Glenn Rockowitz has been many things over his 50+ years of life. He served as his high school class president. He performed with Second City in Chicago. He’s been a standup comedian, a voiceover actor, a film director, a writer for Saturday Night Live — and a cancer patient.
That last part was crushing news to be sure. He wrote about it in his 2009 book Rodeo in Joliet. He writes about it again in his new book, Cotton Teeth, recently released by Harper & Case. Despite the sad subject matter, Glenn has actually been able to find bright spots during his ordeals. He’s a firm believer in the philosophy that laughter is the best medicine.
"When you laugh, it is one of the few moments you are fully present in a way that, during those seconds, there is nothing else that exists," says Glenn. "There’s no pain, there’s no anger, sadness or anything like that."
I recently got a chance to interview the Seattle comedian about cancer and comedy. He told me that he attributes his dark humor to his grandmother who fought her own battle with cancer many years earlier. Glenn says that he would visit her often at her hospital and try to get her to laugh. She would tell him, "When you come and I laugh, it’s like it’s the only time that I’m being let out of prison." But grandma wasn’t always in a good mood during his visits.
"One day she happened to get on a jag about something [unimportant] and I said, ‘Listen. You keep it up and I’m going to stick you into a wheelchair and I’m going to roll you into the parking lot and I’m going to leave you there.’ And she laughed and I said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ And then she ramped up again. And I was like, alright this is it. I wheeled her out the front door to the far part of the parking lot and I faced her in front of a brick wall, locked her wheels and I left her there. I think that the people who were looking on were horrified but I just stood a few feet behind her and just watched her laugh. She was laughing so hard. Obviously, she knew that I wasn’t going to leave her there. I just let it linger. When it comes to comedy, there’s a breaking point and if you push past that breaking point, it gets to a ridiculous level of funny."
It was this incident that served as inspiration for The Best Medicine Group in New York. Glenn created the organization to bring cheer to those fighting AIDS and cancer. He and a few friends would visit the homes of terminally ill patients and give them a private comedy show serving as an emotional break. Then, at the age of 28, Glenn faced his own personal crisis.
The big change
Glenn was happily married and his wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He was told that he only had three months to live. The news was devastating. So much so, that he couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife. Instead, he broke the news to his father.
"I can’t even imagine what that would feel like when someone you love that much tells you this news," Glenn said.
His dad didn’t take the news well, either. He even told Glenn that he prayed to God to give him his son’s cancer, which was odd since his father was an atheist. Ironically, Glenn’s dad soon learned that he too would have to fight his own battle with cancer.
"He had been complaining about stomach problems for years, so it wasn’t some divine thing when he was diagnosed [with pancreatic cancer], but nonetheless, it was the guilt that I felt," says Glenn.
Eventually, Glenn told his wife about his diagnosis and he went to London to be part of a clinical trial, because there wasn’t any treatment available for him in the U.S.
Glenn had just a few more months with his dad before his father passed away. Then, during his dad’s memorial service, Glenn got the call that his own cancer was in remission.
Glenn says that the whole purpose of writing Cotton Teeth was to serve as a companion piece to the first book because a lot of readers said they wanted to know more about Glenn’s relationship with his psychoanalyst father.
"So I got more in-depth about the type of conversations that we had. About everything," Glenn says. "Lying in bed together in his house. Both of us not knowing how long we had [to live]. He was kind enough to indulge my stupid questions about life and depression and anxiety and why do we feel these things."
"I would love to say that I have healed, but I haven’t," Glenn shares. "I don’t carry the weight all the time, but I miss him a lot because he was a very positive influence on me as a human being. He was also a rare man in this world. I sucked at sports. I was into music. I got bullied. He was always encouraging me to embrace being a sensitive male in a world where it isn’t okay to be a sensitive male."
Glenn shared some gems that people said to him at his father's memorial service.
"I never begrudge anyone the things that they say because, while they are uncomfortable, no one knows what to say. Sometimes people say things like, 'He’s in a better place now.' For some people, that’s reassuring. For me, I’m like, 'Where? Sandals? Is he on a Disney Cruise?' There’s a comic element to things that people say. But I think the dumbest thing I heard someone say was from one of my dad’s closest friends who put his hands on my shoulders. My dad had only been dead for a few days at this point. He said, 'Hey. Look at me. Less cryin’, more tryin’, okay?' I was like, what is that supposed to mean? Did you read that on a Dixie cup? Where is that from? I’m crying because my dad just died. Don’t worry, I should be over it soon."
The PNW connection
Cancer has weaved itself into everything Glenn does. But that’s alright, he says. The end justifies the means if it helps people. Rockowitz no longer lives in New York. He says that 9-11 was what brought him to the Pacific Northwest.
"I was working about two blocks away from the Trade Center on that morning. My son was, I guess two years old at that point, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna find someplace far away as possible.’ I’ve been here since 2002."
These days, Glenn does voiceover work for income and serves as a pro-bono clinical advocate for newly diagnosed patients helping people figure out what to do when they’re diagnosed with the disease.
"I just had a new patient yesterday who is my age, 53, and he said, 'Wait, I’m 52. See? I think it’s an early sign of dementia. I’ll take dementia over cancer any day. At least I’ll forget that I have cancer.'"
Since his first diagnosis, Glenn has had three additional cancers, "I won the genetic lottery. That was the first on my punch card. I think if I get another, I get a free sub sandwich or something."
I ask where the title Cotton Teeth comes from. He says that it’s a line from Tom Robbins' novel Jitterbug Perfume where one of the characters said, "May the jaws of death have cotton teeth."
"It has become about all of this stuff," says Glenn. "It’s inevitable. We’re all going there. I spend a lot of time with people. I see a lot of death yearly – and I just want it to be as pain-free as possible. People don’t like to talk about death in a positive way, but the most beautiful things are forged in pain."
Glenn says he sees a pattern while working with terminally ill patients. They’ve all found a perspective, no matter their age.
"Death wasn’t the worst thing. And the appreciation for what they did or their regrets for the things that they had wished that they had done – had such an impact on me way before I got sick. I think that I would have missed out on so much of my life. The best parts of my life are the direct result of coming out of the other side of pain with a lot of people who have been through it."
When I ask who the intended audience is for his new book, Glenn says this is always a tough question to answer. In addition to talking about cancer, it also delves into sexual abuse that Glenn had endured when he was a child and how that changed his trust in people.
"I would hope that the audience would be one that struggles with ‘whatever’ to understand that however dark that it gets, you can get through it."
Glenn then tells me his dad’s philosophy about when people say 'tomorrow will be better.' He says that tomorrow may not be better, but it will be different.
"If you have a pathway to better, different is the only way to go. So, if you’re miserable, tomorrow may not be better, but it will be different. And the day after that might be worse, but it will be different. But that’s the opportunity to turn it into something else."
23 years and counting
Today, Glenn’s son is 23-years-old. That’s 23 more years than his doctors were expecting him to live, which is pretty amazing. I ask Glenn how his cancer journey shaped his views about parenthood.
"I think the mistake I made was doing everything I could for [my son] because I never wanted him to suffer for a second. [Instead], what I did was to create some [punk] who sits on the couch saying, ‘Hey! My dishes need to be clean’ and me saying ‘Yes, sir, right away, sir!’ But thankfully, during his early teen years, I sort of shifted away from that type of thinking and thought, I’m trying to protect him from the world but the best thing that I can probably do instead of doing everything for him would be to teach him how to do all this stuff himself, so that he can be okay. And that shift has made a big difference."
Glenn is also super grateful for the life he's had with his son.
"It just makes me, like, how acutely aware, even in the worst moments, of how lucky I am that I can see him. I’m sure that I annoy the hell out of him the amount that I hug him and how much that I love him and whatever."
A matter of faith
We come back to how Glenn's dad was an atheist. So I asked Glenn if he has faith in God.
"I do. I don’t know that I identify with any sort of religious context, but I undoubtedly have a very strong faith in God in the sense that we are all part of one thing," says Glenn. He likens his philosophy to what stand-up comedian Bill Hicks believed.
"He couldn’t understand how people couldn’t see a bigger power was at work. There is so much beauty in the world. It’s narcissistic and arrogant to believe that we’re ‘it.’ I can’t wrap my head around it, so I feel a strong connection to God in that sense."
While Glenn remains bravely upbeat, he shares some tough news.
"I haven’t been very public about it, but there might be a new cancer," says Glenn. He’s now three years into what his doctors believe might be the beginnings of multiple myeloma. "I’m on a maintenance chemo now. I see too many doctors way too often, but for the most part, I’m feeling pretty good, so I’m just kinda moving forward. I spend a lot of time preparing to die and in therapy to my way of thinking on preparing to live, instead — and it’s helped a lot."
Learn more about his new book Cotton Teeth here.
Jeff Totey is a freelance writer for Seattle Refined. Follow more of his work here.