Now It Is Finished

October 6th, 2012

This is a poem I wrote for a friend who was dying of cancer.  She asked me to read a poem at her memorial.  I asked why.  She said because she liked my way with words and she was curious to know what I would say.  So here it is, Jane.  I don’t like the way Word Press insists on messing up the formatting.  It’s going to look a lot better on the printed page.  But here are the words.  We’ll just have to do without little fripperies like indentation in all the places I wanted it.

 

Now it is finished
and you have stopped withdrawing
into a self that cannot be found anywhere

now the pink bathrobe
is uninhabited like the body
and the clear plastic tubes that fed you
enriched air these last months are discarded

now your lips have pursed
the last time on sweetness and tartness
and the last laugh has left your belly

now memories grow uncertain
as cigarette smoke and
piercing as the tang of wine that
hovers above the empty goblet

we will carry you

when we asked you about the afterlife
you said “remains to be seen”

and I think you might have laughed
had somebody said,
“we don’t want to know about the remains
we want to know about what’s unseen”

I can hear you laughing
in all its charming variety your laughter

of all of us who knew you
who cannot hear it

you hired a doctor to give you the right poisons
you hired a nurse to care skillfully
you asked a poet to find words for when it’s done

here’s what’s carved on Billy Butler Yeats’s stone:
 Cast a cold eye
    On Life, on Death.
    Horseman, pass by!
and here’s what Rilke composed for himself:
Rose, oh pure contradiction,
    joy of being, No-one’s sleep
    under so many lids
and here’s what you thoughtfully said:
it’s very important to be nice

polite, certainly
never consciously unkind
plenty – perhaps a bit too much – of turn the other cheek

but not the smiling lying kind of niceness
nor namby pamby, no:
the kind of niceness that is stamped in steel

you tended each of your dying parents with desperate assiduity
sacrificing peace of mind, health, livelihood,
and truth be told
(a Jane phrase –truth be told –
I think it in your voice)
a certain amount of marital harmony
to ensure that through that long subtractive process
which ends with everything lacking and nothing wanted
no day would be empty of attentive loving
because it’s what people do, dammit

your face heart-shaped
your mouth small and potentially prim
but it was so often merry
I don’t mean “glad” or “happy” I mean “merry”
as in Dickens certain characters – Fezziwig, for example
or the Cheeryble brothers are merry –
the easy overflow of a generous heart

Damariscotta girl, your husband denominated you
something to do with whitewashed mullions
seawashed granite
knowledge of which fork and where to put it
the unyielding kernel of humanity
wrapped in just the right shade of social exchange

before I met you, a union activist
a labor leader a contract negotiator
imagine facing across the conference room that
politely intransigent reasonableness

when we met you had restrung your bow
to play a rather different sort of chamber music

admirer of formal British gardens
collector of McCoy Pottery
interior designer – that is one who makes
order and harmony
aesthetically pleasing and life enhancing

(didn’t you wince a little when
we hung the plastic tubes from the trim
over your bed in the parlor to which
your world had narrowed to see the open
eye screw pierce the fine white glossy
paint job Mr. Lou did for you
– never a drip – long ago)

and when the design business went bust
librarian – no profession more evocative of
just how close we poor animals can come to
giving some part of ourselves to life eternal and
how delicate the leaves in which we preserve it
ssh

your vices were the costs of your virtues

a tendency to become overwhelmed and frustrated
consequent upon the unremitting unconscious effort
to be what you should be and do what you should do

a certain waspishness when overwhelmed or frustrated
at the unaccountable recalcitrance of things and people
to be what they should be and do what they should do

(not to imply that you were unworldly
to the contrary, you down-to-earth down-easter,
bewildered not that badness exists but by its stupidity)

a sometime resort to the grape
for relief from knowing how inevitably
we must fall short

if only by leaving before those we leave are ready for it

an immoderate taste for televised British mysteries
in which evil however clever is rooted out by
understated mildly emotionally repressed
clear thinking keen observation and humane values

NOW

how ironic that the thing which at last would lay you low
most civilized of persons
full of all the civilized decencies
attached to civility like a mussel to a boulder
(as Thomas More was attached to the law, because
what else will stand between you and the devil)

that what took you from us
was a few cells throwing off the compact
whereby the body’s constituent parts agree to respect their mutual
roles and places in the service of long and amicable coexistence
and in riotous anarchy bringing the whole house down

sweet and kind and loving to the end
if everyone were like you, there’d be no more war
and we’d all have nicer homes.

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