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Jim Beaver's moving story of loss and survival

April 15, 2009 |  5:08 pm


You might recognize Jim Beaver as the actor who played Whitney Ellsworth on the HBO series "Deadwood"; that was all I knew of him before I picked up "Life's That Way," his memoir that hits shelves tomorrow. I cracked it open with all the skepticism I reserve for Hollywood memoirs, figuring I could toss it aside after a few pages. That would have been a mistake. 

It's not just that Beaver has a powerful story to tell. It's that he writes with a frankness, immediacy and generosity that draws in the reader. It's that voice that compelled friends who got his initial e-mails to share them (the recipient list grew to 4,000). This book is an edited selection of those e-mails, which Beaver began sending out when his family got some very bad news.

Beaver's wife, Cecily Adams, an actress and casting agent and daughter of "Get Smart's" Don Adams, had endured difficult fertility treatments before the birth of their daughter. When the strangely withdrawn toddler was diagnosed with autism, the news was devastating. But things got worse: Six weeks later, they learned that Cecily was very sick. That's when Jim began sending the e-mails, as a way to keep their circle of friends up to date without having to repeat the news: Cecily, who'd given up smoking about 20 years earlier, had Stage 4 lung cancer.

Life is, I've discovered, much harder to live when you're afraid every moment. One still persists, perseveres, plods on into the light, but there's a dull sickness in the gut pervading the journey. One fights not just the cancer, but also the fear of cancer and the myriad other fears that seek to gain strength from their alliance with it. The operative term, though, is "one fights." We fight on.

This determination and anxiety carries through the first part of the book, every step that can be taken, every hurdle that can be surmounted. He is not ceaselessly cheery; he is overtired, overburdened, and calls on friends to pray (or hum, if they don't pray). And while struggling, he often cranes to see the long view.

With all the thousands upon thousands of people suffering from this disease, how can I find her pain and mine so surprising, so unexpected? How can we not all know about this stuff on a daily basis, if so many go through it? Are we really so isolated from the trauma and torment around us? ... How can I not have known what so many people have gone through? The only answer I can conjure is that a kind Providence keeps us blind to the intensity of suffering so as to keep us sane, until that day when the suffering is our own or that of someone we love beyond imagining.

He is, by turns, entirely open and aware of maintaining some boundaries. "I would never want any of this stuff I write to seem cloying or artificial," he writes on Nov. 12. "It might be cloying, to the observer, but there's nothing artificial about it." And then, less than two weeks later: "There are fears and imaginings and speculations and even hopes that pop up uncalled for in the night that you don't even voice out loud to yourself, much less share with the world. So in the interest of full disclosure, this ain't Honest John you're dealing with."

What comes after the jump is something of a spoiler. Proceed with caution.

It doesn't take much intuition to guess, from the inside flap or a glance at the preface, that Cecily loses her fight. It is a terrifyingly rapid decline. And her death comes as a surprise, perhaps because the narrative that Beaver told in those e-mails each night was, in part, a reinforcement of his best hopes.

But his narrative continues. There is more than half the book left to go. And this is what happens. There is still a special-needs child. There is still a house. There is still his work -- he kept acting all through his wife's illness. There are other family members who need his help -- an ailing father, a sick brother-in-law. There is his abject and utter loss.

And no matter how much he may, at times, have resisted giving voice to his darkest moments, it is a clear and real expression of grief and grieving.

Like Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," this book sticks to a year, one year of Beaver's trial and survival. But unlike Didion's -- which, while wonderful, was brittle with nervewracked intellect -- "Life's That Way" is visceral and genuinely felt, less an examination of what his experience was than an outpouring of the experience itself. If at times it is terribly sad to read, it is also cathartic.

Today I spent the bulk of the day playing catch-up with bills.... What that allowed me to do was to relive individual days of Cec's illness, purely in terms of what they charged us for those days. October 17, CT scan, $758... February 29, emergency airway inserted, $429. Dollars and pain and fear. Nothing in these papers reflected the love or generosity or bravery or any of the myriad wonderments we found in the midst of those times of suffering. No, just the suffering. And the cost. The little cost. The big cost isn't on anyone's insurance form or doctor bill. There isn't paper big enough to write the big cost on.

All through this, he writes. Each time he signs off, he includes the time: 12:58am, 3:00 a.m., 12:49 a.m., 2:27 a.m., 11:53 a.m., 1:26 a.m. Working, worrying, caretaking, he steps away into the dark and writes. If this is a testament to human survival -- which it is -- it is also a testament to the power of connection, to what it means to translate emotions and experience into words and then send them out in the dark.

-- Carolyn Kellogg