Say everyone gets cancer, no matter who. It’s our be-all and end-all, birthright and deathright, our sign, our rock. Say cancer or another, equally final.
Say it straight up, Death is our gift. That without which we’d be selfish, slothful, and probably worse. Add the poet’s corollary: Beauty, as we know it, would go unborn.
Call this the high ground, the philosophic view.
The lowdown and dirty is disease is a pisser. Arbitrary, cruel, for the living and dying.
Just frighten me good, we’d gladly bargain, I’ll always love my neighbor and smell every rose. And Jesus please get me out of jail for free.
The high, the low—they’re the mortal poles.
i. may–july, 2004
I don’t know for sure how long I have. Twelve months, two years. Depends on the treatment. Being low prognosis but still pretty healthy, I made a clinical trial and got lucky in my draw. Have both drugs, the old and the new. Two others in my boat, the Renal Carcinoma, came out with one each to keep the study in thirds. The old works for 15–20 percent. The new might be better. In eight weeks we’ll see how our luck really runs, who stays afloat.
I know, it sounds grim. And was worse yet at first, the shock-and-awe stage. With all the standard denials. & oh kidney cancer, swell. Notorious for silence until metastasis rages. And radiation and chemo won’t help for long. Chances are you can’t go there with bald-people jokes.
It took a month to adjust, not to get clocked every time I forgot.
To say Fuck a Duck like five hundred times.
Make friends with pain on the one-to-ten scale.
& to contemplate the poles.
Some good happens, too. Friends and family rally around—I’ve had this in spades. Cards and calls, long distance visits, covered dishes, a DVD player the size of a book from everyone at work. You might call this stage the Victory Tour.
Plus oncology goes from awful to normal. Dozens like you yet of all different walks get help without pity, like regular folks.
& you do something lavish—cashing in stock and getting a screen porch built was my lark of choice—and you’re glad for the chance. “Hey this cancer ain’t bad,” I say to a friend, settling back on my new wicker couch. You learn to make light.
But poles being poles, the grim will swing back.
May the forces make us strong.
roto-rooter, piano tuner
What are the odds that, on the very same day, Tom, the drain cleaner, in his blackened blue work clothes, comes trundling in, his snake on its roller, and while he’s filling the basement with deep dark twizzlings, dapper Mr. McMillin, in his three-piece suit, shows up with his tool case and sleek Steinway apron to do the piano.
Oh the music they make, of the awfullest kind, wonderfully discordant—thrumming and metallic twisting below, banged-on one notes, over and over, here up above. This goes for two hours. “That’ll do her,” says Tom, rolling on out. And with a run of the keys—all of them in tune—Mr. M gives up a resounding rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and then an “On a Clear Day” encore.
They charge, give or take, $250 each for the house to run true, and I have, as a bonus, a composition for cancer.
One way to see Being: everything yearns. Gravity, valence, biochemical combinings. Each thing reaches for a kind of fulfillment. Atoms and molecules, organs and organisms. The chain of being all the way down to pre-animate matter. Stages line up, tropisms abound, and in time all will flower and follow the sun.
Okay, okay, a pat metaphysics, complete with platitudes.
& so why would this be? The force that drives blossoms is built in throughout? Or if spirit is the answer, it has to be manifest to actually be? & needs to risk mutability. Just as God in some form hazards coming among in most religions. Isn’t that the deal?
In res dues, the grand substantiation. Or some such imperative.
. . . Beyond my back porch the spring rush takes over throughout the garden, enlivenment splurging in green fleeting things.
What is the film where like the sheriff rushes in, all out of breath, upon a scene of destruction? “Is everybody hurt? Is anyone okay?”
You get used to that, if disaster and illness befall your whole household too many times. Pancreatitis, Crohn’s disease, emotional breakdowns & their whole pharmacopoeia—and I’m forgetting a few. House fire destruction, all the dead cats, an ice jam that pours through the living room ceiling. The list goes on. Calamity family.
“And now this,” says a friend, when my biopsy’s back.
But we’re not them at all, I always want to say, the ones to be pitied. Five people cursed with steep IQs and a rash of hard luck, with striving hearts, fragile natures. A homeful of books and boxes and plants and yes in total disorder.
Why, we’ve danced our way through the eye of a needle many times over, and look at us now. So what about this? We’re a step ahead of debt and grown up ironic and way au courant. & generous, courteous, humorous, kind. Loving, even. You think that can be stopped? Not on my watch.
but first, these messages
You gotta start with good hurts to get a handle on your pain, say that gnawing in the belly, an itch that loves raking, the disconsolate erection. Old bruises you can press on over and over. Cultivate the habit, work up from there.
First my ribs hurt like hell, like a bolt was anchored front to back, and sometimes I imagined I was cranking down the lug with a giant socket—I could make it hurt more, much as I pleased. E-uuu it was a mother. And this before they said it was cancer.
And all the meds to help out. Ultracet, Tylenex, Oxycodone. First thing from surgery (for my honking big tumor) I had morphine, you bet, to let me cough out my lungs. & what a friend I had in Jesus. Then the catheter came out. Yowee zowee—well that wasn’t so bad.
Oh yeah and the ten scale, that trick of the trade. Saying “seven/eight” beats wincing all to hell. & sing do-re-me.
Richard Pryor tells the story of his catching on fire. The wonder of it all—nigger damn near burned down. And hurt?—holy God, that’s some pain-ful shit. Yet Pryor made it through, thinking upon Jim Brown, the running back and actor. Fire jump on Jim Brown, Jim Brown he say, Whuuh.
body and soul and farewell to willy
We were ready so long for my brother to die, he caught us off guard.
Forgot my Saturday call, missed him on Monday, Tuesday forgot, so had him on my short list Wednesday morning when the cell phone rang.
The night nurse said he wheeled out for a smoke and came back in cold. Needed help to get his scooter to his room. He “looked like death” then, and when they checked on him later, around 4–4:30, he “was already gone,” dead for an hour.
Two weeks plus past my kidney surgery, I wasn’t going to miss the funeral service. I knew if I didn’t see his body laid out, suited and shuttered, I wouldn’t get it in my head he really wasn’t there. I’d keep thinking to call.
Also there’s this. Almost sixty, I’d never yet been to an open casket, and felt the need, like a kid, to see for myself.
On the long trip down, nodding in and out, I imagined his box was a Mercury capsule, a bobsled, a rocket. Strap ’em tight, say goodnight, pull the lever, to forever.
Ba-da-bum, ba-da-bum, the highway seams sang.
Of course I saw soon enough it wasn’t him at all, only the hide of the person he was, propped and macabre. “Godspeed, Willy,” I said, laying in my rose, but knew already this was after the fact.
But then that’s the jolt you reckon at the service—a life force runs out, and someone who was, isn’t at all. Time is moving ahead, and he hasn’t only died, he’s begun to recede. And the soul, the spirit—the “peace,” the “better place”—well that’s comforting for us. “He gave us a gift, going when he did,” somebody said. I don’t know about that.
My mother, dad, sister, and I had a meal the next day, the four of us there, eating our salmon and potatoes in the quiet. My dad grew peevish at nothing—his portion—then we all soldiered on.
On the car ride back home, my sister and I went for miles between talking. In my mind I kept struggling with the who and the how—was death like a head-on, the body wiped out but the soul thrown clear? No, wasn’t it instead that they both had to perish, as they’d mated for life?
Here’s the close of a poem by Galway Kinnell about his brother’s death:
It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things, and it is good, yes—
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.
I remember when Bill lost his leg to gangrene, and a ghost leg remained. That’s how it feels now. From the cordless phone I’m the new amputee.
fuck a duck
You can say that again.
Now then, Best Beloved, in cancer’s first bloom, that shock-and-awe phase, I see colors intensely. Primary mainly—red, blue, and especially yellow. A mug on the windowsill glows like an icon. A daffodil—wonders! Holy mortality! Jumping Jehoshaphat! And so many moments sharp and binocular, things razor clear and layered one on another. Indeed, time collapses.
One day after needles and nuclear Kool-Aid, I have an afternoon off and take a magnified drive to a hardware emporium. Clouds slide up mountains, making the illusion that the ridgelines are cresting. Highway signs loom, grow giant and flee, trailing flares of strange letters. And no cop pulls me over!
At the home supply warehouse, blue pipes and hanging lights run high over shelves that themselves need ladders. Home expert associates in snappy red vests glide up and down aisles, pushing truck-bed-sized carts. I loiter on the concourse of exterior lumber, passing as a regular, sizing and appraising board feet and grain. Think I’ll have a dozen of that 6-by Southern pine, and a pallet of cedar for the back porch we’re building. Settle for a scraper and a tape measure unit with a big silver clip to go on my belt.
Outside, the parking lot in a sudden burst of sun makes a grand panorama. A vendor standing under a striped yellow awning hawks gargantuan pretzels. I spring for one, and a Coke to go with, and stride to my car in all of God’s glory.
I was gripping my shopping cart, glad for a walker on the long swing through produce, when I bumped into N., another soldier for cancer. He asked how it was. I made my best clown face and sighed when I said it: “Side-effect city, man, side-effect city. You know how it is, morning sick, runs, food tastes like pennies.”
“I hear ya, oh I hear ya.”
& so commiseration-ville, for two gnarly vets, sharing a moment, in the township of onions and garlic and potatoes.
life on the brink
It’s not for nothing that you get to gaze upon yellow pine flooring and the many geometries of porch frame and screen, the run of soffit and sill and lath board and roofline. Oh, no, there’s a price. It takes installments from the heart—this is almost too much, having all of it now, built to your specs. And which is, because . . .
And there’s a telescoping pull—that binocular effect—from sitting room door, to porch door, to porch—where you feel going out in delectable gradients, like taking off layers, until the faint skin of screening is all that’s between here and out there. And the draw of precipice that extends into prospect, the inkling of verging as you stand at the edge.
The yard drops away down the daylily slope and runs past the hemlocks and pine to the park. A grassy fairway, a visible gap, carries out half a furlong to far-off oaks. Thin stripes of sun fall across this long reach. Blink and you could teeter.
In the Navy I liked taking the midnight watch, Flight Deck 1, forward of the "island," on the catapults and spit of sloped deck beyond. A carrier at sea doesn’t pitch as much as shudder, and the steady, smart gale of being underway and into a wind will hold you up stiff leaning out on that spit. When the moon is out and you’re ninety feet up over oncoming seas, it’s a rush to live for.
At one corner of the porch, you can stand just inches from a cherry tree’s reach and see the pinnate veining in every leaf, the wild fruit ripening—oh so close.
Our cats now pretty much live on the porch. We moved their food and water out here last month. They come and go through a tear they’ve made at the bottom of the door. They’re out all night, bringing home half a rabbit, a fledgling robin. Only now and then are they inside the house, and never for long.
I know where this is going. It’s a matter of time before my soul grows wilder, my heart goes feral to out-fright the fear. The day will come—or rather the night—when I slip from the porch and take on the dark, not to come back.
beating the odds / buying the farm
The Smarty Jones story really made me choke up. I guess welcome to the club. Smarty’s life-opera saga—a trainer murdered, the farm nearly sold, all but two horses. Then one bashes in his cheek first time in the gate but somehow he pulls through. That was Smarty, of course, named for the woman whose birth date he shared. The little horse who could, who didn’t lose his eye & took to running like a dart.
When he won I got weepy. My chest even heaved.
Or the Tony awards. Or Reagan’s funeral—Patti Davis and her mom, together again—oh the great leveler! Then Ray dies himself—just like the river, I been running ever since. Oh it’s been a long time, a long time
comin’ . . .
More shuddering breaths—Fahrenheit 9/11, the Wimbledon finals.
Maggey, my wife, claimed it’s my feelings running close to the surface, and no wonder, she said.
“Ah hooey,” I tried. And that nearly got me.
My good friend John from Chester County, near Someday Farm—his stepmom for Pete sakes knew all the Chapmans—John got me a sharp-looking Smarty Jones ball cap. Then my son looked it over. So was it “that horse?”
“Smarty Jones,” I replied.
“I don’t believe in racing,” he judged with a scowl.
“Oh I don’t either,” I gave him right back, “but as long as they’re running, Smarty’s my pony.”
world enough and time
Into June, after a week of chill and rain, the sun comes back out with its emerald glow through overspread leaves. My daughter, Marie, and I go in our sock feet, porch door closing, a light bang behind us. We fall to marveling at delphiniums in bloom, plucky nasturtiums, new daylily plants we drove over the mountain for and planted yesterday—Penny Lane and Orchid Candy—gazing at their budscapes and the others’ rising in the greened bed. We catch sight of a tiny garden spider at its miniature web, strung from a shepherd’s crook, and bow down over a Stewartia bloom, its white frill and folds and tawny blush in alternating leaflets. We examine the foxglove’s dark, speckled throat and a no-name flower that looks like a parrot. And everything likewise we patrol and inspect the length of the yard, our voices low and benedictory.
Oh, yes, our sock feet get soaked in the dew, and yes the klutzy cat Salvatore tagging through our beds maybe snaps a few stalks, and another spider runs from its thread—true, true. But there is no cancer, all our while in the garden, none whatsoever.
As we say on the floor, it’s an ill wind gathers no moss, a stitch in time’s worth nine in the waiting room, and don’t throw out the patient with the IV bag—not yet anyway. Let’s wear that biohazard logo proudly there, friend. Remember, Med Wastes R Us.
Of course we’re all pretty much in the slow lane here, with our canes, walkers, and caregivers’ shoulders, our Simpsonesque mouth masks. How we feeling today? Can’t complain can’t complain. That’s good that’s good. Stoicism rocks.
There’s a really buff wig shop down in the lobby, where nobody goes. Bald is way big. “Who Needs Hair with a Body like This.” And so the woman from Remulak opines away in her chemo recliner—on anything she chooses—her dome aglow. Her deep throaty laugh says God this & God that. I mean court is in session.
A lotta “Ain’t Dead Yet” is what’s up here, Doc. And screw the word survivor and groups for support.
It’s what you have to love about the joint. We holders of the C cards are a privileged set. Swiping ’em for entry like medical pros. The establishment’s ours. How else to say it—we feel whole in here. Alive and dying—and very vice versa.
meditation iii—ashes, wishes, dorothy, sedna
In evening’s dim light I’m again off the porch, leaning over daylilies, checking for buds, nodding as I verify plants on my chart due to bloom soon this June. As usual my sidekick, Salvatore Cat, slithers through the beds to assist with inspections, and as he does the first fireflies rise from the foliage, popping into view like bubbles in a tank. A quick glow and glide, then they’re floating higher yet—and suddenly I’m seeing my brother’s scattered ashes—or rather, his embers—like the swarm of blinking sensors in the weather movie Twister, the “Dorothy” experiment.
Oh how they rise, ashes in the sap of the pine where I spread them, down in the needles; rise as new candles, as fireflies and moths, chimney swifts and vultures, as meteors and planetoids—that new one named Sedna—as galaxies so far the Hubble has to find them, teeming by the millions. Matter to matter & ad infinitum.
You precede me, my Brother, in blooms where we’ll rise, in our sweet glow and glide, in those faraway reaches.
4 am. I have lain awake naked after making love and counted the seams in the Skyland Lodge paneling, made my eye try to follow one blade in the fan whirling slowly overhead. Readjusted my pillow. Eight hours ago my wife and I watched strangers like us, seated in their bodies, eating trout flesh on rice. Then we folded our napkins and stared out from our chairs at first lights in the valley. A few hours before, in the broad of day, we’d stood at a CCC overlook wall and peered down at a world where I lived long ago, in a haze of blue hills only eight miles away.
Down there I was homesteading—he of a couple that turned an old mill into a livable castle, with a garden and woodlot and chickens and bees. Day led to day, in maintenance and newness, mountains as boundary of picturesque life, nothing more, nothing less, and change came on gradually, year after year, until the night I blurted out I was leaving for another. Then the cavernous mill echoed with cries that a boarder we had—his name long forgotten—surely heard in the dark. And when I left in the morning, had God or a vagabond stopping by the road, or say our boarder turned seer, mentioned a man, a sixty-year-old with his wife of twenty years, with grown kids back home on the mountain’s other side—of his gazing one day from the overlook there at his life in the past—what would I have cared? For I was so very sure of what I was doing, a new passage was at hand, and oh its guilt and thrill were everything there was.
lingua e tempum
It’s almost touching, the faith he has in words.
—“The Cure,” Andrea Barrett
Two years on and off, I’ve been going back and reading The Tapir’s Morning Bath, Elizabeth Royte’s book on biological studies in the Panamanian rain forest of Barro Colorado. Royte, who was there in the late 1990s, finished her account some time in 2000; it came out in ’01. Yesterday, June 20, 2004, I pulled it off my shelf, blew dust off the jacket, and found my old place on page 137, in “The Rainy Season.” A few pages in
I recalled how enthralling it was to the senses, and numbing to the brain with all the data broken down. The very sort of book to take a chapter at a time.
Time, in fact, is part of the appeal, each time I go back, layers of years before and after writing that I’m adding to in reading. Continuity, in passage, or in discontinuity—I’m not sure how to put it. A fluid disjuncture.
Last night on the porch in growing dark, a candle burning low, barely wavering, I understood in time through its out of time flow, like a traveling bubble. Something so sublime it subsumes its duality, yet commonplace as well.
It’s like the time warp one feels with a deadly disease, both out and in—reading Royte’s book. Out as removed from, lifted, outside of, conscious of, short of. In as immersed in, flowing in, lost. And having footing in both, what a dizzying state!
Here’s a passage from yesterday, carried page to page, hers to mine, an additional remove:
Sometimes the rain was soft; sometimes it came down in torrential sheets that turned gutters
into geysers, culverts into cataracts. At those times we’d take plastic trays from the dining
room and ride them, hydroplaning, down the steep path between the labs.
What did that take, maybe ten or twelve seconds? List the referents of that & hold all in mind at once.
Another way to put it, think when did this happen and through how many intervals of interrupted wording does it now come recounted?
And your bonus toss-up: how slippery a term is that little word now—meaning, dear reader, when exactly?—and am I living now, or dead?
Oh the dark clouds gather, Best Beloved, and our hero-slash-victim, flush from a spider bite visit to the doctor, hustles up the road to his root canal appointment, administered by Dr. Devey and his young assistant Devin. As the sky grows black (in less than an hour an F-3 twister will rout out a neighborhood twenty miles away) and the mouth guard is readied, plain old Dev waves for a pause and asks do they think their trio has been called together for a reason? A first lash of rain answers at the window. “Spooky,” offers Devin, and helps snap in the guard. Another whip of rain blurs up the pane, then drums extra hard. “Oo you aa a ackuk kenerator?” cracks our fey patient. “Nope,” says Dr. D, lowering the drill, “you’ll just have to pedal!”
the sea of carcinoma
It’s a tough draw to play, wife of cancer. The bride of unknowing, the one who gets to fill out the caregiver’s questions. Where’s the item that says rank how much it sucks? Or how pamphlets overwhelm—Tools for Navigating the Cancer Journey. Where’s the traveler’s guide to this sea of carcinoma? Talk about your dead reckoning. No really let’s not.
And there’s fielding each kindness, the curious, the dolorous, the overmuch earnest; endless updates you’re on stage to provide and give a good spin—“he’s hanging in there”—when you’re dangling by a thread. Oh and who is he this morning, the one you’re to speak of—Bog Man, Piltdown, The Living Dead? Names like old wrestlers’ he dredges from his bone scan and drags about croaking to humor the kids.
Then today your blithe husband brings you a story for a hard final proof. It’s rural-style story line, coming of age, tomboy toughness, machinery and such, and, oh, by the way, the death of the farmer. Your feelings aren’t fooled, and when he thanks you for the read, you wave at your eyes, but it does you no good. Now, the tears are springing like a rag being wrung, and what does he give you but stock soothing words, “It’s okay, let it come.” Where’s the item that says how you wish you could throttle him and how this ranks right there with that fan in your face the night you gave birth? Remember that fury—girl, you let him have it then.
Sometimes, you want to say I can’t do this anymore. Sometimes, like every day, with its West Nile tiredness and paralytic dreams, its spiraling dread. But then he’s here with your coffee, just like in the old life, with a shrug and a hug and his ever-lovin’ do-list. A man to your liking, whatever his game. And what’s a gal to do but haul up out of bed?
how i know jesus
By the History Channel B-grade special with C-grade stand-ins in seaside tableaux. The voice-over line is the grabber for me, scholarly psychology on Jesus seeing Peter for the figure he would be—almost because of his failings early on—and so needling him now into the person needed later. Very provocative, very backdoor. Ragtag actors, Spartacus togas.
How would I make my own Church of Jesus? With the ratted look, say, of a dirty ghetto market, but à la Rube Goldberg, with flaps of tenting and wash lines on pulleys strung from upper windows above alleyway narrows, with Mexican lanterns, some of them lighted, some broken, swinging free, and the marketplace abuzz with scrabbling commerce, a few bronzings of sunlight angling through smoke, grilled fruit and flesh. And a crier now rushing from stall to stall, spreading the rumor: “He was here, he was here!”
& how I once wrote about “the Garden” from my bench in the yard:
. . . If things didn’t change, what would we see? What would we hear? Sameness and
sameness, yeses stretched out to sibilant sounds, extra sonic hisses that get in our ears.
I’d turn to concrete, here on the bench, stopped from becoming.
All this reminds me of The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, somebody’s lifework that
filled his whole yard—trees and animals and everything else—cast in cement. He even had
himself buried in a concrete mausoleum, complete with a window to be viewed forever,
immune to change.
As an image it’s how I see the Biblical Garden, a permanent environment, facsimile reality,
an artful diorama encased in yeses as the curator wishes. Forever summer. Think about it, in
the story of the Garden there were naming and dominion—meaningful states and holy actions,
each in their way. But only one act with dynamic dimensions: human opposition. Dare we say
And another thing as well: matter’s too fickle to work that way, to hold to perfection. The
material gives, as in “fails” and “allows”—so the Spirit’s only options are enliven and evolve.
Or look at it like this: we “fell” because this is the falling place, where creation is collision,
where everything possible precipitates strife, where nothing outlasts, concrete included. Where
soon as there’s a self, then another and another, it’s a world of strife, on top of the physics.
But as well it’s the realm for goodness and beauty—how else can they be, without consequence
and foils? Nothing can, or can only exist (forever summer). And so aren’t things as they ought
in the world we have? Robert Frost, he thought so. “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
And religious pitches for life ever-after, like retirement in Florida or early release for good
behavior, dwelling “in the house of the Lord forever”—what’s with all that?
Isn’t this the house of the Lord?
Isn’t this the Garden I’m sitting in now?
First impression: there’s a lot of people here I see didn’t make it.
Were those piles of dirt with the weeds growing on them brought in or dug out?
Are plastic flowers in really poor taste or just the right thing?
A New Yorker cartoon with a toaster for a headstone.
A real headstone chiseler who calls in to Car Talk, asking for mileage with towing capacity. (Tommy’s standard answer, the Subaru Outback.)
The inscription “Called Back.” Way to go, Emily.
Remember the grave ghouls rising in Thriller. Ah innocent gruesomeness. And tunes you could dance to, before Michael Jackson . . .
Let’s dig up the bones five years hence like in old-world Greece. If one’s flesh hasn’t rotted, you bake cakes for his enemies.
The kindergarten ditty: Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
fuck a duck ii
Don’t cry in your beer. Simon says, Don’t cry in your beer.
& the deal is this: fear and trembling, the Victory Tour, sympathy cards, porch celebrations, other buoyant novelties “shall pass,” to quote Simon.
But any day now, won’t the grind wax glorious and I rise above?
“You wish,” injects Simon. “Soon,” he says, “it’s just down to the grind.” Or like a scuba-diver’s brush with a whopper barracuda, crisis reduces to the one that got away.
“But, but,” I say, “it takes a lot to face having incurable—the Jaws of disease—and go on living your life.”
Simon replies, “On form alone, pal, a big ix-nay on that.”
“And so nothing either about low platelet counts, the nausea, not knowing . . . ?”
“What,” Simon says, “did I just finish saying?”
hello camp sunshine
Something’s not right. A guy at the hand dryer’s talking nonstop while he’s wringing his fingers. He is not, I can see, singing along to the James Taylor song piping from the ceiling. Outside the restroom, in the service plaza proper, a short, scowling woman of uncertain years stands puzzling mightily at vestibule doors, her whither-shall-I-go likewise impervious to JT’s ballad. I see others as well who fidget and frown, murmur and low. And none of them seem to hear "Shower the People You Love with Love."
Finally, I notice the dutiful attendants, a threesome herding their charges toward the doors, and all becomes clear. Passage, I gather, is the problem of moment, the thrall of transit. Yet slowly they make it, coddled and steered. The burble of their thrill gradually fades as Sweet Baby James takes us on home with “love love love.”
. . . How long Maggey’s been standing by my side is hard to know. Her arm is in mine as I gesture to what-all she’s already seen, and she pats me in a way that says, “Yes, dear, I know” and “Now we have to go.” She’s doing the steering.
Outside, we watch them clamber to their van, robin’s egg blue, Camp Sunshine in white bridged across the side. Then we’re here at our car, where I stop a moment in the throe of a vision I pictured in the plaza, as James T showered us all—see, I saw myself there: as a tree looking down, and a tree that had fallen, covered with fungi, with ferns all around. Observer and observed. Alive and long gone. And the rush, like a blessing, is as much as I can stand.
I could raise my hands now and pass it on in the sway of the song, though the Sunshine campers wouldn’t even notice. But that hardly matters. This is my gift, from them.
funny thing happened
Rob and Gardner’s toddler, Jimmy, all worldly from day care, decides he better call somebody Mommy. So he gives Rob the nod. And it’s obvious, we say, a butt that substantial, those pushover peepers, his je ne sais femme. & on and on till our cheeks hurt from laughing.
Our pals, K. & M., might have diverticulitis. If they go all the way and get bags and spigots, my colon cancer buddy N. and I are challenging them to a three-legged race. Strictly for charity.
Jon Stewart, on Larry King Live, says Edwards is really a bad choice for veep—so idealistic, and once he learns a VP has to drop the F-bomb on congressional colleagues, it will ruin him for life.
Man Compares Self to Racehorse, Gets Prison Time. As one can imagine, here in Smarty, PA.
Chicken and egg lying in bed. Chicken’s smiling, smoking. Egg sighs and says, “Guess we know now.”
It happened after surgery, peeing one day, a sound like a duck call. Looking around, I had to conclude there was no other answer—my member passed gas. Oh great, what now, and so I called up the nurse. Oh it’s not that unusual, she managed to say—but be sure to let her know if the “quacking” didn’t stop.
Anne Frahm, in her book on fighting cancer, explains the chemical benefits of bouts of laughter, how they boost the brain’s production of endorphin and give a sense of well being the body has to have to keep its battle systems going. In other words, medicine à la Reader’s Digest. As much as that hurts.
fast forward and counting
Our gal Sluggerella looks over the daylilies, seventy varieties in bloom at one time. “They last just a day?”
“They’ll all be goners middle of the night,” I say, picking a deadhead from yesterday’s Show Girl and handing it to her. “New class tomorrow & graduation day.” (Did I really say that?)
“That’s incredible—Jesus.” Slugger’s thirty-five-ish, with lots of va-voom, from boxing and beauty. “My garden’s a nothing, everything is just—bleh.” She does a slumping gesture, a very nice nodding flower.
“You’ll make it work. Put things in pots. Hey we’ll dig you some lilies.”
“You’re such a saint.”
“Anything for an angel.”
The day comes when I’m scanned head to toe for signs that the drugs have put a hold on the bad boys. I’ll go check on our flowers before we drive down, late-blooming lilies—Jen Melon, Cinderella, Ravishing Rosalie. I’m of the school that says talk to the blossoms, tell them they’re lovely, cupping each bloom in a V of your fingers, saying some words for the here and now before moving on. It’s good for us both, I’m fond of thinking. A little like the Pope.
The news from these tests will say a good deal as to next time around, whether I’ll order new flowers for June—Strawberry Lace and Fuchsia Kiss—those high on my wish list. That school I’m in says brace for the worst, take it in stride, push on from there. If anything better, you can breathe and look ahead, go tally that list. Have thought of this a lot and am pretty much ready.
angels of mercy
Yes the usual divas, Madonna (now Esther), my own Paula Zahn. And that Maria Sharapova! Ah womanly glory.
But oh my e-mail darlings—Debbie and Mindy and Sharon and Dara—so much passion online. We’re friends, I admit—but when you open your wings so like Emma Thompson over America, and all the cleavings there are in spirit and body, like in Li-Young Lee, together, apart, and both held in mind; and how you surprise me in streams of sweet words, in yin and yang; and when I utter some folly like the moon is ablaze or beauty is a lily or life is a carwash, you are flame and blossom and those buffeting brushes, all in one; and even when I pass—especially then—it’s right, it’s all right, all will be fine, as I imagine you’ll sigh, like a siren’s song. & shhh, & shhhhhh.
We sit on the porch in a light rain tonight, Maggey and Marie, the dog and cats. Our sons come and go, nodding hello. Three trains trail by off in the distance in the course of two hours, and every so often we praise ourselves on how nice the green walls in the sitting room look, the room leading out that we’ve just finished painting. We have a candle burning as we usually do, the Virgen de Guadalupe. And I’ve strung Maggey’s prayer flags at the far end up high—now they’re always here too. The rain picks up, turns steady for a time. Marie hears a rumble. The sill by my chair grows gradually damp, and my arm near there, with mist on the hairs. We sip our beverages, talk this and that, and are silent for stretches.
Now one of the cats stands and turns, then settles on his cushion. And all of the atoms that get to be us this time around are in tune and content.
ii. may, 2005
A whole ’nother year eked from the docs, and I’ve about run my string. Lesions have set up camp in my brain. Short-term memory’s squishy. This is pretty much the deal.
But there’s a keenness to things, like I clearly get to see my car crash approaching. As though all is a blessing and bad dream at once. A gift and a curse.
So I praise everything, and though don’t bite for Christ, find how much room there is in my heart to sanctify roundly.
I see both of my exes and tell them I love them, and dozens of friends.
Sit outside with Maggey and hold for dear life—my wife, my wife. & my daughter and sons, whom I’ve seen growing up.
. . . A gift and a curse. Gift and a curse. & how to reconcile these? Like one really can.
I’ll save that for last business, out on the porch.
Dev Hathaway was born April 15, 1945, in Norfolk, Virginia, and died June 18, 2005, in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, at the age of sixty. He was professor of English at Shippensburg University since 1993 and served for three years as the chair of the English Department. He was the author of numerous essays ans short stories, including the collections The Widow’s Boy and Skylarking on Honeysuckle Road. From childhood, Dev had an abiding fascination with the natural world. He was also an enthusiastic gardener with an extensive collection of daylilies, his favorite flower. In addition to environmental concerns, he was devoted to all causes in support of human rights and world peace. He was a man of uncommon grace, compassion, kindness, and good humor, even in his last illness, and he will be sorely missed by his family and his many friends.
“North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” was selected for reprint in volume one of The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007).
“North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” appears in our Winter 2005 issue.