The piano player really couldn't sing, although he tried hard. His crusty voice chafed at the edges of tunes as worn as the old wooden bar, filtered through the tinny microphone and bounced around the seedy, red room at Miami Beach's Broadripple Hotel.
Bob Liss and about 10 of us sat around that piano, some singing along with equal gusto and ability, others just listening and drinking. It was the piano player's first night back after a long time away, and he was mighty glad to be there. "Me and the Duke," he told the small crowd between songs, equating himself with John Wayne at the time when John Wayne was doing well, "we both licked the Big C."
Bob didn't flicker, didn't say a thing. His wife, Bonnie, looked at me and another close friend out for the evening. The three of us tightened, waiting for Bob to react. He had recently found out he had leukemia, and he talked about it quite openly. Tonight he sat silently, touched, it seemed by something in the piano player's voice, the sadness and the hope at the same time. That he too would "lick the Big C" seemed inevitable. How could it be otherwise? Eight months later, in June 1979, at age 34, he died.
"Being able to sleep was good. Dying would be better. It was something to look foward to but I was in no hurry now that I had the Demerol. I had been able to feel myself dying for about three months, and it was a relief to be close enough to see the end. Soon they would start the morphine and the life-support machines and then it would be just a matter of time. Maybe even death would sneak in quietly at night, like a returning adulterer hoping not to wake the children, and would lie down beside me and suck my soul out before they got any of the machines attached."
In The Miami Herald newsroom, a newsroom filled with talented people, Bob Liss stood out. He saw the world from odd angles, saw the details that most of us miss and made readers see things differently when he was through. As a general assignment feature writer he approached each story as a vehicle for demonstrating how ironic life can be.
When he found what he said was his best story -- the story of his illness -- it was predictable that he would see it, too, in a way no one else did, and predictable that he would eventually write about it. "Fading Rainbow" is the result. He wrote in the brief periods of remission, and then he died, and Bonnie finished the story. There are questions that remain unanswered, but he wrote so clearly and elegantly, with such startling insight, that even those of us who felt we knew him well have learned from the book -- learned about his guts and his perception and his ability to share those perceptions. To the uninitiated reader, he opens himself up -- the fears, the anger, the ideals -- with the same candor with which he lived.
The book is about the disease -- he studied its history, its progress, its prognosis. And it is about his life before the disease. The knowledge of his death opened up his memory, touching off remembrances of incidents and people past, the things that shaped him in ways he hadn't realized before. His memory was visual, and he translated the images in his mind into poignant tales.
"When [the doctor] felt my spleen, he paused and looked thoughtful. When he felt my back he asked, 'Do you have any children?'
"'We have three sons,' I answered. There is an irrational belief that if you have children when you go before a judge or to a doctor, the sentence will be lighter."
The fatigue and fever that showed up first were diagnosed as mononucleosis, and the "kissing disease" verdict produced much snickering among his colleagues. When that verdict was changed to the more exotic, more devastating one of hairy cell leukemia, and he was in a period of remission, Liss went around to his friends to let them know. "Actually," he had said in an offhanded way in the crowded newsroom, "I've got leukemia, not mono."
Standing across a cluttered desk it was hard to react, hard to understand, hard to feel. The impact was much more comprehensible when, coming to work the morning, I saw Bob get out of his car, shut the door and lean on the trunk, head down, until he got up enough strength to cross the parking lot to the building. It was not far, half a block at most. Only then did the destruction and power of the disease sink in.
On his sailboat drifting across Biscayne Bay, Bob was telling two of us about his search for a cure. He really didn't want chemotherapy, so he was investigating the alternatives. The alternatives included Caribbean witch doctor treatments, essence of apricot pits and a faith healer. He was not sure he believed in any of them, but he had to know what they were peddling.
He had found the faith healer when he was reporting a story, and she said she could cure the leukemia. He was interested in strange people, interested in the freaks, the derelicts, the crazies. Sometimes they got interested in him. The faith healer came to his home, closeted him in a darkened room and began her incantations. He got cold and started to shake. Then he got scared. He told her to leave. On the boat he debated whether that had been a mistake. There had been power in the fear she generated.
Months later -- it seemed longer, because in remission he was vigorous, athletic, charming -- he lay in a hospital bed, alone on a humid Miami Saturday afternoon. He didn't want more than one visitor at a time -- not because he was so weak, although he was, but because he wanted to talk to each one, wanted to give each person all of his attention.
He was going to have his spleen removed soon, a procedure he had wanted to avoid. But he was not strong enough for the operation yet, not even all the transfusions of fresh red blood could kick him into gear for the ordeal. So he was waiting it out until the doctors built up his strength. His hands and feet were sheet-white. They looked as though he had been bound at the ankles and wrists and no blood was getting through. On the way to see him I bought a plant that looked tame and small in the store, but opened up into a wild jungle beast when it was unwrapped in the hospital. I was embarrassed, but he was delighted. "Everything around here looks dead," he said. "That plant is alive. I like things that look alive."
"The feeling of being singled out for special punishment faded as I lay in the hospital that evening, surrounded by dying people. I realized that in dying I was doing nothing exceptional. The head of the neurology team summed it up for me after I went through all his tests. 'We can't find anything, so it must be the leukemia that's causing the symptoms,' he said. Then he smiled and added, 'Don't feel too bad. We've all got a terminal disease.'"
On the day he died, a tropical June day, his youngest son Asher, an autistic child who had made considerable progress with the help of Bob and Bonnie and a variety of teachers, was trying to absorb the fact of death. "Bob Liss died. Are you sad?" Asher said to one of Liss' friends at the funeral later that day, as if by saying it out loud he would understand what the words meant. At the end of the service, when everyone else was walking back toward the cars, Asher stayed a few extra minutes, saying goodbye. He was speaking to the closed casket. And the fact of his speech, its ability in doubt for so long, made an impact as strong as the emotion in the child for his father.
When Bob was getting ready to take a leave of absence from The Herald to write this book, he looked forward to creating something that would last longer than yesterday's newspaper.
He didn't finish what he had to say, but he came very close.