Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Really Matters?

There are many strategies for discernment. Many spiritual techniques and practices taught by experts in psychology, spirituality, even management. But there is nothing like seeing an irregular mole that wasn’t there yesterday to snap my mind into, “What really matters?” I go into mental triage: What now? What later? And while it is a bit paranoid and a kind of self torture to always be killing him off like this —it is also a gut compass that points me to the truest truth about what matters to me and who I am—good and bad—if his cancer does return.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Let Evening Come, Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

--Jane Kenyon

Monday, March 28, 2011

Last Days, by Donald Hall

“It was reasonable
to expect.” So he wrote. The next day,
in a consultation room,
Jane’s hematologist Letha Mills sat down,
stiff, her assistant
standing with her back to the door.
“I have terrible news,”
Letha told them. “The leukemia is back.
There’s nothing to do.”
The four of them wept. He asked how long,
why did it happen now?
Jane asked only: “Can I die at home?”
Home that afternoon,
they threw her medicines into the trash.

Jane vomited. He wailed
while she remained dry-eyed – silent,
trying to let go. At night
he picked up the telephone to make
calls that brought
a child or a friend into the horror.

The next morning,
they worked choosing among her poems
for Otherwise, picked
hymns for her funeral, and supplied each
other words as they wrote
and revised her obituary. The day after,
with more work to do
on her book, he saw how weak she felt,
and said maybe not now; maybe
later. Jane shook her head: “Now,” she said.
“We have to finish it now.”

Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,
she said, “Wasn’t that fun?
To work together? Wasn’t that fun?”
He asked her, “What clothes
should we dress you in, when we bury you?”
“I hadn’t thought,” she said.
“I wondered about the white salwar
kameez,” he said –
her favorite Indian silk they bought
in Pondicherry a year
and a half before, which she wore for best
or prettiest afterward.
She smiled. “Yes. Excellent,” she said.
He didn’t tell her
that a year earlier, dreaming awake,
he had seen her
in the coffin in her white salwar kameez.

Still, he couldn’t stop
planning. That night he broke out with,
“When Gus dies I’ll
have him cremated and scatter his ashes
on your grave!” She laughed
and her big eyes quickened and she nodded:
“It will be good
for the daffodils.” She lay pallid back
on the flowered pillow:
“Perkins, how do you think of these things?”
They talked about their
adventures – driving through England
when they first married,
and excursions to China and India.

Also they remembered
ordinary days – pond summers, working
on poems together,
walking the dog, reading Chekhov
aloud. When he praised
thousands of afternoon assignations
that carried them into
bliss and repose on this painted bed,
Jane burst into tears
and cried, “No more fucking. No more fucking!”

Incontinent three nights
before she died, Jane needed lifting
onto the commode.
He wiped her and helped her back into bed.

At five he fed the dog
and returned to find her across the room,
sitting in a straight chair.
When she couldn’t stand, how could she walk?
He feared she would fall
and called for an ambulance to the hospital,
but when he told Jane,
her mouth twisted down and tears started.
“Do we have to?” He canceled.
Jane said, “Perkins, be with me when I die.”
“Dying is simple,” she said.
“What’s worst is… the separation.”

When she no longer spoke,
they lay along together, touching,
and she fixed on him
her beautiful enormous round brown eyes,
shining, unblinking,
And passionate with love and dread.

One by one they came,
the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye
to this friend of the heart.
At first she said their names, wept, and touched;
then she smiled; then
turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day
she stared silent goodbyes
with her hands curled and her eye stuck open.

Leaving his place beside her,
where her eyes stared, he told her,
“I’ll put these letters
in the box.” She had not spoken
for three hours, and now Jane said
her last words: “O.K.”

At eight that night,
her eyes open as they stayed
until she died, brain-stem breathing
started, he bent to kiss
her pale cool lips again, and felt them
one last time gather
and purse and peck to kiss him back.

In the last hours, she kept
her forearms raised with pale fingers clenched
at cheek level, like
the goddess figurine over the bathroom sink.
Sometimes her right fist flicked
or spasmed toward her face. For twelve hours
until she died, he kept
scratching Jane Kenyon’s big bony nose.
A sharp, almost sweet
smell began to rise from her open mouth.
He watched her chest go still.
With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall

Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall: Poets, lovers, husband and wife. Both had cancer . Donald, much older, lived. Jane, much younger, died. But, both being poets, they had the habit of turning all life experiences into poems. So we have poetry collections from each of them describing each turn and phase of their roles as caregivers and as patients. It’s fascinating to read them together and to trace the intrusion and trajectory of cancer through their loving—and sexy—marriage.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon when she is ill and Donald is her caregiver:

I saw him leaving the hospital
with a woman's coat over his arm.
Clearly she would not need it.
The sunglasses he wore could not
conceal his wet face, his bafflement.

As if in mockery the day was fair,
and the air mild for December. All the same
he had zipped his own coat and tied
the hood under his chin, preparing
for irremediable cold.

Coats, by Jane Kenyon

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Monday, March 21, 2011


Sex becomes so important when I think about him dying. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? Sex is generation and death, annihilation.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Always the Counting

When I was a little girl I would sit with my mother while she visited with neighborhood women. I’d play while they talked. I remember a certain bafflement when they talked about some young person who just got married or when a first baby arrived. They counted backwards on their fingers. I didn’t understand till years later that they were counting backwards from 9—nine months—to determine if that baby had been conceived before the wedding.

Similarly I have this tick of counting when I read of someone dying from correctol cancer. How many months? How long after diagnosis did they die? And then I compare John’s dates and make my corresponding assumptions and deals with God.

I did it today reading Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir, “The Long Good-Bye” about her mother’s death. A beautiful book, I read it noting the literary allusions and the dates—counting, always counting. O’Rourke’s mother died two-and a-half years after diagnosis. I think back; how many months is it now for John? OK—we’re past that marker so is that good—he’s out of the woods? Or is that bad—he’s closer to bad news?

I did this also when Tony Snow, White House press spokesman, died in 2008. His diagnosis was the same as John’s and he died a month short of three years. Knowing the similarity of their diagnosis and treatment he was a scary marker for me. And so I’d count.

I can feel my mother in me when I tick off the months and years, 2011, 2010, 2009 and I know that the clock is inside of me, ticking, ticking, ticking.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When Death Comes

Tonight I read an interview with Mary Oliver in Oprah Magazine. Perhaps one of the first interviews that's she's allowed to be really public. She talks about her partner Molly's death and that she decided that she had two choices after her partner of 40 years died: She could buy a small cabin in the woods and lock herself in or she could unlock all the doors and invte the world in. She chose the unlocking. And she says this amazing thing. Five years after the love of her life has died, Mary Oliver says she is the happiest she has ever been in her life. She also talks about doing therapy--at 75 --to deal with a terrible abusive childhood. All of this gives me such hope and a model of a way to be in the world--and in myself.

Here is the poem, "When Death Comes", by Mary Oliver that I am memorizing:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Today I cleaned my desk, said no to an event, resigned from a volunteer committee and came home early to walk outside. I packed a better lunch, scheduled a manicure, ordered skincare and new contacts online, told two people how I really feel and told John about my frustrations. Tonight we’ll watch a silly movie and go to bed early. Maybe we’ll make love.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


This is hard. He is on the couch. I am racing from room to room. The to-do list strangles me. I’m mad and I’m tired. HALT they say in AA; notice when you are Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired. I am all four: H A L & T. Stop and breath. Stop and pray. What can I take off my list? What really matters? How important is it?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

War on Cancer

We often say that someone endured a courageous battle with cancer, but the truth is—it’s the doctors who are doing battle and the patients are the prisoners of war.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Not to Die of Cancer

I’m re-reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s wonderful book, “The Emperor of All Maladies—a biography of cancer.”

He says so many things that are obvious after you read them but that we don’t think about day to day. Such as: “Cancer is imprinted in our society: as we extend our life span as a species, we inevitably unleash malignant growth (mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging) so that cancer is thus intrinsically related to age. If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”

This is one of the reasons people in the developing world have more cancer. We live long enough to get cancer.

So how to not die of cancer:

Die young.

Die of malnutrition.

Or die of TB, cholera, malaria, dysentery, or any of the prevalent fevers in the second and third worlds: Choose from River Fever, Dengai Fever or Scarlett Fever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sexy Funny Cancer

This week a colleague sent me a link to a great cancer advocacy and apparel organization that combines sexy, funny and in-your-face advocacy for breast cancer. That is the perfect combo for Love in the Time of Cancer.

Save Second Base came from women helping women and offers a hilarious tee shirt that has a drawing of two baseballs at oh, about breast height, with the slogan, “Save Second Base.” Brittany who sent me the link said, “some find this a bit “in-your-face, but as you’d probably agree, we find cancer more “in-your-face” – especially the havoc it wrecks on patients and their families.” I do agree.

Save 2nd Base began as a cancer charity walk team for Kelly Rooney, a mom of five,  who died of breast cancer in 2006 at age 43. Rooney designed the tee shirt for her freinds. Now the friends are raising money for research and advocacy for breast cancer especially in young women.

Take a Look: