In May 2010 I arrived in Rio for a ten-day book tour to publicize the Portuguese translation of my book Hyping Health Risks. After an overnight flight, I arrived at my hotel before noon and had just enough time to get unpacked, shower, and go for a walk before my host Professor Renato Veras was to pick me up for lunch at a seafood restaurant on the beach in Copacabana. The hotel, the Marina Palace, was in the Leblon section to the south of Rio’s long beachfront. The southern end is marked by the imposing Two Brothers Mountain, which I never tired of looking at at different times of day, and photographing.
My room was on the sixteenth floor, and through the picture windows I had a breathtaking view of the beachfront — the traffic along the shore road, the bicycle path between the road and the beach filled with runners, cyclists, and skateboarders, and the lithe young people playing volleyball and the more chunky men playing soccer on the beach. The Marina Palace, was to be the base from which I was to make trips to San Paulo, Porto Alegre in the south, and Manaus in the west.
That Sunday morning, before Renato arrived, I went out for a brief walk along the beach among the runners and walkers, some of them pushing baby carriages. The next morning before my talk in Rio I went out after breakfast and walked on the beach taking pictures of the early-morning activity and, especially, a group of dedicated soccer players.
Several other times, when I was back after the trips to other cities, and on my last evening in Rio, I would go out and walk north along the beach to Ipanema and Copacabana. The beachfront stretched for miles, and I never got to the northern end. I walked at a quick pace along the sidewalk inlaid with small white and black tiles, making a wave pattern, stopping occasionally to take a photograph — a father rolling a ball to his toddler son, the islands out in the bay, and the darkening sky making for a stunning dusk over the beach and Two Brothers Mountain.
The Sunday I arrived in Rio was the date of the memorial service for Randal, the father of my son’s best friend. My wife and son went to the service, and my wife described it for me in the first email I got from her after my arrival. Randal had died in February, after an unbelievable sequence of medical problems, starting with a brain tumor, for which he received aggressive treatment, and including lymphoma, over a seven-year period. He was in his late fifties when he died. After we heard from his wife about his initial diagnosis of a brain tumor at Montefiore, we had urged her to take him to Neurological Institute at Columbia, where he would get the best treatment possible, and he wound up getting all his treatment there.
A year and a half earlier, one of my two friends from elementary school, Lewis Cole, had died at the age of sixty-two after a three-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). We had reconnected, after not being in touch since the mid-sixties, and we had had warm get-togethers with him and his wife Valerie and their daughter Layla.
Walking along the beachfront sidewalk with its mosaic pattern and observing the many forms of activity, I was struck by how fortunate I was to be alive and to be in this stunning, vibrant place and to be the recipient of the incredible hospitality of my hosts. It could have been me that was stricken instead of Randal or Lewis. In fact, I had gone through my own medical adventure the previous April due to a failure to diagnose a leaking appendix. This resulted in an intestinal blockage, which required emergency surgery, and an infection in the abdominal cavity, and a seventeen-day hospital stay, by the end of which I had lost thirty pounds and looked like a stooped-over old man.
Several days after my arrival in Brazil, in the hotel lobby in Sao Paulo, I had logged on to my email in the evening and found the two latest installments of historian Tony Judt’s memoir sent by my friend David in Stockholm. Like Lewis, Tony Judt had been diagnosed with ALS several years earlier and was deteriorating at a comparable rate. He was engaged in the heroic project of writing a memoir composed of brief pieces by arduously selecting one letter at a time on the computer by using only his eyes, since his body was totally paralyzed. Judt was two years younger than Lewis and me, and it was clear that he had very little time left. He died about a year after Lewis, and Valerie, who had met him through the ALS Foundation, went and visited him. I had printed out the two installments and read them on the late-night flight we took back to Rio from Sao Paulo. In the second one, Judt wrote about his feelings for Switzerland, with its sense of security and efficiency embodied in the quaint railroad lines that link up otherwise inaccessible mountain villages. It was this last entry that gave the name to the memoir — The Memory Chalet.
The sense of mortality so near at hand that had befallen these age-mates of mine heightened my experience of this new place. It was there at the gathering at the Academy of Medicine of the Amazon in Manaus, where I gave a talk and met physicians and politicians. It was present on the late night flight to the Amazon with my hosts. I was aware of it on the funicular that took us to the top of the Sugarloaf from where we took in the dazzling views of the mountains that divide the city of Rio. It was present out on the water in Manaus, where we travelled to the point where the dark waters of the Rio Negro meet and mix with the sand-colored waters of the Amazon.
And it brought home the serendipity that led a professor with an interest in successful aging to read my book and feel that it had something important to say to Brazilians, to arrange for its translation, and to go on to organize my visit.
Geoffrey Kabat is an epidemiologist and author, most recently of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks.