for Marj, everywhere
My friend says her CA-125 has gone down,
just a bit, but hey it’s in the right direction.
I’m not sure what CA-125 is exactly, but she’s glad,
so I am too. Later I Google it, read about cancer
in the blood, read how the numbers are to be
in the teens, not the hundreds like hers.
She invites us North to visit, and eat
in Montreal, where the soups are exquisite
and snow stays on the ground, just
as it is here in Virginia, this long winter
the temperature in the teens, where I wish
her CA-125 was,
where the nip stings, and lying in bed
beside my husband, who I married
in my teens, and on whose shoulder I’ve laid my head
almost every night for 38 years, I think
how warm, and close my eyes to grieve.
She tells me the cancer will take her in 6-12 months,
if last resort treatments work. She is calm
as she says so. The worst is eating pureed food,
because her bowel is blocked and solids pile up
like cars at rush hour. I don’t so much fear death,
she emails, as the getting there. I email back: I confess
I fear both. This morning I sit on the edge of the meadow
in the cool spring sun as I think of her tall elegant frame,
her soft laugh, her four grandchildren, two so young
they’ll not remember her. Oh, contrary life! Troublesome
death! Oh, the tasks each day brings us as we leave
each behind and move to the next. Oh, friend.
The Facebook photo shows her lying in a hospital bed,
gown askew (as it always is—those ugly ties slipping off
just after you’ve grappled with them) her five month old
grandson relaxed in what remains of her lap.
Her hair has grown back—it’s butch—briefly, until more
chemo takes it out again. For now it’s hers though,
along with the old face, her eyes glimmering
through new wrinkles, her mouth wide with the joy
of holding this child, this continuance, this sleeper.
She’s awake for both of them.
Water in the catch basin is frozen when I take Maxine
to the meadow for her morning sniff-and-squat;
April is being cruel to the bitter end.
My friend in Vermont will not see next April’s ice.
When we visit this summer, I’ll take Virginia flowers
to bloom, then compost in Vermont soil.
When she sat at our dining room table New Year’s Eve,
we laughed so hard we both wiped away tears.
Later she said—I have a long tumor in my neck I can feel;
the doctor says it’s twined around the artery,
her fingers delicately touching the skin hiding it.
As my friend makes arrangements
to leave her lakeside home
to be cared for by strangers,
I am sent yet another memo at work:
all branch managers must now. . .
It is a little thing, yet another
little thing, making a mountain
of little things all branch managers
must now do, while my brave friend
climbs the mountain of her dying
one last day at a time.
I plant marigolds before May rain comes,
think—my friend will not be here
when these succumb to October frost.
I think of her at odd times like this,
gasps here and there, startled
by the quickness of her upcoming death
the absolute inevitability of it—
that when this plant I hold is gone,
she will be too. I pat the soil
around its roots—oh, friend, the dusk
is settling in. I move towards the house,
where my husband sits and lights invite
and my supper waits to be heated.
Awake at three, mulling an issue at work,
repeating phrases that lead to nowhere—
for sure, not back to sleep, I think
of my friend up north. Is she awake, too,
in this cave of night like fur around us, the bear
of fragility growling, its warm
breath like tapioca pudding spilling over us?
Oh friend let us eat what we can
of this sweet life before it is gone
Men armed with power shovels and chainsaws
kill oak trees older than their grandmothers
when Maxine and I walk the gravel road
parallel. I watch, stricken, not knowing
what to do, as centuries of living cells topple
in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, my friend writes—
the cancer will progress faster now.
I email my dying friend: more often now
I measure time by depth
than by length. I dare say this
to her whose time is truncated
because ten years ago
my own diagnosis was cancer
and I’ve teetered ever since on the edge
of these time zones—length? or depth?—
in my greediness,
for her, now too, as she speeds
towards whatever time lies ahead.
Crisp grass in August heat here this June.
I picked my first blackberry today, popped
it straight into my mouth. Wind
wanders through the woods, newly opened
after pruning underbrush, Saturday.
My mind jitters; I bathe
in restlessness. Meanwhile
I do not hear from my friend
who is living her last days.
I thought to write who is dying but
we all are, even the wren
whose large song fills the hot meadow.
A relentless week and tomorrow we drive
to Vermont. What remains of my friend?
She no longer emails. . . I make guesses
about her pain. What are her thoughts
as she moves towards death?
Does she still talk? Does
she still sip green tea, touch
her grandson, smile when her husband
sits down beside her?
Will I know how to be with her?
When I walk into her office-turned-bedroom
she is lying upright in a hospital bed,
skin over bones. Her eyes are big and dry,
they do not blink. Yet she can still
laugh, although it makes her cough
and she can still talk—about how she’s not
done yet and she’ll be back—not as a Husky
but a Malamute, perhaps, with wise eyes.
We hold hands as she asks me to read
a poem at her Virginia service. We talk and talk,
easy conversation, like it’s always been
between us, and I worry that it’s too much.
Finally she says I need to nap—but don’t go—
and I agree to stay while she sleeps.
Have you come all this way? she asks later,
when awake, and I nod.
When my husband arrives home,
our first day back, while I’m at work, the light
is blinking on our answering machine.
It is her husband, with the news.
Bad news… he begins, then stops
before finishing the message
telling us she’s gone.
When we talked on Sunday about her ashes
in Vermont and Maryland and Virginia,
I said you’ll be everywhere. She breathed
in her new shallow labored way,
this friend who used to hike miles:
I’ll be in the breeze, whispering hello.
Will you know it’s me?