Checkmate: Beating Cancer at Its Own Game


One night, I had a dream that I played chess with Death and well, I won.

Illustration of a man with short gray hair and a gray zip-up hoodie.

Being hospitalized can be boring. Necessary, certainly, but boring all the same. They say that “time flies when you’re having fun,” but it drags by as slowly as a glacier when sitting in a room with only a television for company.

Throughout my six-month long monthly hospitalizations for non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment, I passed the time doing things like painting. I had a large easel and everything. My wife stayed with me for the first week. She was allowed to sleep in my room on a pull-out sofa bed of sorts. To make the days go by faster, we played chess. We played everywhere: in my room, down by the coffee kiosk in the main lobby and, when the weather was nice, we played in the atrium—an open-air garden built into the hospital. On several occasions, friends traveled a hundred miles to sit and play chess with me. In a previous life, I used to play chess all the time. I have fond memories of days and nights spent playing chess in my small cabin in Alaska beside a roaring fireplace. The chess set was special to me. I bought it in the fall of 1994 when I was a visiting professor in Moscow, Russia. The board and pieces were all hand painted.

Even if you aren’t hospitalized as I was, but you are instead staying home on sick leave while undergoing treatment, you need something to do. People need a purpose. Having something to do isn’t only about passing time; it’s about hope and the future in the face of uncertainty. You could decide it’s finally time to learn a foreign language (online), read a stack of great books, paint, draw or write a memoir. You could use the time instead of wasting it. Hope springs eternal. Sometimes hope is all we have.

Throughout my cancer ordeal, from diagnosis to “Ringing the Bell,” I wrote poetry about my thoughts and concerns and fears, especially about my fear of dying. I wrote enough poems to fill a book. One poem in “Running from the Reaper: Poetry from an Impatient Cancer Survivor” came to me one night in a dream. In the dream, I played a game of chess with Death. We made a bet that if I won, I would get to survive this cancer. Death lost. He kept his bargain. I’m still here.


To pass time, I sometimes played chess during hospital stays.

Despite my chemo brain, I could still beat most challengers.

On the last day of six excruciating months of chemo,

Death comes and we play a game. It was the first time

I’d seen him since we ate churros in the desert.

Several times, he had me against the ropes, but I fought back,

took all his pawns, killed his queen and chased his king into a corner.

“Checkmate!” I gloated, toppling his king. “You lose.”

As a sullen Death departed, he stopped and glared over his shoulder.

“You know, Johnny Boy,” he hissed with his forked tongue.

“This isn’t over. I’ll be seeing you someday.”

“Someday,” I replied with a smirk as I do a little happy dance.

“But not today.”

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