Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

The Work of Dying April 13, 2012

Filed under: cancer care,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 4:18 pm
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A friend of mine who has been a grief counselor for thirty years said, “I just don’t understand death.  How someone can be here and then be gone.  I just can’t understand it.”

I was grateful to her for saying that.   I had just told her that my beloved aunt had died. Although I wasn’t with her at the moment of death,   I had spent the week before with her, in the hospital, where she was supposed to be recovering from emergency surgery, but instead, as the week passed, was clearly succumbing to end stage cancer.  It was, despite the pain and trauma, a week of great sweetness for me.  Now I felt the unreality of her being gone, yet also I was enveloped by the sacredness of my time with her.

I have never been with anyone who was actively dying before.  It seemed like labor, a great work that was being accomplished.  My aunt has given me so much in my life–her love, her example of courage, her generosity of spirit, and she gave so much to me in these last days.  I watched as she had to let go of one hope and expectation after another.  She had thought she would have another two months, at least, of visiting with friends and family.  She wanted to go home in the worst way, to putter in her garden, to watch her birds, to feel the sun on her face.  The doctor had to tell her she would not be going home.  Her face crumbled in tears for a moment, then she wiped them away, and gave the doctor a radiant smile.  “I will be very happy at Hospice House,” she said.  Her husband had been there, and she felt they were like family.  She did this over and over, letting go and opening up to the next thing.  Letting go of her mobility, letting go of her loved home, letting go of her ability to read, of her ability to speak, and yet never with bitterness. Sadness, yes, but not excessive.  She had this trust, this faith, that allowed her to be open to what was, instead of clinging to the way she might want it to be.

She was open to the CNA’s and nurses, always thanking them, always appreciative.  One of the CNA’s washed her and rubbed her back with such tenderness that I almost cried.  “Wonderful,” Sheila said in her now roughened voice, and sighed.  I could see that she was soaking up the massage.  I realized how important the little things are, the sips of coffee, the touches, the cold cloth on the forehead.  She would ask for what she wanted, and receive it with great appreciation.  When she was changed to palliative care, and could not really eat,  she hankered after tomato juice and chicken salad sandwich.  Cindy, the CNA, finally got it for her.  She could only sip a little, nibble a tiny bit.  “Ah, great.  Thank you,” she said, then closed her eyes after the exertion, and fell asleep.

She never stopped being my aunt.  Earlier, when she could still speak easily,  she told me to go home and get some rest.  “You’re getting that glazed look in your eyes,” she said.  “There’s a good bottle of wine in the garage next to the freezer.  Go home and drink it.”  The next day when I  came back to the hospital, she asked me how I liked the wine, one of her favorites.  I told her I loved it, which was no lie.   I was a little guilty for abandoning her, and eating and drinking and sleeping so soundly.  She kissed her fingers and winked. “Delicious,” she said.  Once I asked her if there was anything I could do for her.  Again, this was earlier, and she said, “You can stop looking so concerned!”  in her no-nonsense, New England way.  When her daughter and husband came, she shushed them when they were speaking too loudly.  We all laughed at that, at how intact she was even as she was letting go.

None of this was our timetable–Sheila had just buried her beloved husband, after years of care-taking, and she and we had envisioned some time for herself, some time to enjoy her many friends and activities.  It didn’t seem fair.  Not by our standards.  But it was clear that Sheila was doing her work, that her spirit and body were following some other agenda than the one we had for her.  As sad as it was for all of us,  I think she was up for it.  I think she’d tell us all to “stop looking so concerned.”


Elegy May 17, 2011

Easter Sunday and I am in Iowa City, waiting for the shuttle to take me to Cedar Rapids.  The Examined Life Conference: Writing and the Art of Medicine has been three heady days of talks, poetry readings and rich exchanges, but now I am tired and ready to head home.  I watch the clouds in the blue sky drift above the swiftly flowing river.  Easter Sunday without hymns or eggs, without family and friends, feels odd.

The shuttle driver comes, a wizened elf with two hearing aids, and gamely grabs my overloaded suitcase.  He tells me Easter isn’t big at his house–one daughter, a stewardess, will be in Maui, the other is in Boston.  We pass a hawk standing on the curb, calmly scanning the road, and my elf remarks that he’s killed two of them who were eating his wife’s songbirds. That leads him to the story of the old Tom Turkey and his mate, the two of them standing in the middle of the highway.  “Yep, I passed them twice today. They’re  gone now,” he says, “not killed, just wised up and got out of the road.”

I ask him about his daughter in Boston, but he can’t hear me, which is fine, because I’m out of talk myself.  I gaze out the window as the miles of now gray clouds gather over the golden stubbled fields, the black, black earth, the greening hills.  We pass a creek, a silvery snail trail in a marshy field, stands of trees reaching bare branches to the sky.  A trio of blackbirds startle, exploding like scattershot.  I am silently marveling at the balm nature is, how these sights soothe me, when we come upon a strip mall of big box stores plunked down in the middle of empty farmland.  It looks incongruous and  arrogant  in the windswept landscape.  Then we are back into pure farmland, the patchwork fields unrolling like a Hockney painting–patches of green, black and gold.  A dilapidated red barn and farmhouse appear,  walls sagging, roof showing sky, sheltered by large trees.   My heart goes out to the abandoned place, a place that seems singular, built on a human scale, and I find myself imagining the life lived there.  I picture a rusted plow still in the barn, a pitchfork and spade, their wooden handles worn smooth with the farmer’s hand.  I imagine the interminable snow storms, the smell of wet wool and kerosene inside the house, cornbread baked in an iron skillet over a wood fire.  I tell myself not to romanticize it, to remember the children born dead on kitchen tables, the lack of resources, education, stimulation, and yet, still, I can’t help imagining a child walking through those woods, fishing in that clear stream, time stretched out for him like the field itself.

The night before, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by poet Robert Pinksy.  He called himself a crank, aware of our possibility of self-annihilation, the fact that we may leave our civilization to the cockroaches.  There was an elegiac feel to many of the poems, and he said he is aware more and more, not only of his physical and spiritual ancestors, but also of the ancestors of words.  Using Yiddish as an example, he said “We lose whole worlds when it dies.”   As an example, he cited aYiddish expression his grandmother used that meant literally, “Go away!” but meant, actually, “Come here!”  The intimacy, the humor, the play of feelings in one short expression, gone.  I thought of that as I passed the old farmhouse, thought of the words and worlds and experiences lost to us, those of my prairie ancestors, my Irish immigrant ancestors, all superseded by ever more current jargon, the often reductionist speech of the academy, of the various professions, or the vacuous shorthand of tweets and textings.

Pinsky in his poems, insists on the singularity of the made thing. He takes  something as simple as a shirt, examining the way it is crafted,  its “nearly invisible stitches” and from there imagining it being turned in a sweatshop by “Korean or Malaysians/Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break.”  He examines a cuff and imagines the Triangle Factory fire, then notices how the patterns  match perfectly “….like a strict rhyme/Or a major chord” and then his mind segues to the clan tartans “Invented by millowners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,/to control their savage Scottish workers…”  ( “Shirt). Language, for him, is a repository of living history; poetry, for him, is embodied breath.  “Air an instrument of the tongue,/The tongue an instrument/Of the body, the body/An instrument of spirit,/The spirit a being of the air.”  (“Rhyme).*

An old man shoots a hawk that kills his wife’s songbirds.  A worn spade handle disintegrates in a barn, its owners’ descendants, oblivious,  shop for shirts made in sweatshops by people who place votive offerings to golden Buddhas.  It is the world; it is the world we weave with words.

Robert Pinksy, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York


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