Posts Tagged ‘death’

Charlie and Butch

July 8th, 2012

I wrote this poem back in 2005, the year after the official end of the marriage alluded to in it, a little over twenty years after my  period of cohabitation with Charlie Cat, and only a couple of years after I briefly was Butch’s house guest. 

When I first moved here, to the spot on the floor
no bigger than a coffin, of Stephen and Deb’s living room –
no mattress, bare dark wood, shiny slats I laid
my six feet of closed cell foam pad on –

temporary digs until I found a place
of more permanence for the woman of more
permanence for whom I’d moved here, future mother
of our kids – although they barely twinkled in the dark back then –

Deborah’s Charlie Cat had skin cancer, bloody blobs sprouting
out from his face that left trails of droplets smeared
here and there across the otherwise empty except for dust
hard field where I slept,

and every night when I laid me down
alone I feared his company, the touch of his warm
fluid deformity while I slept, unknowing,
that could be on me when I woke, crusting,

although in plain and boring fact that never happened.
Now Charlie has a successor, the vigorously named Butch.
He’s nineteen.  His left hind leg last weekend
seemed a little stiff, and he lay coiled not like a spring

but more like a frayed old piece of rope
most of the afternoon I visited, and at first I hesitated,
when he lifted his head and blinked those old slow eyes
out over the edge of the couch, his forelegs stiffly erect,

supporting, to close my hands around that fragile rib cage
and hoist its package of breathing lungs and beating heart and – whatever –
off the futon up into the oil heated forced air nowhere,
scruffy old thing, and lower him ‘til his paws touched ground.

Testimony from the edge

February 27th, 2012

This past weekend I visited two old and dear friends, one of whom is expecting to survive cancer.  The other is not.  It was a sad visit, but not depressing.  I don’t think I’m quite ready yet to write about why that should be so, but it has something to do, I think, with my friends’ courage, decency, and gentleness, and also something I noticed when my mother was facing her extremity, that is, a lack of fear on the part of the dying about what we who fortunately are not yet in that situation find most terrifying about it.  There is something fortifying about being in the presence of a person who, having achieved a reasonably unflinching acceptance of what must be, is liberated to become more fully herself in the face of it.  It creates a space in which intimacy is easy, intimacy from each person’s core, while at the same time spontaneity and playfulness are encouraged.  People around the sick person relate to her and to one another in a manner which, in other circumstances, except for the unhappiness, we would look back upon as “having a really great time.”  We take joy in each other.  It is a reminder that joy and happiness are two very, very different things, of which joy is by far the greater because it is a species of love.  It’s hard to talk about these things without one’s cadences becoming biblical and one’s vocabulary becoming highflown.  When that happens, as it just now did in the last sentence but one, I feel I’m losing the real sense of what it was like, of what that sacred space was all about and what made it sacred.  It’s important to focus on particulars.  So… the conversation turned at some point to the question of an afterlife, as conversations tend to do in these circumstances, not so much because the dying person can bring any particular authority to bear but because it is presumed by the onlookers that it is as much on her mind as it is on theirs.  As if a dying person didn’t have plenty of more pressing things to think about.  My friend quickly and offhandedly said that she thinks it “remains to be seen.”  Someone asked her if she believes at all in any kind of deity, or higher spiritual power, or transcendent reality.  She got very quiet and thoughtful.  We all waited for her, while her oxygen machine flumped away in the background.  After a long, long pause, she said, “I think it’s very important to be nice.”


UPDATE: R.I.P. Jane Weed, 10:30 p.m. Sat. 9/1/12

Paging Dr. Kubler-Ross

February 16th, 2012

Due to current events in my personal life, I have been thinking again about how poorly our culture prepares us to deal with death and with people who are dying.  Not strange, I guess, for a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness.  People wonder why I put Thomas Jefferson in hell in To Join the Lost.  Mostly, it’s because of his hypocrisy as a slave-owner who not only knew that he was doing wrong, but knew the degree of evil that it involved.  But I could have put him there for this seemingly benign phrase as well, which shackles the body politic to a warped, limited vision of the human condition, easily subverted into greed, lust, and the quest for satiation.  A people dedicated to the pursuit of happiness is not going to have a lot of time and thought to spare for such unpleasant things as death.  They’re going to shove it aside into hospitals and nursing homes; prettify it in funeral parlors; hide it in closed caskets that no one is allowed to welcome home from Afghanistan and Iraq; have broadcast journalists censor it from Syrian twitter feeds as too upsetting for the average viewer.  We have no emotionally satisfying

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Low light

January 5th, 2012

There seems to be a lot of death around here, lately.  A friend’s father died.  Another friend’s father is dying.  A dear woman I knew at work passed away last week.  Two other friends, a married couple, are dealing with cancer.  Either this is a statistically random cluster, or the world is coming to an end.  In honor of either possibility, I have been thinking about a poem I wrote a long time ago:

I have beheld the end of a life,
the blue eyes turning to the ceiling
and closing, and the strange orange hue that
then suffused the cooling skin,

and a life’s beginning I’ve also beheld,
the mewling, stick-limbed lump of tenderness,
eyes clamped shut, trading the womb for
its exhausted mother’s arms.

It’s odd to hold them both within me,
two pale lights at the ends of a stick
that do not balance: the one cannot
be weighed with the other or cancel it out.

Some console themselves with rhythms,
tell the children the gracefully falling
leaves make mulch for what will rise,
as if the steady beat of days,

of seasons, generation and decay
makes white noise and drowns the silence.
Others flood the quiet betimes with
droning of the eternal.  Others

watch tv.  In the body’s
sealed envelope, we carry
from lips forever shrunken open
to the inarticulate young

a sediment of sentiment.
It gives them heft, to bear their growth.
Devoted as robins to their hatchlings,
we pass it down the straining gullet;

unlike them, we’re no more empty
for giving our young what we had in us.
Passing on is not unburdening.  When
my father died, he handed me

a weight no one could bring into
this world except by leaving it.
My first born bleated her little welcome in
that same building’s other wing.

Echoes of the Eddys

February 1st, 2011

Henry Steel Olcott

A friend recently sent me a link to a story about a woman who had found some grace in the course of her husband’s passage through alzheimer’s.  I could relate, because my parents, as eachof them went through cancer, similarly exhibited clear-eyed courage and reaped its benefits for themselves and for us who journeyed in their company.  Ram Dass nailed the basic attitude in the title of his book, Be Here Now.  In the clipping my friend sent, the woman refers to our society’s attitude towards death and illness as “phobic.”  She got that right, but ‘twas not always thus.

Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago, describing some events that actually happened in Vermont in the latter half of the 19th century.  Joseph Citro used a few lines from my poem at the head of one of the chapters in his excellent book, Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls and Unsolved Mysteries, which is only right, because the poem was indirectly inspired by hearing Mr. Citro on Vermont Public Radio before his book was published, reading about the goings-on at the Eddy farmhouse.  I was so intrigued that I went to the library and borrowed the source from which much of Mr. Citro’s information came.  My poem grew from Col. Olcott’s memoir of those strange evenings:

We are pusillanimous in the face of ghosts.
Think of that woman at Tanglewood, too seized up
to scream one summer afternoon, in a hallway,
when her hair that had hung limp on her neck was brushed
swiftly across one shoulder and then the other
by unseen hands.  Later, she said it was like a
playfully affectionate child, and innocent;
but no way would she spend the night in that house, no.
Her companions, though untouched, had abandoned her.
They ran.  I never have felt my hackles rise
except in thinking of such things, mere thinking of
the dark figure that waits on the couch beside me,
the hand that may reach from behind to stroke my cheek.
Then I read Colonel Olcott’s account of doings
a hundred years ago in Vermont, upstairs at
the Eddy brothers’ ramshackle farmhouse where he
and many other guests lodged – ate and slept – for weeks.
The ghosts they’d come to meet there had cold, sweaty skin.
A woman passed her hand beneath one’s shirt, and ran
fingertips across breasts she said swelled chill and damp
as ocean waves.  To Olcott’s disappointment, he
never was allowed to dance with that spirit, a
gay, lively squaw called Honto, although others were;
also, the room was too dark to make out faces;
also, he wasn’t allowed in the chamber where
William Eddy sat alone, summoning dozens
of humanly shaped shades each night but Sunday to
brief visits with audiences of dozens of
the quick.  Once, weakening before she could pass back
through the sole, curtained door to William’s cubicle,
Honto sank to her waist in the floor, laughed, and slid
to the drape like a footless chess piece.  Pawn or queen?
Sustained at first by skepticism, Olcott measured
rooms, sealed windows with gauze and wax, swished back cobwebs
in dusty attics, sought trapdoors and costume trunks
without success, counted the cast of characters,
painted scales to record the apparitions’ heights
(from two-and-a-half feet to a bit over six)
and hauled in scales to weigh them (Honto averaged
sixty pounds or so, but fluctuated wildly).
At last he was reduced, like the newly bereft
mothers who came to wail at one last vision of
babies doubly torn from the body, to belief
at once grudging and enthusiastic.  “Wonders,”
he called them, beyond his powers to explain or
more than describe.  He recounted but one stab of
fear: sitting in the loft’s blackness, they felt beams shake
that were trees when the land belonged to those who now
danced, stomping and whooping, among their silent chairs.
(No, two: an elderly woman, Honto’s willing
partner in most hijinks, scrambled atop her seat
to escape a mouse that Honto let skitter loose.)
But when Olcott, having formed an unspoken wish,
felt it answered by the lips of a child he knew
to be dead softly kissing his face, there was none,
no more than the frisson of hope unexpectedly
blossoming.  We can’t bear such breathless affection,
we, in whose days corpses are bulldozed to mass graves
and not allowed to linger for farewells at home.