conjure up his felt presence. I had to trust that he was there and hope He still had my back.
The last thing I’ll say on that sickness is, the all-pervading fatigue is the worst. It’s as if alien starships had sucked every speck of energy out of my psyche and dropped my emaciated body back to earth. Before I got sick, I thought, at least, I would have time to read. That joke was on me. Reading a book took more energy than I could summon.
My days were spent under a blanket watching the History Channel and NatGeo.
There were a couple of pluses:
The Big C was a heck of a diet plan. When your mouth, tongue, and esophagus are so dry and painful that swallowing a globule of spit is akin to climbing Mount Everest in the nude, it is easy not to eat. I went from being a fat guy to a thin guy. And even later after they took the feeding tube out of my stomach, eating was such a pain in the ass, I had to force myself to eat so that I wouldn’t die of starvation.
I lost a good forty pounds, and I’m still much thinner than I was before cancer dropped in for a visit. People that haven’t seen me for a while want to know my secret. It is not moral strength that keeps me thin; it is mechanics. Food is still hard to swallow sometimes, and random things get trapped where my airway meets my esophagus. I keep the weight off because of problematic eating, not nobility.
Okay Okay, settle down. I know. What the hell has that got to do with my book?
The protagonist of No More Mister Nice Guy, Billy Hartman was just that, a NICE GUY, and he was sick to death of it. As writers, we write what we know, and we project ourselves into our work.
Before my brush with death, so to speak, I had become sick and tired of being so stinking nice. I hated wearing the shirts with the logo of a boot-print on the back that said kick me. I was ready to punch someone in the nose just to lose that reputation. As an aside, at one time, before I gave my life over to Christ, I was a genuine bad guy and thrived on that (bad) image. I would break your face as soon as look at you. Keeping up that image was a lot of work. It’s easier to be kind and caring.
Anyhow, in the book, Billy sets out to destroy the image that had been cast for him and it goes horribly wrong. In the process, he is dealt a death blow, and nothing but a miracle will save him. In comes Mike MacKenzie along with a couple of odd beings and they carry him to a MASH unit.
Billy has a miraculous and quick recovery from horrific wounds.
He sets out on a quest to find Mike MacKenzie, and during that search, his life is restored to something real, vibrant, and full. The life Billy Hartman despised gets turned on its head as much or more than the circumstances around him. It becomes everything he ever wanted.
Same for me. The newer version of Mike Matheson is less willing to say yes just to be nice and make you happy. I like that. Also, I have a greater tolerance for negative things in my life and learned rougher but far superior form of grace
As I am sure most cancer survivors could tell you, the struggle and recovery are life changing.
But, unlike anyone I have ever spoke with, they’ve not had their book foretell their future. I didn’t see it right away, but the revelation suddenly came when I revisited the manuscript.
My first novel, No More Mister Nice Guy, has been described several different ways:
C. S. Lewis meets Stephen King.
The Chronicles of Narnia on steroids Rated R.
The Pilgrim’s Progress with whiskey and guns.
There are a hundred other back stories to the book; this is only one of them.