Some years ago, I recited a poem/blessing called “Beannacht” to a client who was going through an especially difficult part of her cancer experience. It was written by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, and it is, in part, a gently powerful summation of how the physical, emotional and spiritual pain of life’s great burdens must sometimes feel. “On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble …” “When your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets into you …”
But it’s also an expression of hope and connection: “May the clay dance to balance you,” and “May a flock of colors … come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.”
It ends with this verse:
“And so may a slow wind
Work these words of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.”
My client reacted with silence, and then a thank you. I continued reciting it to other people after that, with reactions from silence to tears to requests that I speak it again. What grew out of those experiences was that I began memorizing poems by a number of writers to recite to clients, both Hand to Heart clients and clients of my regular massage practice. Vaclav Havel, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Marie Howe, T.S. Eliot, Drew Dellinger, Rita Dove, among others. I’ve never been what you would call a poetry lover, but there are poems (and sometimes prose passages) that call out to be committed to memory and shared. Even better, my clients occasionally recite a favorite poem back to me – something they have long carried with them.
Eighteen or so months ago, I began reciting and talking about poetry with Jenny Morris, a Hand to Heart client from Quechee, Vt., who was in her mid-thirties and, it sadly turned out, in the last months of her life. I recited “Beannacht” to her, and then other poems. Rita Dove’s “Testimonial” is beautiful. Vaclav Havel’s “It Is I Who Must Begin” carries an important message about how to be on a difficult path and remain true to yourself. The last verse of that poem is always in my head: “Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely upon whether or not I am lost.”
Jenny began telling me about her own writing, most of it in a notebook she kept close by. One day when I arrived to see her, she read one of her poems to me, and as I thought about it later, I realized how poetry had allowed her to express – and perhaps even to understand – something about how she had changed in the short time of her illness, about how she had grown into graceful acceptance. The first day that I’d visited with her, in the summer of 2016, she had only recently gotten her diagnosis and was reeling with all that it meant. She described how she was feeling, what treatment she was doing or planning to do. Then she said, “They told me it’s not curable.” I cannot, in writing those words down, convey exactly how she said them. Her voice and breath caught part way through, her eyes got a little wider, and teary. She looked shocked to hear herself, and I wondered if, despite having heard the prognosis and thought about it a lot, that might have been the first time she said those actual words out loud.
Over the months, we spoke a lot about the teetering balance she was trying to strike between acceptance and bewilderment, between acceptance and defiance, between acceptance and defeat. And then she read her poem to me. It’s titled “Tree of Life.”
I imagined the tree of life,
So beautiful and serene.
She leaned over, her branches swaying
And her leaves of light surrounded me.
The healer, that is what you are.
And I must let you decide
If this cancer inside me wins or loses,
If I continue to live or if I die.
It would not be right to say that Jenny had come full circle, because she had not arrived at a place she had once been. In fact, she had arrived at a place unimaginable to her only a short time ago. Her poem told me that she had arrived there to find that it wasn’t quite as frightening as she had feared, or at least that some measure of peace was possible there in spite of the fear.
Jenny died on June 19 last year.