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A Beloved Art Critic Sings His Swan Song

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Art critic Peter Schjeldahl attends The 2011 New Yorker Festival: In Conversation with Steve Martin on September 30, 2011 in New York, United States. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Many in the literary and art worlds have been sharing this moving kitchen-sink essay by beloved, long-time New Yorker writer and art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in which he reveals that he is dying, at 77, of lung cancer.

In the piece, he poignantly looks back at his life and career, his history as a recovering alcoholic, his continued status as a smoker — and a not-so-wise medical choice he made a few years ago that might have contributed to shortening his life.

Between bulletins from my body that say this isn’t so, I still feel like a kid inside. Four and a half years ago, while rushing to catch a bus (“Don’t run for a bus” was a rule for longevity in Mel Brooks’s “2000 Year Old Man”), I tripped trying to leap, gazelle-like, over a chunk of broken asphalt and must have caught a toe. When I came to on the street, surrounded by strangers, I had no memory of falling or of much else (who I was, where I was). There was blood. My glasses were smashed. I said, “I’m O.K.” The strangers strenuously disagreed. An ambulance had arrived.

I was mostly conscious when wheeled on a gurney into an emergency room in Greenwich Village. A scrawny old-time Village-hipster type was driving the nurses crazy about something, likely trying to wheedle drugs. Strolling past and glancing down at me, he said tenderly, “Die, baby.” That didn’t seem like a terrible idea, right then, and it struck me in a remote sort of way as the funniest thing I’d ever heard.

A cat scan to check out a suspicion that my neck was broken (weird story short: my neck was found to have broken and healed sometime in the past, unbeknownst to me) incidentally discovered a spot in my left lung. This later led to hospital visits for scans and tests, including a needle biopsy (ouch), all of them inconclusive. Fed up with the rigmarole, I refused further investigation. Shouldn’t have? Live and learn.

He also turns over in his mind what it means to be dying, and to have six months’ warning that the end is nigh. “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks,” he suggests at the end. “Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”

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