THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, January 8, 1995 TAG: 9501030053 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J3 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BILL RUEHLMANN LENGTH: Medium: 78 lines
DEATH IS an abstraction, until it's yours.
At 37, strapping 6-footer Greg Raver Lampman was an award-winning journalist at The Virginian-Pilot with a wife, Sharon, and daughter, Emily, when the abstraction stopped for him.
In May 1992 he suffered a seizure and convulsions that led to a broken vertebra.
Doctors discovered a brain tumor the size of an egg that later would be pronounced malignant.
Suddenly the world traveler who had lived by his wits in Ecuador, Wales and the night streets of Norfolk found himself confined to the narrow margins of a hospital room and the prospect of losing his language, if not his life.
He survived surgery, radiation treatments, terror. He retained the three things he cared most about - Sharon, Emmy and the gift of prose. He employed the last as a legacy for his 3-year-old daughter, in the form of letters documenting the ordeal, for her to read when she is older.
Now those letters are in print for others to benefit from as well.
Magic and Loss (Hampton Roads Publishing, 179 pp., $18.95 hardcover, $9.95 soft), a Reader's Digest condensed book selection, is an unwavering look at personal crisis and its consequences.
It is the eloquent testimony of a trained observer tied to the mortal tracks while the train is coming.
``My life,'' Raver Lampman writes, ``went into a free fall. My sense of despair and powerlessness reminded me of the myths about protagonists hurled into the netherworld to encounter monsters, blackness and rivers of death. Sometimes, the hero returns with a sacred object or lesson.
``Sometimes, the hero dies. . . ''
Reporters, like other people, tend to be more sparing of themselves than of others for the record. Exceptionally, Raver Lampman refuses to protect himself in this harrowing but redemptive account of his descent into the maelstrom. The monsters are here, in spades - fear, disfigurement, alienation; and some of them are of the author's admitted own making - ambition, detachment, rage.
``I remember I used to hear a siren, or see an ambulance, and wonder whether there was some story I should chase,'' he confesses. ``Now, I hear a siren and I feel a pang of empathy, of fear really, fear that someone might be suffering. `Let them be OK,' I think.''
Raver Lampman takes Emmy and us into the successive chambers of his experience from May 23, 1992, when he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, until Dec. 1 of that year, when he was at home reflecting upon the results of yet another physical exam.
There are waiting rooms, city rooms and chapels; there are also automobile rides and reflective walks along the water.
Hope and pain, magic and loss.
The title comes from a composition by Lou Reed, who sings: ``Life's good, but not fair at all.'' Raver Lampman's magic encompasses medical science and personal joy; his loss is one of certitude and security, the final acceptance of an acute sense of temporal vulnerability.
Material things and conventional status have come to count for a lot less to him these days, but the author has gone intrepidly on. In 1993, Sharon, an Old Dominion University professor, earned a Fulbright Scholars award to teach in the Czech Republic for a year, and Greg and Emmy went with her. Now departed from the newspaper, Raver Lampman recently completed his second book and first novel, White Tribes.
``All that seems to matter, to really matter at a gut level,'' he counsels, ``is compassion, brotherhood, friendship, parenthood, love, the nebulous emotions we forget so often, but which grow so important toward journey's end.''
That is an essential and authentic lesson from one certifiably returned from the valley of the shadow of death. MEMO: Bill Ruehlmann is a mass communication professor at Virginia Wesleyan
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