Before he succumbed to cancer this past August at age 25, Max Ritvo
used art, comedy, and conversation to probe the irony of being young, smitten by life, giddy with potential, and terminally ill. At age 16, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a painful bone and tissue cancer. He and his family were dumbfounded, but once the news sank in, Ritvo refused to sugarcoat his situation. Instead, he spent much of the next nine years urging people to confront ideas of illness and death (his as well as theirs) and, more radically, to laugh with him. His book of poetry, Four Reincarnations,
published posthumously, includes a tribute to the lab mice used to test his experimental treatment; it’s silly, sweet, and sad all at once. In the poem “Afternoon,” he wrote, “When I was about to die / my body lit up / like when I leave my house / without my wallet. / What am I missing?
I ask / patting my chest / pocket.” Ritvo was able to revel in the absurdity—and poignancy—of his condition. “He said the worst approach to suffering is to try to make it go away, and the worst approach to happiness is to try to make it stay,” says Ritvo’s wife, Victoria. He performed his comedy with dark bits, interviewing the medical port in his chest (which he nicknamed Mediport Michael) and pretending to have a medical emergency onstage. “Max’s lens was unique,” says his mother, Ariella Riva Ritvo-Slifka. “I’ve had strangers write to tell me about their fears and how his poetry has taught them to think in ways they never had before. That would have made Max ecstatic.”