The Rook: Origin Story

He was my cousin and at the time, my best friend. Almost a year older than me, and infinitely more confident, I looked up to and admired him. We differed greatly in many ways.  He was militant, where I was more of a pacifist. We were both interested in the martial arts, however.  He was much more skilled than I was, having achieved a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do by the time we were thirteen. We were both conversant with comics, but not as interested in them as many of our friends.  He was more interested in science fiction movies and I was a fan of mystery novels.
Nonetheless, like many adolescents, we decided to adopt superhero personas.  An avid–though not very skilled–chess player, I always had a chessboard set up in my room to take on anyone willing to play a game.  There weren’t many chess aficionados in my social circle with the exception of my father, which may account for my mediocre abilities.  Nonetheless, the board maintained a prominent position in my room—if only as mostly décor.
It was the chessboard that provided the initial structure for our superselves.  He took a seat behind the white side of the board and picked up a horse-shaped piece.
“I’ll be The Knight.”
“Man,” I grumbled.  “You got the cool-sounding one.”
“No problem,” he grinned.  “you can always be the Queen.”
I made a face, a rude comment unfit for this blog and muttered “Not likely.”  Though fairly liberal in my attitudes of that day and place, there was no way I–as a barely teenaged heterosexual boy–was going to allow myself to be saddled with that moniker.
It did get me thinking, however.  Although the Knight was probably the most “super” sounding chess piece, it wasn’t my favorite.  I picked up the rook from my side of the board and considered it.
More advanced players than I had critiqued my over reliance on this piece, though I found it terribly useful.  Also, the general shape made it easy to use in various super-devices.  The hilt of a sword and the handlebars of the motorcycle could easily be fashioned into the shape of the rook.  It was also an easy figure to draw.
I placed the black rook next to the white knight on the board.  “This one’s me.”
Over the next several months, we drew pictures and designed fantasy weapons and vehicles incorporating our symbols.  All the while the Knight told stories of the adventures he had with his faithful sidekick, the Rook.  Though cast as a sort of assistant, these stories didn’t keep Rook in the shadows dependent on the Knight.  Rook was quick, strong, and powerful, often taking adventures on his own.  Although I was none of these, I found the stories liberating and empowering.
Eventually, my family moved and the Knight and I fell out of touch.  I understand that he joined the military as I went off to college.  The Rook paced nervously, penned up on the back burner of my psyche, while I found myself busily earning a Ph.D., raising a family, and eventually securing a job as a research scientist.
The Rook ground his teeth in frustration as my career waxed, waned, and turned while I became a professor and then left the lab to work in a small clinical practice. The Rook experienced some reprieve as I managed a bit of free time to resume my pursuit in the study of martial arts, the occult, private investigation, and other fields of study that struck my fancy.  My family was growing, my career was developing nicely, and I was developing personally.  Things seemed to be going rather well and the Rook stood alone and almost forgotten, occasionally practicing katas.
That’s when I was diagnosed.
It started out innocently enough…a large lymph node in a non-smoking, non-drinking, relatively youthful and otherwise healthy individual.  None of my doctors could believe that it was anything other than a node that was reacting to some otherwise minor infection.
No one expected me to have stage 4 cancer.  Least of all, myself.
Radiation and chemotherapy have a relatively similar objective.  Try to kill the patient, hope they survive and that the cancer cells die instead.  As such, a cancer patient undergoing such treatment has three adversaries attempting to kill him:  Chemicals, Radiation, and Disease.
I often told my students “We’re all terminal.  We all have an expiration date, we just don’t think much about it. The big difference is that those who have an identified terminal illness know ‘how’ and have a better idea than most of us as to ‘when’.  Having the illusions of immortality stripped from us in this fashion leaves a person with a distinct existential crisis:  ‘What does my life–and death–mean?”
What I failed to tell them is that your disease need not necessarily be terminal to have this effect.  While I attempted to recover and heal from the onslaught of cancer treatment, on the hope that I will survive the disease, the fact that I may easily die became increasingly evident.
What, really, had I done with my life?
I managed to carve out a pretty decent career and my family seemed happy and well cared for.  These were pretty much the end of my goals.  However, was the world really that much better off for my having been here or was my existence as consequential as a wisp of smoke?
Someone pointed out my wife, children, students and clientele in an answer to that question and, although I value each of them very highly, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was enough.
“Perhaps,” a familiar voice echoed in the back of my mind.  “But you could do more.”
The Rook was waiting, ever-vigilant, in the dark recesses for his opening.  He is now the symbol of my attempts to improve the world, bit by bit, beyond the confines of my immediate sphere of influence (family, career, etc) with the time that I have left.
However long that may be.