David Rakoff Saw The World In All Its Dark Beauty
When writer David Rakoff died Thursday at the age 47, he was barely the age he said he was always "meant" to be. In his 2010 memoir, Half Empty, he wrote, "Everyone has an internal age, a time in life when one is, if not one's best, then at very least one's most authentic self. I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between 47 and 53 years old."
Rakoff died in New York City after a long struggle with cancer — an ordeal that he wrote about with sobering honesty and biting wit.
"I can see a great beauty in acknowledging the fact that the world is dark," Rakoff said in a 2010 interview. It's healthy, he insisted, to employ "a certain kind of clear-eyed examination of the world as it is."
Rakoff was born in Montreal, studied East Asian literature and was diagnosed with lymphoma at 22. He recovered, and wrote a fan letter to humorist David Sedaris, which led to frequent contributions to This American Life. In his first essay on This American Life, Rakoff reflects on his role as — oddly enough — Sigmund Freud in the Christmas display of an upscale department store.
"In the window I fantasized about starting an entire Christmas Freud movement: Freuds everywhere, providing grown-ups and children with the greatest gift of all: Insight."
In May, Rakoff and some other This American Life contributors appeared onstage before a live audience in New York City. By then, a recent surgery to remove a tumor had severed nerves in his left arm, leaving him unable to feel or move that limb. He spoke wistfully about the pleasure he once took in the rigorous study of modern dance:
"You become this altered humming — dare I say beautiful — working instrument of placement and form and concentration," he said. "But like I said, that's a long time ago and a version of myself that has long since ceased to exist. Before I became such an observer ..." His voice trailed off and he was not able finish. He just stood there on the stage. But then, he did something wonderful: He danced. Gracefully, always gracefully.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And we say goodbye now to a public radio original. David Rakoff died last night in New York City after a long struggle with cancer. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: David Rakoff started on "This American Life" with an essay about playing Sigmund Freud, of all things, in a Christmas display in the window an upscale department store.
DAVID RAKOFF: In the window, I fantasized about starting an entire Christmas Freud movement. Christmas Freuds everywhere, providing grownups and children alike with the greatest gift of all: insight.
ULABY: Rakoff was born in Montreal. He studied East Asian literature and was diagnosed with lymphoma at 22. He recovered and wrote a fan letter to humorist David Sedaris. That led to "This American Life," an Oscar-winning short film and best-selling collections of essays, all shaped, he said, by his identity as a gay Jewish Canadian.
Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer while writing his last book. It's a defense of pessimism and melancholy. He read from "Half Empty" on NPR a few years ago.
RAKOFF: (reading) I loathed being a child. Plainly stated, being a child was not, as used to be said around the time that I was a child, my bag. Everyone has an internal age, a time in life when one is if not one's best then at very least one's most authentic self.
I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between 47 and 53 years old.
ULABY: David Rakoff was only 47 when he died, just barely the age he was meant to be. In one of his last appearances in May, David Rakoff and some other "This American Life" contributors were onstage in New York City. By then, Rakoff had lost the use of his arm to cancer. He talked about the pleasure he once took in the rigorous study of modern dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAKOFF: You become this altered, humming, dare I say beautiful, working instrument of placement and form and concentration. But like I said, that's a long time ago and a version of myself that has long since ceased to exist. Before I became such an observer - I'm sorry.
ULABY: Rakoff was not able to finish. He just stood there on stage. But then he did something wonderful: he danced gracefully, always gracefully. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.