The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]

The World at Midday

Person walking on the road in the snow during midday; the sky is gray and overcast, the street is rimmed with trees with every branch covered in snow.I spent Christmas Eve with my mom last month for the first time in years. It was unexpected; she was happy and well.

All through the drive to my aunt’s house—Dad at the wheel, Mom turning the music up—my sister and I watched the lights and thought about extraordinary transformations. How anything is possible, though it rarely seems so.

Being with my whole family felt like an amazing gift, like the world had opened up and made itself entirely new.

I keep thinking about how to say things I can’t say. The problem’s not inappropriateness or offense; it’s entrée. Square peg in a round hole and all that, subjects that don’t come up or don’t make sense in the time people have to offer them. Subjects no one wants.

A couple of days after Christmas, my mom was in the hospital for a week after she burned herself with cigarettes, and then she came home and made chili. These things happen.

The day I learned that my mom had been hospitalized, snow fell in icy dendrites. The wind came from the east. The world might have ended; the sun was nowhere to be found. How easily we find ourselves abandoned. [Read more…]

Poem for the New Year: “In the Candleroom at Saint Bartholomew’s on New Year’s Eve” By Heather Sellers

ImageThis poem moves me and impresses me with its sense of almost-but-not-quite arriving at connection. Everywhere I turn within the walls of this poem, I come face to face with human need and the world’s shortcomings in meeting that need. Mourning her mother, the speaker attempts throughout the poem to do a simple thing: light a candle. Instead, she finds herself confronted with failure and dampening hope. In the candle’s failure to light and in comparing herself to the other mourner’s open grief, the speaker sees the distance between herself and her mother, some final failure to connect or satisfy. Struggle, longing, and love are three threads tightly woven through stanzas of vivid detail and painful confession. Formally, the linked sounds, repetition, and snatches of rhythm give hints of the familiar, adding to a feeling of déjà vu that is mirrored by the narrative itself. The final stanzas push the walls of the cathedral outward, identifying this one speaker’s pain with a bigger wound shared by us all, and perhaps offering, there, the possibility of solace.

—Melissa Reeser Poulin [Read more…]

Poison Ivy and the Path of Grief

Though its fruit should’ve been in season, too many harsh Midwest winters left the leaves of the apple tree to wither. At the time of harvest, very little fruit hung from its branches.

But my daughter climbed anyway, her arms wrapped around the low-hanging branches, her feet bouncing against the trunk so she could swing herself up. She climbed all over it, picking the seconds, tossing them into the buckets circling the tree.

I was travelling to Texas while she climbed, so it was later that my friend told me that poison ivy crept along the trunk of the apple tree and into the branches.

All the while, I was at lunch in Texas with my ill father, laughing at the dark jokes of grief with my mother and sisters, and making lists of the things people should not say to someone with cancer, things like “my aunt had the same kind of cancer and it was awful. She died very painfully,” or “don’t you know how many poisonous chemicals they put in chemo?” [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “After” by Marjorie Stelmach

by Rin Johnson on flickrGrief is a state of being that almost defies articulation. When you’re in it, it consumes and seems present in everything. Marjorie Stelmach focuses the lens of this poem on small scenes from the natural world—frames at once ordinary and suffused with loss, as befits the claustrophobia of mourning. The speaker here admits to wanting out, to feeling done-in by sadness— “Today, the last thing I would wish / is another emblem of grit and continuance”—and yet each effort to observe something outside the self becomes an act of hope and faith. I love the gaps in this poem. I’ve read it multiple times and suspect it hasn’t finished telling me all of its secrets. I’m struck by how each of these images so tenderly reflect the mystery of human suffering: not even a willow tree can escape “a keening that leaves it chastened, / loose-limbed, compliant.” God feels far away, yet so close, in the “available healing” of creation described here so beautifully.

—Melissa Reeser Poulin [Read more…]