by the Nile’s garden
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
The Literature of Caregiving: Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall
Welcome back to The Literature of Caregiving:
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 their life experiences into poetry. 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 their work side-by-side and to trace the intrusion and trajectory of cancer through their loving—and sexy—marriage.
I read the book, “The Best Day/The Worst Day” by Donald Hall. It is the story of the last year of Jane Kenyon’s life, her death from leukemia, and the story of their relationship, and a marriage of two writers.
I am interested in writer’s lives and especially in how two writers lived together doing their work, and making lives as freelance writers and teachers. But I also read Hall’s book because I have also known since attending Bennington that his story is also the story of losing Jane and grieving that loss.
My first year at Bennington was the year after Jane’s death and Donald’s readings that year and the next were of his poems/letters to Jane after her death. He was a grieving man.
Each year when Hall came to Bennington to read the perspective was different—the love always so strong, the advocacy fierce, but his point of view changing, enriching, deepening.
I know that I re-read this book to look into the face of grief and death. I also was clear that I started at the back of the book, the ending and the postscript because I wanted to see right away what Donald would say about Jane’s death. He is then writing ten years after Jane’s death. So I know he has survived. That is both my hope and my fear.
Donald Hall cared for Jane for 15 months: chemo, bone marrow transplant, all the horrible side effects—many of them familiar to me now: weakness and sore mouth and hair on the pillow and in the sink. Hall describes the process of dying and the feelings of loving someone who is very sick and then dying.
I can feel the howl when they are told leukemia is back and there is nothing more to do. Jane dies eleven days later. Hall loves her so much but he is clear about not trying to make her death harder for her by loving her in a way that might make it harder for her to let go into death. I’m moved by the selflessness of loving in that way.
Later I read, “Unpacking the Boxes”, another memoir by Donald Hall. This one is written 14 years after Jane’s death and in it Hall recounts much of the story that he wrote in “The Best Day/The Worst Day”…but now he is farther from it and he reveals even more.
What strikes me was how much he missed being her caregiver. The details of daily caring for her in leukemia were so hard and he was the primary caregiver day and night. It meant connection through the best and the worst.
After she died he missed her of course but he was surprised that he also missed the hard, tiring work of the physical care for her. That I understand too. There are days when I know I am benefitting from John’s cancer. It’s a connection and a unique way of being in relationship. No one would wish for this but I am aware that it is a gift of sorts. It sets a strong priority and it makes a bond.
But I also make this note to myself: One of the reasons that Jane’s death is such a shock to Hall and Kenyon and feels so unfair is that Donald Hall was 19 years older and he had colon cancer years earlier that had metastasized to his liver. They had already been through CancerLand with Hall’s surgeries, chemo, cancer recurring—all of it his. And then the sharp, unexpected turn: Jane gets leukemia and she dies one year later.
The other thing that Donald Hall—quite bravely—writes about in “Unpacking the Boxes” is the way his energy became sexual. He describes his sexual fantasies and his sexual behavior while Jane is dying, and after her death. He shares the voracious fantasies that would flow thru him and how, after her death, he acted on them.
Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon written when she was ill:
I saw him leaving the hospital
Clearly she would not need it.
The sunglasses he wore could not
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
And here is a poem, “The Painted Bed” by Donald Hall:
Even when I danced erect
by the Nile’s garden
by the Nile’s garden
I constructed Necropolis.
Ten million fellaheen cells
of my body floated stones
to establish a white museum.
Grisly, foul, and terrific
into desiccated sacs of flesh
hanging from an armature
where muscle was, and fat.
I lie on the painted bed
on the journey I undertake
to repose without pain
in the palace of darkness,
my body beside your body.
[The Literature of Caregiving is a monthly series here on Love in the Time of Cancer--you can read previous installments on December 8, 2014 and January 16, 2015]