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David Lee Nelson, SC playwright who channeled battle with cancer into comedy, dead at 42

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David Lee Nelson's "Hope in the Time of Chemo"

David Lee Nelson's new book, "Hope in the Time of Chemo," was published on May 1 and is available on Amazon.com. Provided 

David Lee Nelson began with a proclamation.

He would no longer call the punishing regimen deemed necessary to treat his stage 4 colon cancer 'chemo.'

He just didn't like the ring of it. It was too short, too blunt. There was something unsavory about the term.

"Like 'yeah I got chemo’d outside of Days Inn off 95. I was walking to the Waffle House and boom — chemo,'" as he wrote in the inaugural post of his blog in 2017.

No, chemo wasn't for him.

Chemotherapy on the other hand. That's something he could get behind.

"Sounds lovely," he wrote. "Sounds like there's going to be scented candles and carafes and cucumbers."

The post came shortly after the celebrated South Carolina writer, actor and standup comedian was diagnosed at the age of 38.

Nelson, who lived in Greenville, died this week of complications caused by cancer. He was 42.

His death resounded through South Carolina's theater community and around the country. 

Students and colleagues at Furman University and the Fine Arts Center of Greenville where he taught. Friends with Charleston's Pure Theatre. Performers writers and actors across multiple states.

After he was diagnosed with cancer, Nelson started writing jokes about it immediately.

Those jokes quickly became fodder for his blog chronicling the challenges, the shocking mundanity, and, above all else, the humor of his life with cancer. Soon after, the blog became the basis for his one-man show, "Stages."

"I heard him tell someone once that he'd never been so happy to be a writer as when he got cancer," said Adam Knight, one of Nelson's best friends and the director of "Stages." "Because being a writer allowed him a place to put all of those thoughts and a forum by which to find some order in the chaos of it all. As his friend, it allowed me similar things."

'Brave and superhumanly kind'

Despite Nelson's openness about his lengthy fight with the disease, the people he touched through his work are struggling to make sense of his death.

Caroline Davis, a guest lecturer at Furman who shared an office with Nelson, said she and many of the students he taught are reeling. 

Nelson was a resource for her after she learned her father was suffering from renal failure. As someone living with a terminal illness himself, he spoke candidly about mortality, but more about cherishing every day. Their talks were cathartic. They were also, somehow, funny.

"Of course he was guiding me through all those feelings I was having about my dad when he was going through it himself, which was really brave and superhumanly kind, I think," Davis said.

When Nelson performed "Stages" in Greenville, Davis encouraged her father to go. 

"My dad was really reticent about the idea of going to see David's work because he didn't know how he was going to receive it emotionally," she said. "But every time he saw David's work, he was really grateful that he had and he took a lot away from it. So I'm indebted to David."

Her father has since received a new kidney and is in recovery. But the man who in the midst of his darkest moment gave hope to her father is gone.

Davis' father wasn't alone in drawing inspiration from Nelson. Knight said cancer patients and survivors regularly reached out to Nelson after shows to let him know his work provided hope and made them feel less alone.

This spring, when Nelson went to perform the one-man show at Iowa City's Riverside Theatre, where Knight serves as artistic director, he spent much his time there doing outreach.

He was exhausted, drained by the tumors in his body and by the chemicals used to suppress them. But it didn't stop him from spending a day meeting with cancer survivors and their families, running a writing workshop for adolescent cancer patients, and doing the show at Clark University and Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center on top of performances at Riverside.

"It was an enormously busy 20 days and he was in a lot of pain," Knight said. "But he just really loved people. He loved hearing people's stories, he loved sharing his own stories, and he loved community."

'So much of it was beautiful'

Nelson inspired others through his work, Knight said, but also by example. He never stopped living his life, despite his dire prognosis, and in April he married actress Jaimie Malphrus at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital, where he was receiving treatment.

"What sounds amazing to me is to have a huge first anniversary party in that same (hospital) wing," he told The Greenville News at the time.

Before his diagnosis, Nelson had already established himself as arguably "the most talented playwright to come out of South Carolina in years," according to Post and Courier art critic Maura Hogan.

His play "The Elephant in my Closet," about "coming out" as a democrat to his conservative South Carolina father, earned the top honor at the prestigious New York Fringe Festival. He was renowned as a prolific writer and performer nationwide.

He never stopped working.

In May, "Hope in the time of Chemo," a book adaptation of "Stages," hit bookshelves.

During one of his last performances at Greenville's Warehouse Theatre, where he was a fixture, Nelson gave a rendition of Duncan Macmillan's "Every Brilliant Thing," at its core a dramatic catalogue of the beauty in the world to remember during dark times.

When Davis created a space for her students to express their grief through art during a class period following Nelson's death, one made a collage depicting items listed in the play. At its center was a picture of Nelson's lips.

"She said 'I included his mouth, because so much came out of it and so much of it was beautiful,'" Davis said.

And while Nelson is gone, some of his work is yet to be released. Four days before his death, he sent Knight a new monologue, examining his own mortality. Knight says he plans to publish it next month as part of a monologue series.

But the voluminous, already published work Nelson created over the course of his career serves as a connection to him for his family, friends, and the people he touched through his art, Knight said.

"It's a testament to his work that through telling his story, he empowered others to tell theirs."

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Follow Conor Hughes on Twitter at @ConorJHughes.

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