26 April, 2014



When you were born, I didn't breathe for fear
Of what? Listening for a hushed sigh
In the soft dark, warm dew settling on my cheek.

Helix, wave, silver coin, and sharpest knife:
I could walk through fire for you, my only
Fear: what if it is not a choice?

At night, I picture my fears, like monsters
Under your crib. I come back to this: Cancer
Is not the worst that can happen to us.

The first died alone, in peace; hearts do forget to beat.
I lay on cold, solid ground, and the earth turned.
Stars watched: we were all in it together.

The second died lonely, in fear; we fall on our knees.
I wanted to believe in demons, but found only
Human weakness: such selfish creatures.

At dawn, I remember the lone candle,
Flickering softly in the darkness. If
You get to say good-bye, you are lucky.


I think there is some rule against discussing your own poety in this depth, but then, my creative writing side has always been adamantly prose fiction-oriented. When I wrote this poem, I hadn't attempted poetry in a solid 15 years (not since "Wings in the Wind", which my dad reprinted here), unless you count my fabulous reworking of "The Night Before Christmas" (reprinted here). Surely you’ve heard the expression “a face only a mother could love”, but even mothers and fathers are not genetically compelled to love a teenager's poetry.

Anyway, I wrote the third stanza as part of a writing workshop at a conference for physicians with graduate degrees in the humanities (mine is in medical anthropology). We were asked to write for a minute or two about a variety of words. The word that inspired that stanza was “fear."

Almost three months before the conference (at which I was speaking about end of life decision making in pediatric oncology), my good friend Melissa was murdered in her home. It was, truly, a random act of senseless violence. She was the second friend I had lost suddenly.

For much of the last year, I have felt the weight of their deaths heavy in my heart. When I walk in and out of my hospital, I often feel that their echoes (something more tangible than memory, but less than I imagine a presence to be) have followed along with me. They are joined by a young patient, who often reminded me of myself at that age, and to whose family I felt especially close, and by Mitch, my former partner’s stepfather. I don’t know how to describe my feelings for Mitch, except to say that, having grown up in a family deeply bound by blood and with an extraordinary father of my own, he was the first and only man unrelated to me whom I came to regard as an uncle/grandfather figure. 

Not saying good-bye was a common thread: After my patient’s family signed a DNR order (do not resuscitate), they did not want to see me again; though I deeply respected their right to privacy, I couldn’t help but worry that I had done something wrong. I often wished that I had included my patient more directly in that final conversation and better respected her autonomy as a young adult. 

Mitch died shortly after I arrived in Thailand on holiday - a trip that he indirectly inspired, by passing an obsession with Thai food on to his teenage stepson, who passed it on to me. A few days prior, I sent him a birthday card and, knowing I might not have another opportunity, thanked him for being a father to my ex. His mother told me Mitch received the card, but I'll always suspect I put it in the mail too late and wonder if he really read it.

When I wrote this, I regretted never getting to say good-bye to these people who had such a profound influence on me, in life and in death. After my father’s death, I believe less and less than such regrets really matter. I have no doubt that my friends and loved ones have found some kind of peace, in whatever lies beyond human existence and comprehension. I don't think I believe in a physical afterlife, but if I did, I'd hope Mitch and my dad were there playing golf together...something they were never able to do in this life because of my dad's health.

But I also think that all that came before their deaths matters, and usually matters more. It matters that Mitch and I once ditched the then-boyfriend (a snowboarder) in Snowbird, Utah, and spent the day skiing together in Alta. It matters that he fulfilled a childhood dream and taught me to shoot skeet – and that I told him so.

My last text message conversation with my father was about whether a dark, ironic sense of humor and tendency to sarcasm was more prevalent in the northeast and whether this should influence my job search. He was watching the movie Holes, three days before he died. Our last phone conversation, two days before he died, was hopelessly mundane – my alarm system went off accidentally and the company called him as one of my emergency contacts. I can’t remember it clearly, but I know we never hung up without saying “love you”, so I’m sure we did.

But best of all, the morning before, my son and I chatted with him FaceTime. Finn kept calling “Gah-pah” - not to be confused with "gaga", his version of "doggy" - whenever he stepped away from the screen and smiling a mile wide whenever his grandpa stepped back into the frame. I was happy. He looked happy. Later, we went to the park and I texted my family with photos of Finn in front of a pair of snowpeople and their snowdog.

Twenty-six years ago this spring, my dad stepped into our backyard with our dog, Tocco, and when he stepped back inside, his speech made no sense. I ran to get my mother (and my copy of Emily of New Moon, where it explained how consumption was acquired from night air - I had an early aptitude for differential diagnosis, obviously). By the morning, he had developed florid septic shock. He survived, and I recently a found a yellowed copy of the college newspaper with a graphic headline and a quote from my dad: “It’s hard to get rid of me.”

Apparently, he felt the need to reinforce the point, because three years later and two days after my eleventh birthday party, he had a massive heart attack, from the type of blockage, he told me later, that cardiologists called the “Widowmaker.” Early heart attacks were not uncommon in survivors of Hodgkin disease who were treated with mantle irradiation in the 1970s and 1980s. 

From that point on, I had a sense – and surely he did too – that we were lucky and that time was precious and not something one was guaranteed. There was a time when I prayed to God for more time - five more years, and then another five. And then when I was starting my third year of medical school, he was diagnosed with heart failure - also not uncommon in childhood cancer survivors - and I lowered my prayer bar - three years, then two years, then one more year. Finally - after the events that my dad has described eloquently in his posts, Amen and Resurrection, 18 Days Later, Poetically Twilightand The Keepers and I - I stopped asking for more time and started being grateful for the day that we had.

My dad wrote much the same sentiment in Amen and Resurrection.

I did not think I would lose my dad on that day, or even this spring. But there has never been a day in the last five years when I didn't wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night completely aware that life is fragile and that any day could be anyone's last. I never hesitate to tell people I love them.

I didn't get to say good-bye. But now I think I got to say and do things that mattered much more.
Family make-your-own pizza night
January 2014

I cried with my father at the American Cemetery in Normandy. I took him to my medical school's service of gratitude, in honor of the people who donated their bodies for anatomic dissection. He flew to Atlanta to take care me after a relationship had ended, laughing at his own old heartbreaks but never once making a 22 year old girl feel like her broken heart was a trivial thing. We went to see the Kirov Ballet perform Giselle together in St. Petersburg and had vodka, smoked salmon and caviar afterwards (the latter two were just for me, of course). I spent the night lying on the marble bathroom floor (worshiping the porcelain god, he would have said), and he never said a word about it.

My father held my son, and every night for over a month this winter, my son hugged his grandfather good-night.

I told him that this day was one of the best five days of my life.

A cemetery in Scotland with huge gravestones to accommodate long family histories...
June 2005