John Gunther’s work “Death Be Not Proud,” a memoir about the death of his son Johnny caused by a brain tumor, is not light reading. For some reason, I chose to read this memoir during high school for a “leisurely” read. As a high school student, I recognized the plot, and the story, and tried to indentify with Johnny as he lived his last days. It was a decent read, but I never thought that I would read this again because it was not a type of writing that I would call “uplifting.” So, when I found out that I would be reading this again in college, I thought to myself, “What more is there about this book that I haven’t already read?” What I found out is that I was able to delve into an entire new level of this memoir.
Upon reading this memoir for the second time, I recognized the subtleties and humility of Johnny’s personality. It was evident that Johnny always thought of others first, even though he was the person who was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. There were many instances and actions throughout the memoir when Gunther highlights Johnny’s character. He reflects about Johnny soon after his first operation,
“Particularly, I remember Johnny’s considerateness, even when he got sicker. Of course he wanted his classmates and other friends of his own age to come for weekends, and several did. But he would hesitate to ask them, for fear they might be bored—inasmuch as he himself could not join them in sports or outdoor games. He was vehemently worried that his illness might upset our future plans and about how much it was costing and about France’s work and my book.”
How often does one meet a teenager who worries about the well-being of his parents in regard to money and their careers? Maybe I am being critical of teenagers? Still, for Johnny’s father to stress this aspect of Johnny’s character throughout the memoir is indicative of the respect for Johnny’s character that he had for his son. It is a large realization for a teenager to understand that by asking friends to come and visit, he there was the potential for them to feel obliged to come and visit him instead of enjoying the weekend to play outdoor sports and spend the time doing things that they would have wanted to do. And yet, Johnny did have many friends who chose to come and visit him without him even asking for them to come over. He was a kid that people wanted to be around and with whom they wanted to spend time. What is more, he was acutely aware of the financial burden that his treatment was costing his mother and father as well as how his illness was affecting their careers. He wanted to make sure that his father was finishing his writings and considered the time that his mother spent with him and worried about her not working.
There was another instance when Johnny does express discontent about having to start a new treatment but he demonstrates composure and positivity the next day. John Gunther writes,
“I took Johnny out to dinner in Madison and broke it to him that we would be going into town the next day for new and further treatment. This was a grievous shock. It was the first time that I saw him seriously upset. He struggled to keep from tears. He flung himself away from me and crept upstairs. Mostly this was because he was midway through preparations for another serious experiment. But by the next morning he was buoyant again-so much so that I dreaded more than I can tell what would have to be the next bad news broken to him, that he could not go back to school.”
As a person who likes to complete projects that are started, I empathize with Johnny’s frustration when told that he must but his project on hold. Once a project is in progress, especially a chemistry project which may have to be re-started completely, it is difficult to stop, especially when the reason for stopping is to go and be pricked, prodded, and possibly going through extensive surgeries. Yet, once again, Johnny wakes up the next morning and chooses to have a positive attitude and to put the feelings of others before his. I have to wonder if his compliance was due to the hope that he lived longer for his parents’ sake. Not that Johnny was not resilient and wanted to give up, but he was such a compliant patient and son and rarely showed his resentment to all of the treatments in which he had partaken.
Johnny had a desire to live and to make others happy. Just because he was suffering and dying, he chose to make the most of every day that he had instead of giving up and sulking about his situation. Although, in the end, the cancer ended up victorious over Johnny’s body, Johnny’s attitude was victorious over the cancer. John Gunther says his son “maintained the boldest kind of front,” “he hated to be helped,” and “he died like a man with perfect dignity.”