Max Ritvo, poet who chronicled cancer battle, dies at 25

Max Ritvo, a poet who chronicled his long battle with cancer in works that were both humorous and searing, has died. He was 25.

Ritvo died Tuesday morning at his home in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, his mother, Ariella Ritvo-Slifka, said Friday.

Ritvo was diagnosed at 16 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects bones and soft tissue in children and young adults.

Treatment brought about a remission that permitted Ritvo to finish high school and attend Yale University, where he performed in an improv comedy group. His teachers included Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck.

Ritvo’s cancer returned in his senior year, but he completed Yale and this year earned a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Ritvo’s battle with the disease informed his works. A June poem in The New Yorker discussed an experiment where cells from his tumors were used in cancer drug treatment experiments with mice.

“I want my mice to be just like me,” Ritvo wrote. “I don’t have any children. I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2, but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.”

Ritvo’s first book of poetry, “Four Reincarnations,” is scheduled to be published this fall.

In radio and podcast interviews, Ritvo spoke about his suffering. But he rejected any idea that he was a victim of the disease — especially a heroic one.

At their wedding last summer, Ritvo and his wife, Victoria, banned words such as “inspirational” from the speeches, his mother said.

“He was about love and compassion, human and animal rights and about writing and sharing himself with the world,” she said. “He didn’t want people to see him as an invalid.”

Ritvo saw humor not as a coping mechanism but as an intrinsic part of dealing with his illness.

“You know, we imagine in our hysteria that it’s disrespectful for the sadness. But when you laugh at something horrible, you’re just illuminating a different side of it that was already there and it’s not a deflection, it makes it deeper and makes it realer,” he said last month in the WNYC Studios podcast “Only Human.”

Ritvo also inspired people with his attitude, his wife said.

“Max said ‘I love you’ to everyone. He hugged everyone. He just wanted there to be more love and laughter,” she said.

Ritvo was writing until just days before his death and had told his family that the end would be near when he was no longer able to write.

The day before his death, he told his mother and wife: “I can’t write anymore, I can’t speak, I can’t breathe…I’m not me…You guys have to be OK with me going,” his mother said.

Earlier this month, Ritvo tweeted a link to poem called “The Final Voicemails,” which he said was “about goin a bit loopy under quarantine and what Death is.”

Its final lines: “Red as earth, red as a dying berry, red as your lips, red as the last thing I saw — and whatever next thing I will see.”

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