For J.D. (Anna) in memoriam
How many people a day say,
Pass over me for this one, God—
this sad thing, this scary thing,
this bad thing, this door—
is marked—with blood—
How many people a day say,
Come by here, God, and take the one
steadfast thing left of me—give me instead,
the sea—that will surely betray me—
such calm and turquoise water
when down below millions of vibrant fish
rush toward decay—
sergeant-major fish dress up
in yellow and black dinner jackets
and feast at a table of green algae
that’s half-holding tight to anchor weights,
half-feathery and longing to float off.
In festive clothes, just as Anna had wanted,
hundreds of us show up at the funeral home
to celebrate her life. We swim toward the survived-by
like colorful hungry fish surrounding the sunken
treasure chest. We swim in and out of the holes
Anna left. Even the out-of-towners have come
with all the right garments and hymnals,
Anna having planned far in advance—
chants for the children to sing, photo displays
in the entryway: Anna showing off thirty hot pink
cup cakes baked in the brand new Viking stove
in the newly designed kitchen, finished
only a few months before she passed,
worth every penny, she had said,
Anna and the girls sun burnt
under a bright red beach umbrella,
Anna laughing her left-sided
brain tumor laugh while the kids
make giant vowel-shapes
with their wide-open mouths.
Six months before her wake Anna dreamed
an obstacle in the road stopped her passage
and when she stepped out of the car
to tamp down the high mound of dirt
across the only road home,
she couldn’t do it,
so she borrowed her husband’s arms
but they were also too weak.
And when she woke she told him
he was the obstacle: I am on a path
and I know where I need to go.
You are in my way, keeping me
from walking on this path.
And her husband remembered the words
Jesus spoke to Peter, You are an obstacle to me;
you do not have in mind the things of God,
but the things of men.
Anna sent her husband into the hall
to make the girls stop arguing
over the hair dryer or whatever
they were fighting about, she made him
go out three times until he succeeded
and she was sure he could succeed again
and again without her for all the years to come.
That night she dreamed her suitcase
was packed and ready and when she woke
she called the priest to tell him.
He answered, it is good to be ready
but still you have to wait
for God to be ready for you.—
The next night Anna saw the Passion.
she whispered to her husband,
Thank you for letting me go home
without you. A gift to the dying—
to refrain from speaking
of ocean air or green glass
shards at the water’s edge,
of what was or could have been.
We will all forsake someone—
let it not be ourselves—
We will all forsake someone—
may it be someone we have loved well and long.
Anna forsook her beloved for the ocean-
ic embrace of Christ weeks before
my beloved forsook me for The Ein Sof,
the Vastness he spoke of only with his eyes.
Had it not been for Anna
I would not have known
how to embrace
such fullness, emptiness, such silence.
The hour before Anna’s funeral I called
the priest to ask if I could come to the church
service, as I did not take
Christ as my savior.
As I had failed
to say goodbye to Anna.
As I had said, but you’re still alive,
so let us speak the things of living—
Pass over me for this one, God,
I kept wanting Anna to recite,
though she had already begun
swimming with all her might
toward the eternal womb.
As I hadn’t seen Anna
was my teacher more than I was hers.
As I didn’t know love could
neither be created nor destroyed.
As saying goodbye to her eyes
and half smile
is something I long to have done.
I keep dreaming I will transform
into someone without suffering,
without having to leave
When the living leave
the beach at dusk
white seagulls swoop and sup
in formal black or grey suits,
and hundreds of translucent blue fish
leap and dive back in unison,
in wide arcs. Every day,
I see something that saves my life.
On Yom Kippur God decides
who shall live and who shall die.
Who by fire and who by flood.
Who by shaking,
who by remaining unmoved.
Who in an old brown coat,
who while kneeling and kissing
the hem of the past goodbye.
If I don my bright blue dress
and toss into the sea all the black
shoes of the dead, unworried
whose waters they will haunt—
what flying fish—
what coat of many colors
will I wear?
Poet’s Notes: “The stroke caused me to lose faith, and it was a cold, cold ...and I suddenly realized it was fierce grace that turned my life around.” Ram Dass
About ten years ago, my spiritual teacher gave each student a hand-caligraphied personal blessing, a blessing upon which we were to meditate. When my late husband and I sneaked a peek at each other’s personal blessings, each one read, Life is short. In fact, we learned that everyone’s personal blessing read the same. Each person read the blessing through their own lens—lenses of fear, lenses of insight, lenses of confusion, lenses of anger, lenses of understanding, to name a few.
Life is short. When Anna learned of her terminal diagnosis of a brain tumor, she was thirty-eight years old. She had four children under the age of nine. She was a physician, bright and empathic and spiritually oriented. I was her ally, meant to help her cope with her terminal illness, yet she made me understand that facing death had little to do with coping skills or emotional intelligence and everything to do with faith and something more than faith. Then I remembered the phrase, fierce grace, a term of “nested opposites” coined by spiritual teacher Ram Dass who suffered a stroke and a crisis of faith that only fierce grace could heal, a sort of alchemical transformation through suffering, and of suffering.
The poem is partly a meditation on our universal aversion to suffering and our inevitable common fate of suffering through loss, impermanence, and death. The poem is also about what I learned from Anna about “how to be” with my husband, how to help him die in a peaceful state a year later.
Editor’s Note: This is a beautiful and moving series of poems. I particularly enjoy the blending of the Jewish and Christian religions, being a hybrid myself (my father was Jewish, my mother is Christian). The narrative of each part is riveting, evoking emotions from the sublime to the ridiculous, just as the death of a loved one evokes mixed feelings. The common thread of the sea/water creates a nice poetic conceit that helps unify the separate elements--I particularly like the "Viking" stove, another metaphor for water and water travel. A bio of the poet and comments by Guest Contest Judge Former Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry may be found here http://www.songsoferetz.com/2018/02/announcing-winner-of-2018-songs-of.html.