Review by Jessie Keary
After nine years of battling with prostate cancer, Jeff Metcalf’s doctors told him that the drugs keeping his cancer at bay were no longer working. Aware that he had more days behind him than in front of him, Metcalf decided to focus on his writing. He set a personal mandate to write an essay a week for an entire year. The Utah Division of Arts and Museums recognized the resulting 52 essays, naming Metcalf the winner of the 2012 Original Writing Competition for Creative Nonfiction. Metcalf edited the essays, cut some, added previously published work, and, in 2014, The University of Utah Press published Requiem for the Living.
A glance at the back cover might give a reader the false impression that this is a book about cancer. While it is true that a struggle with cancer led to the writing of these essays, the content comprises a life full of stories worth telling, not disease. When Metcalf does write about his cancer, it is not the typical narrative of realizing too late to live life to the fullest or seeing the disease as some kind of gifted wake up call. Metcalf has lived a life open to adventure, and he intends to keep living it. While he notes that cancer, or any other terminal illness, can facilitate reflection, his relationship with his cancer is more so that of the unwanted guest. That said, he does not hide behind a false confident bravado in regard to his disease. His character is that of a fighter, but one who is vulnerable and often uncertain of how to go about life in a body that can be difficult to recognize.
At the book’s close, Metcalf states that he has survived. He is not speaking of his cancer. He is speaking of the writing process that begot Requiem for the Living. The experiment of forcing oneself to write an essay every week for a year led to a collection of writing that is truly enjoyable to read. In the final piece, “What’s Left?,” Metcalf notes that he was often surprised by what he wrote, writing from “memory and circumstance.” While I don’t know if Metcalf has better stories than what he ended up sharing, I do know that what he has shared is worth reading.
The essays vary in length and in scope. “The Door,” only a page in length, focuses on the front door of the author’s grandparents’ apartment while “Our Family Album,” 10 pages, gives a more general account of immediate family dynamics, even providing space for Metcalf’s sister, Sue, to share her own voice. The essays range in subject matter from family to fly-fishing and everything you can’t imagine in between. What is most apparent throughout the collection is the theme of storytelling. This writer lives to tell stories, an inclination that appears hereditary. We move from learning of his grandmother and her tales of silkies to Metcalf’s eventual adventures throughout Ireland, which spans several essays. From Cary Grant driving a young Metcalf home, to throwing a “surprise wedding” for his eventual wife, to chaperoning two high school journalists on the only interview given by death row inmate just days before his execution, you never know what will come next.
Jeff Metcalf’s life is a wild ride, and I found myself audibly reacting to the twists and turns, but all of these exciting tales eventually give way to a sense of self-aware calm.
In one of the final essays, “Split Second,” Metcalf describes an experience with a young buck. He describes being transformed in that moment in a way that is both familiar and not. He writes, “In this moment I was awakened again to the verity that my life has been a gift and that all of it behind me and in front of me, was and is on borrowed time.”
So maybe there is the occasional moment within Requiem for the Living that concurs with the typical cancer narrative – that decisive moment, vowing to live life to the fullest while you still can. What I find refreshing, though, is the equal joy and excitement in which Jeff Metcalf both looks back on and looks forward to his life.