Book Review: “Relentless: A Memoir”
How a Massive Stroke Changed My Life for the Better by Ted W. Baxter
Reviewer: Anthony Pomes
Reach a certain age, and “fear” seems to become the chief theme of “life” — two four-letter words stretched tight atop the void. From our first cradle stirrings, a fear of death is buried so deeply in our DNA that it remains a largely existential matter for most. After all, the old saying goes that we begin to die just as we are born. In my callow youth, when writing the lyrics to a song of mine called “Climbing Back,” I found myself wrestling with what I deemed a kind of soul sickness that I could spot both within and all around me. Of that all-pervasive cosmic illness, I wrote that “It never reveals itself, it always repeats itself, it never reveals itself, it never evolves” — and I steeled myself against that disease by declaring “I’m dead, anyway.” Flash forward a few decades, though — into a life of love and children and experiences and accomplishments — and what your younger self saw as a death stance now more accurately resembles a kind of dodge. A slapdash foxhole of spiritual anesthetic — “God” as a self-styled bandage that disintegrates the moment you need it.
For me, the real fear kicked in with the thought that being fed by our daily bread led instead to a dread of dropping dead. What compounds this dread isn’t the fact that we will die — it is more about how we will die. If life, in the parlance of physics, is nothing more than the shared dialectic of potential and kinetic energy, what do you do when you’ve used up all your potential energy — and your kinetic energy takes a trajectory nosedive into disease and unswerving dissipation? Well, if you are ischemic stroke survivor Ted W. Baxter — author of the tautly written and inspirational health memoir Relentless (Greenleaf Book Group Press) — you fight.
When I first read this book’s title, I thought it was more an action-packed thriller than a health book. Why a book about strokes named Relentless? Was the title a misstep, or was there some stronger meaning behind it about which I remained unaware? Perhaps it was about how “relentless” a stroke could be to one’s health — pessimism — or maybe, in the more optimistic appraisal, it described author Baxter’s dogged efforts to recover. As it turns out, the title alludes to both meanings — and so the old “Don’t judge a book by its cover, or title” adage certainly holds true in this case. Speaking of its cover, its main motif — a dotted map line whose trajectory creates the outline of a human brain, from its start at the word “Stroke” to its end at a destination mark — results in one of the best and most purposeful cover designs that I have ever seen for a health book. (Whoever designed it deserves an extra cookie on their plate — though knowing what we do about the myriad perils of sugar to our health, probably best to avoid the cookie.)
At first glance, Ted Baxter and I have some things in common. We both were born and grew up on Long Island in New York, and we both came up as highly ambitious and motivated fellows. (Being that his chosen profession was in global finance, while mine was in music and book publishing, means that he was more apt to carry an attaché case while I carried a tune — and was more concerned with adding the accent over the “e” in the word attaché.) But while I began to obsess over illness — real and imagined — when I hit my forties, Mr. Baxter was stopped in his tracks in 2005 at age 41 by an all-too-real stroke that struck him hard. This is where Baxter’s book essentially begins, seemingly at a futile end to a stirring and — one might say — relentless career run. The bright young man felled by unforeseen feet of clay — there are many such parables in this wretched bone shop called life. That, of course, is the appeal of Mr. Baxter’s story and book — he turns the same alpha “can-do” attitude that has served him thus far in life and aims to bounce back from his stroke-induced aphasia (the inability to understand or speak words in an intelligible way, to those not yet in the know).
What follows is a brave and stirring memoir of indomitable spirit, of ups and downs and the delicious taste of renewal and survival and transcendence that spans a recovery period of nearly a decade — and finds the hero of the story stronger, and happier, than he was before illness came. Relentless is the absorbing and true-life story of a man who climbs back to a place of health and self-awareness; and if this remarkable story can change the inner tune of this still-doubtful and dread-filled reviewer, than anything is possible.