My dad died four days after my birthday.
There’s a bittersweet balance to that. I’m born; my father dies.
I’ve always been aware of mortality. I’d chalk it up to Calvinism but really, you can only blame so many things on Calvinism. For whatever reason, I was always pretty aware of my own expiration date. Then came the cancer diagnosis; getting cancer at thirty will certainly put you in mind of death. Not always in a productive way. You know: “My elbow feels a little funny… oh gods, maybe it’s elbow cancer. What are the survival rates for elbow cancer?” But of course fixation is not awareness. Quite the opposite.
For years, if you pressed me to name my favorite poem, I’d’ve named “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” One section in particular could always tighten my throat and sting my eyes:
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And then of course:
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Even now those words pierce right through my breastbone. That yearning, so confident of disappointment. So confident of loneliness.
So. This was my theme for many years. But last week, someone read to me another poem, inspired by something I had said, and I realized this: my theme has changed. The poem was “When death comes” by Mary Oliver.
I’d really like you to read it; you can read it online here: http://www.phys.unm.edu/~tw/fas/yits/archive/oliver_whendeathcomes.html
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
My cancer was mainly in my chest, you see. A mass of a tumor, the size of a Nerf football. I like to say “the size of a Nerf football” because it feels fun and squishy, but really, it was an iceberg. Cold and hard and sharp. Right before I started chemo, the tumors had started to hurt. It felt like someone was taking an icepick to my chest. Or between my shoulder blades.
So for me, this poem is not theoretical.
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
I stood with my mother and siblings while my father died. I held his hand. Already cold, “as cold as any stone.” We stood and wept and clenched our fists while he stepped into that cottage of darkness. No way for him to send back word.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
Last Sunday I turned 39. Yesterday I mourned the third anniversary of my father’s passing. Tomorrow, I will do my best to step through the door full of curiosity. Not yet the door of that cottage of darkness, but still. I’ll step into the cottage of my own fears, and yearnings, and disappointments, and joys. Working to make something particular, and real. To love each lion of courage I meet. To take the world into my arms. Because
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world