Nine Deaths (David Young)

“Cancer is a series of deaths.”
-Georgia Newman

1. Surgery
Late April. You’ve just learned
they will cut away your breast, or part of it.
We’ve cried,
discussed statistics,
told our children and friends.
We drive out
and walk in the green spring evening
hearing cows and birds, watching leafing trees.
“The world’s so beautiful:’ I say. Or is that you?
We hold hands.
This is a death, the first,
and we can bear it.

2. Liver Scan
It’s summer now. Your radiation’s over.
In the last conference at the Cleveland Clinic
we get bad news:
a liver scan
shows two spots,
metastases,
the cancer erupting in a new place.
The chemo will have to be
much more severe.
The statistics he gives
are still encouraging
but hope has shrunk.
This is another death. We live
inside a tighter circle now.
All day we drive east.
Whenever I glance at you
your face is peaceful.
We listen to music, read the scenery,
fold and unfold our maps.
Oh this is a death, all right
As we head up
toward the Green Mountains.

3. Indefinitely
Now there’s an interlude of nearly a year
in which there’s no death, just some dying,
and most of it bearable.
We feel close and, often, happy,
lucky to have each other for the time,
and our two children, half adults.
You’re not as able as you hoped.
You need to take my arm,
shaky in traffic and crowds,
tiring easily.
Sometimes your appetite is good,
sometimes you can’t take much
except some tea and oatmeal.
Sometimes you throw up, again and again.
Now they change the regimen.
You ask your doctor
how long you’ll be on this new set of drugs.
As long as they work
to keep those liver spots from spreading.
And then? And then a new set.
And how long on chemotherapy?
Indefinitely, he says.
It comes across us both,
a sickening dawn that we saw coming:
We can’t expect to beat the disease.
It’s June. Ripe summer has set in again.
This is a death.

4. Seizure.
One August night,
you wake me with your movements.
I try to help you up, but you fall, helpless,
hitting your face on the night-table.
Then come convulsions. Then unconsciousness.
Shaking, I summon the ambulance
and they take you to Emergency.
You have another seizure there.
Next day, CAT scan confirms the doctor’s hunch:
two little tumors in the brain.
These can be treated with radiation, we’re assured.
The real risk continues in the liver.
Gradually, gingerly,
we move back into our routines.
You have no memory of your seizure.
You often ask me about it.
I remember everything
too vividly: the horror of your fall,
my helplessness, your absence in convulsions
and unconsciousness.
It’s taken me three months
to tell this part of the story.
That’s how I know what a death is.
And yet our lives go on.

5. Lung Spots
September. A chest x-ray
is taken again.
There are two spots on the lung.
I know how much this sets you back
by how long it takes you to tell
your father and your children.
I don’t know how much
you cry in the bathroom
or when I’m not around.
This is a little death, but it goes deep.

6. Anemia
You keep going to work.
Morning after morning,
dropping you off,
watching your slow movements,
I feel my heart
crack into contrary parts:
admiration for your courage,
sorrow for your slow decline.
Oh eating is death and hunger is death,
and I don’t know, or won’t admit it.
We drift through January, a rugged month,
and I make soups, brown rice and junkets.
Somehow the things you ate as a child,
your mother’s bridge club casseroles
and thirties cooking,
help you most. You dwindle,
and we both try not to notice.
Finally, one early February night,
your breathing grows terribly labored.
The doctor admits you to the hospital for blood
transfusions.
But there is something ominous in this.

7. Heart Failure
Your heart fails during the transfusion.
Weakened by medication, it can’t drive
your damaged lungs.
Your breathing stops.
They rush you to Intensive Care
manage to revive you,
hooking you up to a breathing machine
that helps you-makes you?-go on living.
You never regain consciousness.
Three days we watch beside your bed,
talking to you, whispering, pleading.
I want to let you go. I want to keep you.
Where has your beauty gone,
your gaze, your poise and animation
What or whom am I standing beside?
What ears hear my whispers of love?

8. Unplug the Respirator
A scan shows you’ve probably been gone,
brain-dead,
since the heart first stopped.
Is this then the moment of death?
This is the eighth of nine.

9. She’s Like a Painting/Bless Her Heart
At the last you look composed,
unhooked, released, at peace,
as we come in groups of two and three
to take our leave ofyou.
I can touch and kiss you again,
though your waxy stillness
tells me I’m kissing your husk.
My mind shoots like a bobsled
back through the whole course of the illness.
Once again, arm in arm,
summoning courage
we are walking out of the Cleveland Clinic…
One last look for us.
“She’s like a painting:’ whispers Margaret
and that is true.
“Bless her heart:’ says my simple mother,
twice,
and those words are oddly right.
You’re like a painting.
Bless your heart.

10. Coda
Your dreams are over.
My dreams begin.
In the first you are wearing a striped blouse
and vomiting in the kitchen sink.
I watch your back from a helpless distance.
In the second, helping you move to a chair
at some social gathering,
I realize you are lifeless
like a mummy or a dummy.
In the third, I arrive running, late,
for some graveside service.
You are waiting in the crowd, impatient and withdrawn.
But then you embrace me.
What a relief to touch you again!
These dreams are not your visits,
just my clumsy inventions.
I live in an empty house
with wilting flowers and spreading memories
and my own heart
that hollows and fills.
I’m addressing you
and you can’t hear me.
If you can, you don’t need
to be told this story.
I need to tell it to myself
until I can stand to hear it.
And you’re not here
except in the vaguest ways.
Were you the hawk
that followed us back
from your memorial service
that brilliant winter day?
Are you the rabbit
I keep seeing
that’s tamer than it should be?
I wish I could believe it.
You’re none of these things or all of them.
What does Montale say?
Words from the oven, words from the freezer,
that’s what poetry is.
This is neither.
This is an empty house and a heart
that hollows and fills, hollows and fills.

For Chloe Hamilton Young, 1927-1985

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4 thoughts on “Nine Deaths (David Young)

  1. Thanks for your comment, Paige! For me, what really stood out to me about this poem was the idea that there are multiple deaths in the progression of a disease. That when the patient sees a liver met, when the patient suffers a seizure – that is a death of another version of the patient, until at the end, there is nothing left.

    Also, the idea of the people who are left behind after the passing of a loved one. We as health professionals could probably do more to help these people.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The line that stood out to me most was:
        “I remember everything
        too vividly: the horror of your fall,
        my helplessness, your absence in convulsions
        and unconsciousness.
        It’s taken me three months
        to tell this part of the story.
        That’s how I know what a death is.”
        This speaks to Justin’s point that death, at least from the perspective of this author, is not necessarily a physical passing away. The author suggests that there are different types of deaths, and that some are harder to bear than others. This brings up interesting questions about what “death” really means.

        Like

  2. What a beautiful poem to share at the Art Beat relaunch! The reader did a great job of highlighting the soft, tender moments as well as the devastation of the progressing cancer and loss. Even as time and disease carry forward, there is a permanency to the heartfelt words that Young writes for his wife.

    I wrote down some lines that really resonated with me:
    From 1) “The world’s so beautiful … or is that you?”. Coming right after the cancer diagnosis, this lovely sentiment was bittersweet.

    From 6) “I feel my heart / crack into contrary parts:
    admiration for your courage, / sorrow for your slow decline.”
    A beautiful characterization of love and loss.

    From 7) “I want to let you go. I want to keep you.” The contrast in these lines really highlighted for me the struggle in the poet between wanting her to be freed from her suffering and desperately wanting to hold on.

    And of course, from 10) “This is an empty house and a heart / that hollows and fills, hollows and fills.”
    What a haunting way to close off the poem! There is such a sadness in this permanent loss that is reflected in the image of a heart, cycling back to empty.

    Those are some lines that stood out for me, from a striking poem. I’d be interested in what stood out for others!

    Liked by 1 person

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