Sunday, April 13, 2014

Poetry of Cancer--Jane Kenyon- Donald Hall

Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall: Poets, lovers, husband and wife. Both had cancer . Donald, much older, lived. Jane, much younger, died. But, both being poets, had the habit of turning their life experiences into poems. So we have poetry collections from each of them describing each turn and phase of their roles as caregivers and as patients. It’s fascinating to read them together and to trace the intrusion and trajectory of cancer through their loving—and sexy—marriage.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon when she is ill and Donald is her caregiver:

    I saw him leaving the hospital
    with a woman's coat over his arm.
    Clearly she would not need it.
    The sunglasses he wore could not
    conceal his wet face, his bafflement.

    As if in mockery the day was fair,
    and the air mild for December. All the same
    he had zipped his own coat and tied
    the hood under his chin, preparing
    for irremediable cold.

                        Coats, by Jane Kenyon

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Sister's Poem After Cancer--Marie Howe

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss--we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless: I am living. I remember you. 

       --Marie Howe

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Poetry is Also Medicine

April is Poetry Month and so, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting some poems about cancer and caregiving and relationships. I hope you’ll make them part of your daily meditation and that you will share them with your friends and family…and other caregivers.

Here is a great “Why” for reading poetry:

“Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”    

     --Christian Wiman

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Caregiving Your Marriage--Rosalyn Carter

I began this blog years ago because I was in a new, wonderfully romantic relationship and then a great marriage when we began to deal with cancer. I had had cancer years before but it hadn’t effected me the way that having a partner with cancer did.

This was a hard won relationship and while I was worried about John’s diagnosis it was the lack of concern for couples and their relationships that got me writing “Love in the Time of Cancer.” Everyone had ideas about how to get a body to survive colon cancer but no one—not a doctor, nurse, or oncologist—was interested in helping to ensure that the marriage would have equally good health.

Now, years later, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about couples and cancer care for a long time, and I no longer blush when I say, “swallow”. But I still try to read everything I can find about caregiving. So how humbling it was this week to pick up one of the first (and best) books on how to be a good caregiver and find a whole chapter called, “Maintaining Your Marriage.”

The book is, “Helping Yourself Help Others” by Rosalynn Carter. Yes, she is former first lady and wife of President Jimmy Carter. Her book was published in 1994—long before anyone was talking about the Boomer Bump or caregiving support groups, or “navigation”. But in a sense it’s no surprise that she was so far ahead of the curve. You may also remember that Rosalynn Carter chose to focus her term in office as first lady on the diagnosis, care and treatment of people with serious mental illness. (To recall the seriousness of bringing a public focus to serious mental illness you must remember that Jackie Kennedy’s focus was on beautifying the White House and Lady Bird Johnson used her national resources to highlight gardening.)

In her book, Carter writes from personal experience as a family caregiver and she also highlights all that she learned in her work before and after The White House. The Table of Contents lists sections that address: isolation, burnout, family dynamics, dealing with doctors and the chapter on maintaining your marriage.

In that chapter she directly addresses the harm to “intimate relations” and a couple’s physical relationship and while she does not specifically answer the, “Can I swallow?” question that I asked professionals she doesn’t not hide behind the “be sure to cuddle” advice that is the coward’s fall back for a couple that really wants answers.

Carter talks about what may be the hardest step of all: Giving each other breathing room—allowing others into the hard won intimacy of a good marriage to lessen the emotional strain of cancer.

Rosalyn Carter’s book from 1994 is the perfect partner for the more recent and also excellent book about being a caregiving spouse: Gail Sheehy’s “Passages for Caregivers.”

We will all need these books sooner or later so buy yours now. Because as Rosalynn Carter said so wisely in 1993:

“There are only four kinds of people in the world:
*Those who have been caregivers
*Those who are currently caregivers
*Those who will be caregivers
*Those will need caregivers.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Baseball as a Spiritual Practice

Sports, like religion, offer these consolations: A diversion from the routine of daily living; a model of coherence and clarity; a heroic example to admire and emulate, and a sense of drama and conflict in which nobody dies. 

In baseball we begin and end at home.  Home plate is not fourth base. Our goal in this game is to get home and be safe. Home is a concept rather than a place. Home implies safety, accessibility, freedom, comfort. It’s where we learn to be both part of and separate.  The object in baseball is to go home, and to be safe.  

When a runner charges home we lean forward to see the home plate umpire slash his arms downward signaling that the runner who may have crashed onto the ground in, in fact, safe. Isn’t that what we all want? I do. In my daily life I want whatever is bigger than me and whoever is judging me to see how fast I run and how precariously I slide and then to say, as I slip and slide, “She’s safe!” 

Those who believe, whose faith is strong, accept the umpire/God at his gesture and stand up relieved. Some, like me, despite wanting it are afraid to believe or struggle to trust. I have --over and over-- sensed the “safe” signal, but I am unbelieving. I run the bases again, skidding and scuffing. Again he signals, “Safe!”, but again I go to bat. What baseball offers that life does not is the agreement that we will believe it when we are told that we are home and that we are safe.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Holding On to What We Let Go Of --David Kalish

Here is an excerpt from the life, and the new novel, by David Kalish  a new friend in Upstate New York. This true story gives you a taste of his wonderful novel called "The Opposite of Everything". You will want to read the whole book. Take a read:

Twelve years ago I pressed my six-month old daughter to my chest and waded waist-deep through a lukewarm pool of water. “How many seconds again?” I asked the two rabbis, who stood poolside next to my wife.
“Three seconds,” the reform rabbi said, touching his stopwatch.
“God willing,” the conservative rabbi added.
I nodded nervously. For that’s how long I had to submerge Sophie — completely let her go. Like God commanded Adam and Eve to go from the Garden of Eden. Like Moses beseeched Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Perhaps I could write my own bible chapter. For I was on chemotherapy at the time, pale and bald as a cue ball. A part of me hoped that giving my daughter a ritual mikvah do more than make her Jewish. It would help me let go too. Of my past. Of my fears for the future.

The rabbis checked their stopwatches. A hush rose in the tiled room. As my wife anxiously watched, I released Sophie into the pool. She sank, her tiny arms seeming to wave goodbye. A shadow slipped over me. I thought of my diagnosis of medullary thyroid cancer several years earlier. My first marriage crumbled under the pressure of sickness, a wife who couldn’t cope. And now the pale helpless face of my daughter, the fruit of my second marriage, stared up at me through the water.
By some automatic reflex my hands scooped her up, clamping her to my chest. Amid the din of her screams, the rabbis shook their heads. Not enough time had passed.
I thought of my own clock speeding toward an end point. The folly of giving my daughter a ritual mikvah when I might not be around for her Bat Mitzvah. But something inside me grew solid as the Ten Commandments. I’d finish this thing if it was the last I did. Sophie’s screams softened to whimpers. I dropped her back in.

She was a fast learner. Her wriggling fingers cut back up through the surface, grabbing my arms. The rabbis again checked their stopwatch, shaking their heads.
Questioning the existence of God, I dropped her a third time. I moved backward two steps — out of her reach.
I remembered gasping for breath myself a few years earlier, waking up from eight hours of neck surgery. A nurse administered too much morphine, causing my lungs, weakened by anesthesia, to collapse. A medical team rushed in; I dimly overheard the surgeon mention “tracheotomy.” Fearing a blowhole in my neck, I managed with the doctor’s help to start breathing again.
The memory faded; I snapped to attention and saw Sophie sinking like a doll, slipping into shadows.
I plucked her up and held her dripping body to mine. Cah! She spit up. Cah! Water drooled from the side of her mouth. Cah!  She smiled, not seeming at all upset.
The rabbis beamed. “Three seconds,” the first one said. “Maybe four.”
“For both of you,” the other said.
The rabbis said a prayer, adding a few sentences. When you save another life, it is as if you save your own. This is the essence of Judaism. But Sophie wasn’t listening. Tired from all the excitement, she slept in my wife’s arms. I closed my eyes. If my story ended with this kid asleep, face scrunched against my wife’s milk-swollen bosom, I was cool with that. If the story ended here, that would be enough.
But in fact, this isn’t how things end. Since that day twelve years ago, I went on to try a new drug, with fewer side effects, that today holds my cancer at bay. Sophie has her Bat Mitzvah this coming May, and we live in a spacious house in upstate New York. Summers, we sow seeds in a little garden plot, weed tomato plants, and set down aluminum pie plates filled with beer to drown the slugs. Each morning I walk my two small dogs unleashed, like my thoughts, through a nearby forest. My novel was  published this year. I’m just getting started.
Editor’s Note: David Kalish is the author of the new comedic novel The Opposite of Everythingwhich inspired this essay and is a finalist in the Somerset Fiction Awards. For more info:, or on