Author Archive | Richard Cohen

My Body, My Prison, My Dreams

May 28, 2002

The warm breeze embraced me as I left earth on that shining morning. I ran down a gentle hill, legs stretched forward, my arms extended out as wings. I soared in perfect flight.

Lifted gracefully above a flowered hill, my body was strong, my vision flawless, and I could see forever.

I waved to a farmer below as I gained altitude without effort. The grace of elegant motion was mine, and I was accepted into the billowy clouds.

Suddenly awake in the predawn chill, I stumbled on imperfect legs to a desk to record every detail of my glorious dream. Patting the surface, palms stretched wide, I searched madly for my thick glasses so I could try to read my own writing. Eyes that barely see and limbs that function imperfectly had made my improbable flight a magnificent metaphor for my search for physical power and that elusive grace.

A diminished man lives upstairs at my house. Multiple sclerosis and colon cancer have taken their toll on my body.

My psyche was not far behind. The battle for the body inevitably spreads to the mind. Hanging on to self-esteem becomes the endless struggle of the sick. Skirmishes are fought with invading cancer cells and myelin sheaths that peel from motor and sensory nerves, but another conflict rages in my head.

My old swagger, my boundless self-confidence are missing, and I want them returned to me.

The world was mine, once, and I traveled it widely, covering news for television. The lens was true, the focus sharp. Now I am gone from the business, and the shot threatens to fade to darkness.

Producers produce and are tough and independent, expected to jump from airplanes without parachutes and hit the ground running. I was young and foolish enough to do just that. My world is smaller now, as am I. My camera is turned inward, and I do not feel good about what I see.

I am a creature of a limited life, a man who cannot see clearly or walk strongly and, so, cannot participate in all too many of life’s pleasures.

I no longer compete in the marketplace, and my relationship with my family has been altered.

The pursuit of self-esteem is a dangerous journey across emotional minefields. Coming to grips with who I am means redefining myself by highly personal and subjective standards.

Finding my way is measured by the distance between once realistic expectations and cold reality.

The long march is reflected in the eyes of my children, the arms of my wife. I am not in this alone. Loved ones map my life because our journey is together.

Objectives are no clearer than feeling better about myself tomorrow than I do today and seeing that level of comfort mirrored in those who matter the most. We make it up as we go along.

My children know what I can no longer do. When I throw a ball with Ben or Gabe, the ball is slowly rolled back on the ground, where it can be seen. My weak right arm tosses endless wild pitches that are forgiven and retrieved in good humor.

The kids never bother asking me to bat.

What tears at me is that I must appear to be so flawed in their eyes. What matters to them is that we are playing ball in the backyard at all.

“Let’s go to a movie,” Lily suggests. “We can take a cab,” she adds in her upbeat way before I can remind her that I no longer drive. I am forever strapped into a passenger seat, riding shotgun as another holds the reins.

The shortest errands are not mine to run, a never-ending burden for my wife. I cannot stop feeling the child.

Dependence is dreadful for me, though only a routine for the others. To feel weak is to become vulnerable and feel bad.

What defines a diminished person?

Kicking a ball and pushing pedal to metal seem too trivial to make a satisfying life.

I want to believe that teaching my children about history and music, acting as role model and showing grace and humor in the face of adversity mean more than driving a car.

Being a good person must carry more gravitas than the ability to run, jump and play.

When my children are grown, what will they remember about living with me?

I worry that memory will focus on the diminished man I think I see staring out from the mirror.

I hope not.

Perhaps my children will forget to remember what I cannot put behind me. What I could not do may not have the staying power of what I did.

Those who love us do see past the problems. Who we really are stands not in our sneakers but in our souls.

When Cancer Pain Is More Than Pain

April 9, 2002

The morning the pancake fell to the floor and I hit the ceiling, the spatula was launched as a missile, glancing off the kitchen window and demonstrating once again that my anger can fly out of control at petty annoyance.

Decades of battling multiple sclerosis had failed to produce the fail-safe system to short-circuit high emotion. Flawed eyes and faulty limbs had conspired on this day, and combustion was spontaneous. The fire can be contained, but the spark does not die.

M.S. has become a known quantity, and my equanimity usually remains intact. The kids try to ignore the occasional eruptions, and the family seems to judge itself happy. There are the predictable battles of three children sharing two parents and the one objective of disrupting the peace whenever possible. But the calm was shattered for real when cancer came calling, joining M.S. as the predators loose in the house.

Life changed even more when Dad returned shortly after Thanksgiving Day more than a year ago, after his second prizefight with colon cancer. The old man was knocked around badly, and he was bruised and bloody when he came back from the hospital. I was in pain and decorated with a bag on my belly. The chill of late autumn had moved indoors.

Gray skies broke out each morning. Bringing the emotion home from the wars was a stealth operation. The anger swept in beneath the radar and crawled into bed under the cover of my darkness. My life was not supposed to have gone this way, and fear for the future was burning me up.

Cancer and M.S. had not been good companions. My colon was reacting strangely to surgery, possibly related to my autoimmune problems. The trauma of the operation had jump-started the multiple sclerosis. I could barely stand or walk. My legs were swollen to watermelon proportions. And I had to contend with the bag for three months. I thought that I was calm. Right.

My head was down, and I was not seeing the people around me. I had assumed that the children would rejoice in my presence. They shrank in horror. My fangs were bared, and they were sharp.

“Do your homework, turn off the music!” I snarled. “Clean up that mess! Don’t leave it for your mother and me.”

I sat sullenly and stared, checking my watch in the evening so I could order them to bed at precisely the appointed hour.

I was trapped in my own despair, uncomfortable and uncertain that I would mend. Self-absorption became a byproduct of illness. Bringing the furies to heal was impossible, because their presence went unnoticed. My oblivion was complete, my psychotic behavior obvious to all but me. Deep inside, I hid, cut off from family and friends. I left the cave only when summoned.

Finally, my wife had enough and sat me down. “You are becoming a monster,” she warned, kindly adjusting her remarks to the present tense.

My stare was blank. My emotional equilibrium is fine, I thought. What is she talking about?

Neither the warning nor the fact that my children walked around me dented the armor. When the ileostomy was reversed, my rectum, the bottom of the colon, kept closing, and the painful problems multiplied. I was now officially impossible to be around.

“Open your eyes, Richard,” my wife pleaded. “Don’t do this to your children. You are not in this alone.”

I knew she was right. The beast had me by the neck. Escape was not easy. Anger is hard to legislate. The fires keep burning, the flames rising up regularly. Getting a grip became a long haul.

I decided to talk to the children. We set the event as an interview. “Ben, you are 13,” I said quietly. “You can tell me the truth. Have I been hard to live with?”

Ben smiled suspiciously and sat, just staring at me. “Do you really want the truth?” he asked.

I nodded, and the floodgates opened. “You were really mean,” he began, pleased to unload and picking up steam. “I wanted to scream in your face and kick you. But Mom told me to cut you some slack.”

The smile on my face was gone. These were sobering statements. Gabe saw my blood flowing under the door and came in with his two cents. “It sounded like you really hate us,” he said.

Lily, my daughter, wagged her finger in silence.

Pure pain had been dumped at my feet. Words would not come. A changed landscape would require more than words, anyway. The epiphany hit hard. I had been so self-absorbed, and there was a lot more to think about than me. The patients do not lie alone in hospital beds. Our families are next to us, whether we see them or not.

The infection I brought home is under control, though the fever is not gone. Work around the house has taken on new meaning.

Trouble With “The Bag” Is in the Head

February 27, 2001

The fog was lifting, and my wife’s voice echoed thinly across the recovery room. “The surgery was successful,” she said. “The operation lasted over six hours.”

I cut to the chase. “Did they do an ileostomy?”

She paused. “Yes. It will be temporary.”

She now tells me I was crestfallen. I was too drugged up to recall with clarity, but certainly it was a worst-fear-realized moment. This would mean the bag. The Bag. Everyone understands what that means.

It was just below my ribs. Even with clothes on, I felt naked. I saw the bulge as blinking neon. It became my scarlet letter. When talking to friends, the question always came: Do you have the bag? The tone betrayed a common horror at the very idea. It was not just this 52-year-old journalist. It was everyone.

An ileostomy comes out of the ileum, which is the bottom of the small intestine, just above the colon. A colostomy, the more common procedure, comes out of the body farther down, emerging from the large intestine. My ileostomy carried waste from my intestine straight into this bag. The device was there to allow my colon, the site of the cancer surgery, to heal properly.

I had ruefully told a friend only weeks earlier that when I awoke from surgery, I would not ask if I was going to live. Instead, I would just inquire if I had the bag. My interest in the life and death issue, I said, depended on the answer to the first question.

Now I had my answer, a tube of flesh protruding from my belly. The surgeon had simply cut my small intestine and left the top hanging out when he sewed me up from the surgery. An appliance fit snugly over it.

The cancer now took a back seat in my head. I had bigger fish to fry. This doctor said this new arrangement would last only three months. Right. My medical history was too full of surprises to assume anything.

Eleven days later, after only a quick lesson in managing the ileostomy, I was released in the custody of my wife, who confidently predicted we would tame this beast. I wasn’t so sure.

Emptying the bag was to dominate my anxieties for a while.

“Just sit on the back of the toilet seat,” a nurse had instructed, “and lean forward and down.” I missed only once. I had been told I could shower, that the bag was sealed tight and waterproof when the clip was attached. I was too weak from the surgery to test that theory for a while.

But I did stand naked and very still in the bathroom to stare into the mirror. I was shocked. The bag just hung there. It seemed big. Clearly the battleground would not be the bag but my head.

I felt claustrophobic and carefully avoided mirrors after that.

The temporary ileostomy is a good procedure. Life after surgery can carry on almost normally while the colon heals, but immediately I felt diminished, and almost emasculated. A man should not be hanging this purse at his waist. A rabbit pelt from a leather belt, perhaps. Next to his hunting knife. A sissy pouch for transporting that which everyone else turns a back to? Never.

As for a sense of my own sexuality, forget it. I instantly became asexual.

There is no human walking the earth who does not share this function of the body. Yet we seem to regard it with shame. I was sentenced to see, indeed to stare, at what my body was producing. I wondered why this plastic bag had to be transparent. This seems a cruelty, as if our faces must be rubbed in our bad behavior, like pushing a dog’s nose into his overnight misconduct.

Perhaps my vulnerability forced this narcissistic response. I was uncharacteristically obsessed with my own body, reacting foolishly, I knew. This was crazy.

A temporary ileostomy seems a small price to pay for status as a cancer survivor. Many are less fortunate than I and do not survive, or they wear their dreaded bags for the rest of their lives.

Yet self-esteem is a potent concern for anyone, and emotion cannot be denied. I suspect that by necessity, my adjustment would have been healthier if I knew the bag was to be permanent.

Questions and comments from friends have revealed ignorance and discomfort. I have gone out of my way to be open and honest about my plumbing. That has been part of my therapy.

“Where does the urine go?” some would ask. “It’s the toilet, stupid,” I responded. That does not change with this surgery. People do not really want to know about this subject. It remains taboo. Perhaps they want to hear just a little, then block their ears and run.

Colon cancer is the most common reason for the bag, though diverticulitis and other inflammatory and hereditary bowel diseases create the same need. The numbers are increasing. The bags are everywhere. There is nowhere to hide. Colon cancer screening remains the most effective weapon against this self-proclaimed indignity.

My plumbing party was held at a local hospital this month. My intestines are back in my body.

I celebrate my return to anatomical normalcy, mindful that my emotional response may have been less than normal. Still, I am pleased to have put my plumbing behind me.

M.S./Cancer Combo No. 13 And the Coping Mind Game

November 14, 2000

“The CT scan shows a spot on your liver.”

It was a stunning announcement from a surgeon walking me through the plan for dealing with a different situation, the colon cancer that had returned after less than a year. My heart was now sharing shoes with my feet.

“I don’t think it is related,” he went on.

I couldn’t hear him anymore. There was too much noise in my head.

The doctor had spoken reassuringly of his doubts about possible liver involvement, but he did order up a PET scan. PET stands for positron emission tomography, though it sounds like a machine the vet throws your dog into on occasion.

Days later, in the subbasement of the hospital and after an IV dose of radioactive glucose and 90 minutes in a high tech tube with Mozart in perfect stereo behind me, I was calmed. My liver was clean.

And the caravan moved on. The brief prospect of cancer of the liver had brought my second bout with colon cancer into sharp focus.

The first colon cancer had put my many years of struggle with multiple sclerosis into perspective. A coping device had been born and reborn.

Coping is a mind game. It pits perceptions of self against a highly subjective view of the problem and attendant limitations.

One’s fate can often be worse. I seem occasionally to lose sight of that. These crises come from nowhere, and they occur arbitrarily. There is frequently little warning. One moment, Cousin Bob is sweetly emotional and gets a lump in his throat and the next thing you know, the lump is malignant.

A critical element of coping for me is to acknowledge these crazy truths to myself, over and over again, as many times as it takes. The M.S. and Cancer Combo (No. 13 on the menu) proves that life is not fair. I think we know that.

Fairness cannot be seen as an issue with sickness and health. Too often, the cry that life is not fair goes up in a moment of crisis and high emotion, as if life and death are negotiable and some force in the universe will respond to reason. Get a life, as my children would say.

When shocking news about health lands on our shoulders, I believe we react viscerally and almost instinctively. Emotional responses are a product of who we are on a very basic level.

I think that without even realizing what we are doing, we quickly decide whether to be victims. Winner and loser are self-determined designations we will carry eternally. These labels become our badges to identify us to ourselves and to the world. Such powerful self-definition deserves to be well reasoned.

And so, we cope. Coping begins instantly with bad news and lasts a lifetime. That process may dominate our conscious thoughts and creep into our marvelous journeys into the night.

Awake or asleep, in my thoughts and in my dreams, I know I am working at coming to grips with my life, and I am increasingly able to keep track of my emotional baggage. Dealing with disease is about survival, not about heroes.

There are no medals or merit badges handed out for remaining upright and moving forward with grace. We all cope with life, but coping with illness is an aspiration that cannot be fulfilled with perfection.

Coping is not a precise science but an exercise in doing what can be accomplished. Coping is not glamorous and not an exciting spectator sport. Coping is prosaic, like watching grass grow. Coping is what gets you through the night.

I cope. You cope. He, she, it copes. Conjugating life seems routine, though it separates the strong from those who insist they are weak.

My wife and I cope for ourselves first, for the children after that. These steps are similar to standard airline procedure.

First, don your oxygen masks, then assist the children who cannot go it alone. Coping is difficult, even painful at times. I have managed to face who I really am, as opposed to who I might have wished I could be. Blame disappointment on the illness. Right. Blame it on the bossa nova.

People do not cope with equal skill and efficiency. For me, coping has become an essential survival mechanism, almost a way of life. It is my basis for being and doing. I recognize and acknowledge my frailties and significant limitations. I have trouble walking and using my right arm and hand. Legal blindness has stolen my driver’s license from me. I have learned to request and accept help. I could not always do that. This does not come naturally, and sometimes I fight it.

Coping is constant. I keep close watch on myself. I did not choose to develop the skills I associate with coping. I only chose not to be a victim. Coping was self-taught or, perhaps, only self-learned. Webster merely states that to cope means to struggle to overcome problems or difficulties.

My diagnosis of multiple sclerosis fell on the tender ears of a 25-year-old journalist who was too naive to know what might be down the road, too ambitious and impatient to take the time to find out. I simply decided not to react and careened into a state of steep denial.

I have become a student of denial. I instinctively ignored advice to get out of the television news business to seek less stressful work. I traveled the world, covering wars in the Middle East and Central America and politics at home because I denied the idea that I could not. Yet, I am criticized and charged with the vague crime of refusing to face my illness.

Excuse me? The lesson here seems to be that things must be bad if they seem too good. My neurologist once turned to a medical student and labeled me a denier. I wanted to throttle him. Even those who should know better seem to need to see the sick as less than they are. Are they projecting their own fears?

I view denial as a positive and productive coping device. What I am denying is not internal reality as does the child, but the external perception that I am so compromised that I no longer can do.

Denial can create wonderful self-fulfilling prophecies. I see myself as strong and offer family and friends permission to view me as such and not to become mired in my troubles. For me that perception then becomes functional truth. I argue that I do not need help and, in fact, then require less assistance.

This is a recipe that calls for a pinch of strength and healthy self-delusion. Determination and denial may seem a contradiction in terms, but they combine effectively to keep the momentum of living intact.

My wife, Meredith Vieira, frequently urges me to face my emotions, though what those emotions might be is not clear.

Self-pity is out. “Poor me” never flew in my family. My father made that clear long ago. My old man is a retired physician and also suffers from M.S. He says you just keep going, one day at a time. I think coping is two-thirds discipline. Self-indulgent emotion brings nothing to the party. The resolve to succeed does.

This morning, I will be doing business at the hospital.

When I awake from the day’s deep sleep, I will find out how much of me has been taken and try to reassure myself that plenty remains. M.S. and colon cancer, cane or colostomy, who I am is in my head. That is my identity. I will be fine.

A Body With a Mind of Its Own

June 25, 2000

The diagnosis came with a perfunctory phone call. There was no mention of treatment, no helpful advice. I could feel the neurologist’s shrug through the wire. I sat alone and in silence. I was only 25, and did not know what to do.

All these years later, I’m still not sure what to do, except to live my life. No neurologist I’ve come across has much to offer, beyond a few new drugs. I reach out, but with nothing to touch.

Whatever my difficulties, I know I am fortunate. Some people with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, are confined to wheelchairs or to their beds, unable to fend for themselves. I move slowly, hobble a bit and sometimes stumble and fall in the street, but at least I can walk. I try to remain upbeat; my neurologist once accused me of living in denial, but I denied it.

Still, there is much I cannot do. I no longer drive. I have to cede control and admit dependency. I lean on others regularly, and I hate it. Days are arduous, small tasks difficult. I take five minutes to button a shirt, five more to tie a necktie. And I can barely stay awake to go out in the evening. The betting at dinner parties these days is whether I will drop and drown in my coffee.

For me, living with M.S. is all about navigating an obstacle course. Crossing the street when I cannot see the other side, finding an address when I cannot read numbers at any distance, climbing stairs with feet that drag. Shooting baskets with my kids when my right arm has no strength.

And mine is a mind game, a matter of maintaining emotional equilibrium and holding onto optimism. Self-esteem suffers with the inability to perform simple tasks. I just cannot get used to admitting that I am unable to do something.

Cognitive problems are on the increase. My confusion with a child’s homework can be humiliating; I know the kids prefer now to do math and spelling with their mom. The black holes where there were once specific words and thoughts make up a map of frustration and anger. Why is this so difficult? What was I thinking? These questions come with greater frequency.

Ambiguity and uncertainty are parts of life, of course, and I have learned to live with them. But not every worry is so manageable. I am the third generation in my family to stumble and fall with multiple sclerosis.

What about my children?

It’s Invasive, It’s Unpleasant And It Can Save Your Life

March 14, 2000

“It’s time. You’re over 50,” my internist said casually during my routine physical in November.

“I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, but you really should have a colonoscopy. Is there colon cancer in your family?”

“Actually, there was,” I answered. “My maternal grandmother had it late in life.”
“Then this is no longer elective,” he added decisively. “You have to do it.”

Great. Another invasive procedure. I already had multiple sclerosis, with my share of ordeals by procedure, steroid injections under my eyes and catheters snaked through arteries from my groin to my brain. I didn’t particularly want to participate in this next adventure. I just wanted to be indemnified against another disease.

So now it would be the tush test. A television camera inserted into my rectum. The closer I came to the appointed hour with the gastroenterologist, the more I realized my utter horror was increasing and was out of proportion. What’s wrong with this picture?

Colonoscopies save lives. They can detect colorectal cancer early. Most malignancies in the colon begin as benign polyps. Only one in four people will have a polyp, which can be removed painlessly during the procedure before it ever becomes malignant. The only colonoscopy with an uncertain outcome is the first. There is no way to know in that situation what is growing and how long it has festered before being discovered.

My story, precisely. A polyp was removed and no one thought much of it. Over 90 percent are benign. It was biopsied, and I learned I had a malignancy. It took four hours of surgery and a resected colon, but soon enough the cancer was gone.

I was left with a sore lower back from the incision and a powerful sense of how lucky I was. The cancer was found early. The colonoscopy had saved my life. I realized, though, how close I had come to postponing, if not altogether ignoring my internist’s advice.

During the pre-op work-up, I had asked my 69-year-old internist with the unequivocal advice when he had last subjected himself to the dreaded procedure.

“I’ve never had one,” he muttered.

“Why?” I asked, not even trying to mask my incredulity.

“Stupidity. Denial,” he admitted. “I want to be a doctor, not a patient.” Then, he added, “I’m going to get one next month.”

Right.

Never has a single procedure, a test that can save lives been greeted by more resistance, indeed repulsion. Colon cancer is the second leading cancer killer in America. Contrary to popular belief, it hits both genders as an equal opportunity killer. Undergoing a colonoscopy every five years, three, if there is a family history, is practically a fail-safe guarantee against the disease. Yet many people don’t want any part of the procedure.

“It’s a shame. People don’t know what colonoscopies are about today,” said Dr. Blair Lewis, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai. “They’ve changed. It’s not like the old sigmoidoscopies, which were blunt instruments examining the lower colon. People don’t understand that today the instrument is flexible and the whole thing is painless.”

It is painless. I know that now. A cocktail of sedatives takes the edge off the discomfort, which is more in our heads than in our rumps anyway. There are no pain receptors in the colon, and you can watch the event progress on a television monitor at no extra charge. The pictures seemed almost impressionist, very color intensive to me. Maybe it was the drugs. Only slight abdominal pressure registered, but the truth is, our phobias are all about the instant of entry, the long anticipated, awful anal invasion that makes grown men cringe.

Face it. Guys are wimps. Women are used to routine medical invasion. Alas, it is their lot in life. By the time a woman hits 50 and heads for the doctor, earlier if there is a family history, she has been probed and prodded in every orifice. Women who have borne children should laugh at such male distress. When Colonoscopy Claus comes down the chimney, women may not jingle bells, but they seem to sigh and embrace him.

“I just did it.” says Neen Hunt, executive director of the Lasker Foundation, which supports medical research. “My mother died of colon cancer, and I had my first colonoscopy when I was 40. I’m now 57, and I’ve had a few more. It’s too important to my family not to do it.”

My mother, Terry Cohen, a retired registered nurse and staff instructor, has had three colonoscopies and a few sigmoidoscopies before that. “I didn’t have any particular anxieties about them. I wasn’t happy, but I just did it. As a woman, I’ve been through worse than that. I was just concerned about the outcome.”

Her outcome was just fine, but that doesn’t seem to be what is on the minds of men. Jim Hightower, former agriculture commissioner of Texas and author of “If the Gods Had Meant Us To Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates” (HarperCollins), stopped by for lunch recently. I talk about this stuff with everyone these days.

Jim is 57 and has yet to undergo the procedure. “My father died of colon cancer,” he said, shaking his head. “I know I should have one.”

With colon cancer in the family, any person’s risk of acquiring the disease doubles by age 40. For those people, resisting colon cancer screening is playing Russian roulette. Jim claims he watches his diet and eats fiber regularly and, yes, is going to get a colonoscopy. “I’m going to do it. I just haven’t gotten there yet.”

Right.

The most common method of colon cancer screening is flexible sigmoidoscopy because it is now covered by Medicare. It is not adequate in more than 50 percent of the applications, though, because it does not reach the upper colon. So, colonoscopy remains the probe of choice. The modern, flexible sigmoidoscopy is less intrusive, but still there is resistance. The American College of Gastroenterologists runs a never-ending advertising campaign with the warning, “People will die of embarrassment.” Beyond embarrassment, the mere thought of these procedures touches on a common fear of invasion with many men.

“Fear of the procedures and the failure of doctors to adequately explain them are the problem,” explains Dr. Philip Schoenfeld, director of gastroenterology research at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Personally, I think it is the failure of Americans to just grow up. While there are no firm numbers, researchers estimate that only about 15 percent of people over 50 get colonoscopies.

Look. These tush tests stink. You have to drink hemlock and pour your guts out in preparation for the blessed event. It is sort of like the morning after going to a bad ethnic restaurant. But clean intestines are happy intestines.

Insurance hassles never end, if you are lucky enough to be insured at all. Carriers go out of their way to cut costs, of course, and they can make screening colonoscopies almost impossible to obtain. Usually, the procedure is covered only when there is cause. But the bottom line, so-to-speak, is that these procedures are just not fun.

Whoever said that fighting cancer should be fun?

After the Fall

April 11, 1993

He tumbled into that narrow space like a shiny penny disappearing into his new ceramic piggy bank. It was a slow-motion movie sequence, and I was powerless to stop it. A quick glance up at me, devoid of all expression, and he vanished. Our careful choreography had gone awry. Parent instinctively trying to watch over child. That grown-up caution that guides the movements of a little boy, not yet 4, had broken down. Failed. People always say, when it happens, it is sudden. It was.

The train ride was to be a small reward for a large rash he was withstanding and learning to ignore. More than I can say for his parents. We had driven into the city to consult with the dreaded doctor. That called for some token goodie, more than lunch at “Old McDonald’s” could provide. A train ride was as good as it got, at least as far as Ben was concerned. So why not?

Truffaut’s film “Small Change” long ago had gently placed the idea of quirky and unpredictable childhood crises into a little wrinkle of my consciousness. How could life be so fragile and children so durable in the same moment? I didn’t have children of my own then. I could not even imagine it. But the horror of that child in the movie plunging out of a 10-story window reaches inside and tears, though in the movie the baby laughs with delight and crawls on.

The sky was bright this Saturday, and when we got out of the car at Marble Hill, on Manhattan’s northern tip, and yelled “Bye, Mom” and “See you at Ardsley,” we headed down the steep stairway to a platform on the river. Ben’s Blue Train would be along shortly. Trains are Ben’s passion. Thomas the Train, the Red Train (Amtrak), the Blue Train (Metro-North). They speak to him. They are childhood’s friends, benign and exciting. Their engines huff and puff across the countryside and tell him wondrous tales in his bed at night. Our train pulled in and sat motionless, poised to head up the Hudson.

We held hands, especially there, because of the dangerous, wide gap between platform and train. The physical contact felt good. Ben needs me too, I always think, when he reaches for me. I am so acutely aware of his magnetic link to his mother. We jumped onto the train and then, as others came and went, Ben suddenly looked back at the platform and yelped: “Look, Dad. Your CNN card.”

My work ID was lying on the platform by the open door. It surprised me, and I quickly told Ben to stay where he was while I fetched it. In an instant I was on the platform, only a long step from the doors, bent over and recovering my card. When I heard Ben yell, “Let me help,” my hand shot up instinctively in the universal language of, “No.”

It’s truly a blur now, but I think I did it. I didn’t know he had jumped to follow, and I think it was my extended arm that knocked him back and down the slot into the toaster. It took a moment to register that Ben was down. Squeezed in between platform and train, thousands of tons of huffing, wheezing steel, ready to roar on. No longer benign, it was a metal monster about to eat my son.

I have covered bloody conflict from Lebanon to El Salvador, and I have never known the razor-sharp terror like that uncertain moment when a little person, your little person, is in mortal danger and you don’t know what to do.

The lesson of the Beirut rooftop comes clear: Do something. The hiss of a rocket-propelled grenade, and anyone who hears it has about two seconds to act. Just do something. Anything.

I pleaded with startled travelers not to let the doors close. Trains with open doors don’t move. People were horrified and motionless. Mannequins. I guess no one knew what to do.

“My God,” I quickly wondered, “where is the third rail, humming with electricity?” The toaster with a knife sticking out.

“Ben, don’t move,” I yelled, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness down there and I saw him half-prostrate in front of a wheel twice his size. He was trying to get to his feet.

“Put your hands in the air. High. As high as you can!” Two little tightly clenched fists appear below the level of the platform. I drop to my belly and scoop up the dazed child I have knocked down there in the first place. No hero. Just the survivors of a self-inflicted wound.

The nightmares have started now. In two beds. It was all probably less threatening than what the mind’s eye captured that afternoon. What might have happened. The videotape in my head plays and replays the hideous possibilities: the disaster that might have been. The same fall on an empty platform with no help. The fruitless scream and a Blue Train in a hurry to make up for its chronic tardiness. It could have happened across the platform where the third rail runs under people’s feet as they get on and off the train.

It’s hard to know what is in Ben’s head. He’s not saying much, though at least he is not accusing me of trying to do him in.

“Tell me about the tracks,” he says when he wakes in the mornings. And before he goes to sleep. He has his videotape, too, but he does not seem to be sure what the images say to him.

“Leave your wallet home. Please,” he beseeches. “You won’t lose your card when you go to New York City.”

Ben also suggests from time to time that he is too young to take the Blue Train for a while. And he tells his mother the Blue Train is crying because of what happened that afternoon.

Fathers have enough trouble convincing themselves, never mind moms, that we are competent guardians for the children, even when we are only out on a summer expedition. She didn’t blame me for the accident, but I wonder what she really thought. I knew that it was my fault. The chasm was wide, the fall quick, but I let it happen. My tears just weren’t good enough.

I won’t stop thinking about this for a long time. I hope Ben does.

In war, your number is up when it’s up. Even at home, on the battlefield that matters, our hold on life is fragile. Sometimes we get only one mistake. Our children can only look up at us. The trust in the eyes of a child is overpowering. Especially when you know you have failed once and been given a second chance.

To Reporters: Quit South Africa

August 31, 1987

South Africa is winning the war of images, and that is changing the way the entire world looks at the human struggle in that faraway land. In the name of more accurate and sensitive coverage, perhaps the time has come for Western news organizations, specifically American network news operations, to say ”enough” to the Government in Pretoria and to pick up our marbles and go home.

The current state of emergency regulations imposed by the Government have now been in effect for more than a year. These restrictions severely limit what publications and broadcasts can say about events in the townships or homelands or anywhere else there.
More significantly for television, the rigid prohibitions extend to pictures. Here’s what that means: We cannot broadcast or even shoot pictures of any unrest, which is defined by South African authorities. We cannot show police or security forces acting in their official capacity trying to ”keep the peace.” Our cameras are not supposed to be within telescopic range of such events. The point is not what the media can no longer do, it is what the public no longer sees.

So the recent strike by black miners against the gold and diamond industries is reported almost as a routine labor story. Never mind that workers have been herded out of company owned housing and sent away. Never mind that miners have been shot and killed by authorities under mysterious circumstances. Because we cannot see pictures of these incidents, it is harder to comprehend what is going on.

The American consciousness about South Africa, I believe, was formed and maintained by the constant television images of brutal repression in many forms: the image of the padded, faceless policeman, club raised; the image of a black youth with fear covering every inch of his face as he throws a rock. These were constant and common images, and now they are missing.

One day in October 1985, an innocuous truck, driven by whites, moved ostentatiously through the streets of Cape Town. It was out of place and provocative, and when black kids began throwing rocks, the truck stopped and armed police jumped out of boxes on the back of the truck.

At CBS, we always referred to that day as the ”Trojan Horse” incident. The surprise attack, the beatings and arrests were captured in frightening detail on videotape by a CBS cameraman who risked great injury to keep his camera rolling. Such were the risks our South African colleagues took daily. Those pictures were broadcast that night on the CBS Evening News and were seen by millions of Americans. By the next morning, they were all over European television.

They are called tight shots. The camera moves in close enough to see the expression on a face, even the look in an eye. In South Africa, they are the narrow, harrowing images of oppression. If a picture is worth a thousand words, television can do what column inch after column inch of newspaper copy cannot. Television can raise the consciousness of a nation.

These images are no longer on American television because we cannot broadcast them, for fear of being expelled from South Africa. We play an insidious game of video appeasement with the Government. Walk up to the line. Don’t cross it. Show as much as you think you can get away with, never more.

While we compromise to keep our credentials in South Africa, we no longer truly cover events as we used to. As a result, Americans’ passion for that story, the identification with the human struggle and the underdog have receded.

I wonder if the American people wouldn’t be better served if the networks were thrown out of South Africa or just left on their own. In this day of quality home video, there would probably be many sources for pictures of the events that we can no longer legally record or broadcast. We would get pictures, a colleague once pointed out, from every cowboy with a camera. The gloves would be off. No more deals with the Government. We smuggle pictures out of the wilderness of Afghanistan. We could do the same in South Africa.

Pretoria knows that. Perhaps that’s why we’re still there.

Sightless On the Subway, Smelling Trouble

February 16, 1998

Because I’m legally blind, my daily descent into the subway is a journey into ominous fog, a comedy-adventure where the audience gets a few cheap laughs and the actor doesn’t much like the script or the jokes. He does like the adventure, though. To the sighted, it probably sounds more terrifying than what it really is: just another day down below. There is an underground world beneath the streets that I can observe with total clarity, a shrieking circus, a sideshow of perpetual motion and vast proportions, and the ticket is only a token.

Besides, I have hidden guidance systems to get me by, in my other senses and my general talent for survival. My nose, for example, is terrific, maybe the organ most useful in steering me through stations and subway cars. I know which seats to avoid and which characters to keep at a distance, even when my back is turned. When you can’t see, the phrase “smelling trouble” takes on a very literal meaning.

My audio radar is always on, too. I hear a train approaching, and I also hear someone behind me who should be in front of me. I keep the types who sound threatening between my vulnerability and the tracks.

Fortunately, my awful eyesight is mostly my secret, usually undetectable. I don’t follow a dog, carry a cane or even wear a pair of Coke-bottle glasses to signal my disability. Others with poor vision can put on spectacles, of course, but there is no prescription to correct optic nerves ravaged by multiple sclerosis. No, I’m just some guy regularly bumping into pillars and falling on the stairs. My passage along the platform is not exactly subtle, and sometimes I think you’d have to be blind not to notice. But nobody seems to. I’ve never even had my pocket picked.

In fact, I like the subway; I enjoy the types I meet down there. I just have to be a little more cautious than other riders. One of my favorite tactics is simple avoidance of eye contact with anyone, but it’s difficult to maintain, because my stares are necessarily long and intense as I struggle to keep my bearings on a moving subway car. The result is that people who just need to talk to someone can spot me from the far end of the car. I’m an easy mark, though usually the most they demand is small change. The subterranean branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also has demonstrated a special concern for my salvation.

Yes, mine is truly a different kind of ride above and below Broadway, and it stays different when I struggle up into the altered state of negotiating the avenues and streets in a haze. With a navigational system that is all noise and an occasional whiff, I cruise a city I cannot clearly see. It is unnerving and a great challenge, an opportunity to experience New York on a level utterly apart from the average commuter. For someone who is visually challenged-or as some of us prefer, goddamned blind-a commute is frequently an exercise in beating the odds one more time.

My city is blurred into an Impressionist canvas, forever on the easel. It changes with the light, the humidity and my own mood. It fades from detail and clarity into undefined shapes and washed-out colors, often only the merest suggestion of what is actually out there. The picture begins at about 10 paces away, the critical distance in any respectable duel. That is as far as my visual reach extends in my daily sparring with New York. Beyond that distance, I operate on instinct, if not by wits.

The Fellini feeling of my travels is often defined by little mishaps: the ladies’ room I thought was the men’s room, the jar I assumed was Parmesan cheese. Have you ever liberally applied sugar to a slice of pizza? It’s no great shakes.

The other day, I was headed for an early appointment in midtown. I ducked into what I thought was a deli on Seventh Avenue to pick up a bagel. I followed my nose on that one, but I figured I had walked through the wrong door and was in the kitchen, where men were busy baking and paying no attention to me, the customer.

As I approached what I took to be the entry into the restaurant portion of this place, I saw a man heading into the same short passage, walking right toward me. I politely stepped to the left to let him pass. He did the same. I moved the other way. He mimicked me again. I looked up at him in my usual silent rage, then suddenly realized I was staring straight into a large mirror, taking umbrage at my own choreography.

The guys behind the counter didn’t applaud, nor even blink. They just stared, wide-eyed, as I blushed and hurried out. I’ve never learned to conceal or even deflect embarrassment, though occasionally I can’t help laughing. It is pretty funny, and sometimes I am great spectator sport.

I am a terrific jaywalker. Jaywalking is an art, and blind people play the piano, so crossing the street should be as easy as child’s scales. The key to successful survival as a blind jaywalker is all in the ears. It’s like audibles called at the line of scrimmage.

My ears tell me a car is starting and about to move. They measure the speed of a vehicle already in motion. I can even determine what gear the auto is running in. My ears, however, are not so good at determining whether that cab bearing down on me is going to stop or just run over me. By the time the brakes squeal, it could be too late.

O.K., jaywalking is risky, but so is life. I’m in it for the experience, you know, the thrill of victory. I’m certainly in no hurry, having learned to leave for any appointment on the early side. It takes time to zigzag across the street constantly, searching for some restaurant when I know only which block it’s on and can’t read the actual address. Sometimes I can correct my compass by smelling the food from down the street.

I’m not going to claim with phony cheerfulness that it’s just terrific sport to be legally blind in this or any other city. It was a lot more fun, when I still had my eyesight, to jump in my car and head for the nearest urban fire exit. And I used to sprint across streets without worrying about falling into a manhole. In the end, though, New York remains its own best show, even for someone who can’t quite see it.

Yet my emotional endurance is tested constantly by the effort not to humiliate myself too much, to maintain my optimism and self-confidence. Limitations may be camouflaged and kept almost private, but they cannot be denied to oneself. The loss of control is certainly humbling. Anyway, everyone I know thinks that he or she is suffering. If I were a psychoanalyst, I would soon be yelling at every patient to stop complaining, to just quit whining.

I don’t think I’m a whiner, and I’m not always careening out of control, anyway. Actually, I know the city better than you do. I connect with it every day on levels that you, the sighted, cannot see. I will surely survive New York because I know what I am up against, and my eyes are wide open.