When Seth Greenland was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma at the age of 37, he couldn’t find the right book to guide him through the experience. “Where is the first-person account,” he recalls in A Kingdom of Tender Colors: A Memoir of Comedy, Survival, and Love, “written in a loose, amusing yet informative style by someone who has been through this terrifying experience and (big caveat) lived to write about it? How am I supposed to cope without a book? There is no other way for me to frame my story. I vow to write that book if I survive.”
Nearly three decades later, A Kingdom of Tender Colors is the book the novelist and screenwriter promised he’d write: an apologetic yet eager memoir that brings a charming humor to a subject that is nothing if not dire. A funny book about cancer? Why not? Greenland understands that even the most awful situations can have comic elements—if one is willing to go there. “The worst aspect of learning that your cancer is Stage 4,” he writes, “is the knowledge that there is no Stage 5.”
Long the “picture of apple-cheeked vigor, blazing with life,” Greenland has to grapple, from the moment of his diagnosis, with assumptions about longevity and mortality. He takes a look at his family tree. “I always assumed I came from healthy stock,” he admits, “until I realized I believed that because I’d never actually thought about it. Like many humans, I am adept at not thinking about bad things. This is called avoidance and it is the evolutionary development that allows us to get out of bed in the morning.”
Greenland’s diagnosis came at a particularly challenging moment for his family. Not only were he and his wife mourning the loss of her brother, they were also parents of a two-year-old, with a second child on the way. These cascading circumstances, Greenland admits, bring to mind the writer’s room expression “putting a hat on a hat.” And yet, they also serve as a reminder of all the ways that grief can compound on itself. “Grief,” he observes, “is fluid, malleable. It can become anger or rage quickly, before reverting to deep sadness.”
Life isn’t only one thing, in other words, and neither is death.
For Greenland, “it is the writer’s job to be compelling with the tools at hand,” and he mines his experiences for dark comedy. He receives his diagnosis via answering machine. He lives next door to an undertaker. His in-laws, upon hearing of his illness, send him a card that reads “We hope you make the most of the time you have left.” And when he asks his doctor if the cancer is curable, he doesn’t ever get a yes. “ ‘It’s treatable,’ ” the doctor says. “ ‘Treatable?’ I ask. That word again. Treatable. Doctors love it. So equivocal.”
Such a back-and-forth highlights the memoir’s mix of gallows humor and deep reflection about illness. Greenland holds nothing back, including his feelings of inadequacy and incredulity.
As A Kingdom of Tender Colors progresses, it moves from treatment to a range of other issues: the author’s relationships with his parents, the possibility of cures, and the conundrum of the afterlife. Greenland has questions about the myriad ways people have tried to define the time and space after a person dies. Partway through the book, he shares a sweet memory of his father:
In my younger and less vulnerable years, when death seemed as distant as the Aurora Borealis, I asked my father what our family believed happens when someone died. He thought about it for a moment and said:
“We live on in the hearts of those who knew us.”
“There’s no heaven?”
“It’s all right here,” he said, indicating our den.
Ultimately, illness reveals to Greenland his importance to the people in his life. “Only presence has meaning. You remember who was there.”
As his future grows uncertain, Greenland investigates a variety of treatment options. Traditional Western medicine gets him to remission, after which he follows other paths to remain healthy, including dietary changes, meditation, and eventually coffee enemas. It’s an amazingly strict and structured routine. “I wonder if I’ll ever feel like myself again,” Greenland writes, “or is this what it means to feel like myself now.”
Still, A Kingdom of Tender Colors isn’t a how-to, as Greenland acknowledges. He suggests that each person should treat his or her illness as unique and look for what works best for them. “Make a choice and believe in it,” he insists. “That is all you can do.”