Saturday, March 31, 2007

Make a Wish

What poems do you select to read with a woman who is dying from a malignant brain tumor? Our friend Florence is making a brave last stand, but it is inevitable that she will succumb to this disease that has robbed her of her vision and her balance. She’s 91, has had a full life, and seems ready enough to leave this one behind.

But she asked for one last chance to share poetry with friends. Today is the day. We invited some of her nearest and dearest to join her at her house for poetry and tea this afternoon. I imagine her daughter will read her selections since her eyesight is dim at best. But her ears are sharp and will be ready to receive the words of her friends and family.

The choice was between poems that extol life and those that talk about death and what comes next. As I read over all my favorites, I could see them falling into these neat categorizations. I bookmarked several possibilities, reserving my judgment until I see just what shape Florence is in. They include:

“Request” by Lawrence Raab
“On Death, Without Exaggeration” by Wislawa Szymborska
“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
“Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road” by Robert Hershon
“Days” by Billy Collins
“Horizon” by Billy Collins
“Thesaurus” by Billy Collins
“While Eating a Pear” by Billy Collins
“Tomorrow” by David Budbill

At our first poetry reading at our house two years ago, Florence read poems written by her friend who was dying of breast cancer. Much like Florence, she refused conventional treatment when it was determined that she could not get well, and instead lived out the rest of her life enjoying the company of friends and writing heartfelt poetry. Even then, her choice of poetry showed that Florence was not afraid to look at the specter of death.

Here’s the text for “Request”:

For a long time I was sure
it should be “Jumping Jack Flash,” then
the adagio from Schubert’s C major Quintet,
but right now I want Oscar Peterson’s

“You look good to me.” That’s my request.
Play it at the end of the service,
after my friends have spoken.
I don’t believe I’ll be listening in,

but sitting here I’m imagining
you could be feeling what I’d like to feel –
defiance from the Stones, grief
and resignation with Schubert, but now

Peterson and Ray Brown are making
the moment sound like some kind
of release. Sad enough
at first, but doesn’t it slide into

tapping your feet, then clapping
your hands, maybe standing up
in that shadowy hall in Paris
in the late sixties when this was recorded,

getting up and dancing
as I would not have done,
and being dead, cannot, but might
wish for you, who would then

understand what a poem – or perhaps only
the making of a poem, just that moment
when it starts, when so much
is still possible –

has allowed me to feel.
Happy to be there. Carried away.


Blogger Kristin said...

What a tough but beautiful afternoon. "Request" is perfectly lovely.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

We just returned from a truly wonderful afternoon. There were nine of us altogether. We just kept going around taking turns until no one had any more favorites to read. Then we ate lemon bars and drank Earl Gray, a very civilized afternoon indeed. Poetry was a favorite of Florence's deceased husband, which is probably one reason it is so special to her. This afternoon's selections covered the gamut of emotions. The beauty of it was the focus on the poetry itself and not on the condition of Florence, who is failing but who may well be around for some time.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

What a wonderful thing to do for Florence while she could still enjoy it.

My mother requested that I read a poem at her graveside service, and I was sure when the time came that I would not be able to speak. Yet, I felt as calm and sure as though she were standing by my side with her arm around me. The text of the poem you printed reminded me of that inexpressibly sad but beautiful moment.

8:00 PM  
Blogger Ulysses said...

I wish I would have sent you "The Death of Sir Walter Raliegh" but I can't find mine, and it's checked out at the library.
What a loving idea though, I admire you and your group for making it happen.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I too spoke at both of my parents' funerals. There is some inner strength that is there when you need it.

Ulysses -- Is "The Death of SWR" a poem or a book? I'm planning to visit Florence once a week if it's something you think she might find interesting. I was surprised at how upbeat everyone was today. After each person read, we all reflected on the poem, several times asking for it to be read again.

BTW, Florence lives perhaps not to far from you on Dalmation Drive, near Kirby Road in McLean.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Golden Silence said...

It may not cure her cancer but a strong support group of friends surrounding her is a "feel-good drug" in itself.

Love is stronger than anything in this world.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

What an amazingly powerful and loving thing to do! (My blogger friend, Colleen, at Loose Leaf Notes (on my sidebar) has numerous local readings with tea and they call them, "Poeteas"!)

You have me thinking more of what poems I'd like to have at my service/celebration. I already have some music. (sounds morbid, but it's not really)
My dad, as he was a bomber pilot, would have the poem, "High Flight".

8:02 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

GoldenSilence -- "Feel-good" drugs count for a lot when you are sick. Our poetry afternoon was definitely therapeutic for Florence.

MOI -- I think planning ahead is a good thing to do. I wouldn't want music or poetry that was not of my choice. Hopefully it will still be a long time off for all of us.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Old Lady said...

I am so glad that you were able to share a piece of this woman's life. It is a very precious gift.

7:40 AM  

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