Monday, April 16, 2012

Tuesday Poem: My Papa's Waltz

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke

For the past week, I've been struggling (and not blogging) with writing about a subject fraught with terror and sorrow, a subject that has pushed itself — once again — into the center of my daily life: the plague of our times — cancer.

A week ago my co-worker C. underwent major surgery for removal of her stomach and spleen, with evidence discovered of a more extensive diagnosis than what was originally anticipated. At work, we've had the delightful company of her dog, who runs in first thing and jumps to my lap. Melinda takes her on jaunts around the neighborhood, and the resident feline has decided to be the dog's new best friend. This was our upside to the darker side of what C. has had to endure, and is now recovering from, one day — one hour — at a time.

Who among us has any real inkling of the future? We can plan, guess, schedule, anticipate, etch in stone, and in the end life will hand us its own version of What Will Be. In the end, the only thing etched in stone will be your name, and mine.

Late last week I received news that my sister L. was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She is still in the discovery phase, but the grim evidence shows large masses in three locations, one of which has caused a fractured spine. I spent Saturday in Urgent Care with L., her husband, and their youngest child, who is a sophomore in college. It was all very surreal, and then also frighteningly real, with the awareness that this is it folks, it's all we get.

My sister asked me to pick up her son from college and drive him to the hospital, which I was more than glad to do. Now, I come from a very large family, and there are many nieces and nephews with whom I've not spent more than a few minutes visiting at a hectic family gathering. Such was the case on Saturday with K. Although the larger part of my thoughts were focused on L., I did wonder what I'd talk about with K., and whether there would be awkward aunt-nephew silences.

During the 30 minute drive, the conversation veered to an English class K. is taking. I asked him what he's reading, and he said so far it's been mostly poetry. Said he'd read some RoethkeMy Papa's Waltz — and was required to analyze it word for word. Had to look up each word and pay attention to not only the etymology, but also every meaning, and the nuances of every meaning, and how a slight shift in nuance could shift the direction and understanding of the writing. I'd entered into this conversation with the knowledge that K. excelled in high school in math and science, and here we were talking about one of my favorite subjects, and talking about the poet on whom I cut my teeth. I was astonished, thrilled.

Soon we'd settled into an easy banter. We talked a little about James Joyce, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. We got lost trying to find the hospital. And then we sat for long hours in the waiting room, run out of conversation. We each drank a can of vending-machine soda and ate cashews from a teensy plastic sack. Ran the batteries down on our phones. Took photos. Sent texts.

It was a protracted afternoon, but a mere blink compared to what my co-worker C. faces, and what my sister also now faces. The silver lining to Saturday was that I got to know my nephew, at least this little bit. He's contemplative, tender, smart as all get-out. I wondered, how did he get to be twenty without really ever being on my radar? Life has a habit of getting in the way, and we are led from day to day minus enough intentions to do the things that are most important. A cancer diagnosis enabled this closer acquaintance with my nephew, and, while I felt a filial glow afterwards (shadowed by the terror of the larger issue at hand), I also felt a little ashamed. There are delights and riches everywhere, if we would only pay better attention.

Sleep didn't volunteer Saturday night.

And then all of this has pushed my own surgical procedure (on Wednesday) to the furthest reaches of my consciousness. More discovery, more waiting for results.

But my new planting bed in back of the garage is ready for sunflower seeds. I dug out the rocks and glass shards and chips of vinyl, made a tidy edge and lined it with the unearthed stones so the garbage collector will (hopefully) avoid crushing seedlings with his giant wheels. Last night the air outside smelled like spun sugar, like a bakery, like a million flowers in bloom at once.

So say a prayer, cross your fingers, stroke a good-luck charm. And maybe we'll all be here for a little while longer.


  1. Oh, dear, I am so, so sorry to hear of all this going on in your life -- in the people you love. I just said the other day to a good friend that everything seems to be falling apart for so many people, and we wondered whether this was a result of our getting older or whether it's just been a harrowing year or two. You and your sister and your friend will be in my prayers -- candles will be lit and head bowed. Sending love and healing thoughts your way --

  2. oh, dammit, T. just when we think we've had our ration of life's pain and there can't possibly be more - there it is again. And out of those awful moments come time spent with your nephew - who sounds delightful. It sounds as if he must have been as surprised and encouraged by his aunt as you were by him. "This little light of mine."

    Sending love and light to you, your friend, your sister, your family. For all of us, because we all need it, for sure.

  3. Hello T. You have written so beautifully about these happenings in your life. Blessings mixed with pain. May much strength and light come your way and that of your family. I wish you and yours the best outcome.
    Hugs Helen

  4. Poor you, it looks as if pain is all around you. Very best wishes for Wednesday. Cro x

  5. Bugger.

    T - my heart - held out - to you.

    Thank you for this courageous post full, as always, with such an appreciation of life at its best. Tragedies do this to us - throw us together with people we aren't usually thrown together with - give us long hours to fill while 'things' are sorted. Once I drove a friend's children to the hospital where she was waiting with her husband to tell them that his cancer had spread and he would die soon. The children chatted in the car as we drove. The youngest aged about 14 played with his soccer ball. The sun was out. My scalp prickles when I think of it. How their lives spun and fell in a heap not long after - and there I was. The driver. And I knew.

    Take care T. Kia kaha, as we say here. Strength.

  6. ohh, T. i came for the poetry...and bumped into life. not that they should be very far apart, and i guess that's the thing, isnt it... to bring them together. my thoughts are with you, friend, and with your work friend and your family.

  7. Prayers for all of you.

    I'm so sorry.

    Love, C.

  8. I work at a cancer clinic and am always amazed and inspired by my patients. You would think a cancer clinic is a depressing place to work but I don't find it so. Everybody fears cancer but my patients have all faced this fear and survived, not the cancer, but the fear. Nothing is hidden, it's all out in the open which can be a relief of sorts.

    The only thing I can think of is that we all have to die of something, my patients just happen to know what it is that they're dying of.

    This sounds so hard and awful but I don't mean it that way. When people realize that they are mortal, it's almost as if they become more themselves. I watch this happening to my elderly mother. She is dying, of old age granted, but she knows her time here is limited and she cares less what others think and speaks her mind more often now. It's difficult at times but inspiring too.

    I guess the trick is to be ourselves without the spectre of death hanging over our heads.