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.