“When the Dying Has Begun”: Death, Grief, and Poetry, by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and John Willison

Death is at the table with us when we write together at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing, where I’ve been facilitating workshops for people with serious illness since 2003. The workshop participants have been through a dizzying amount of surgeries or strokes or heart attacks or chemotherapy treatments. They don’t flinch at terms like “palliative care” or “quality of life,” yet everything sees through those terms that distance people from the real deal of dying. We joke too, wildly and often, about everything from the constant refrains of “You look great!” everyone tends to hear, and how people want to respond with, “Yeah, great for death warmed over” or “You treat me like I have the funeral home on speed dial.”

We also write, and in the case of John Willison, write with great passion and connection, creating a legacy not just for family and friends, but a window into dying and death for any of us, which means all of us. John shows us how accepting that mortality is part and parcel of living fully, dying is hard and heartbreaking work, and grief opens into a panorama of pain, joy, beauty, fear, insight, blindness, confusion, clarity and tenderness.

John began taking the writing workshops, usually held on Sunday afternoons from 1-5 p.m. every month or two when his parotid cancer was happily in remission in 2012. He wrote of feeling like a kid in a candy shop, a man who dodged a bullet. He also wrote passionate love poems that gave all the women in the class hot flashes as well as clear-eyed explorations of death that made us all nod. His cancer returned several years ago, “a slow freight train,” as he described it that would keep rolling, first in his spine, then to the rest of his body.

In the last week of John’s life, after the cancer has spread through John’s spine, bones, and brain, he corresponded with me about death and poetry for both this Chrysalis submission and for his first and last book of poems, I Have My Home in Two Worlds. He focused on his final revisions for his poems and his last words on the importance of writing while dying despite the pain and exhaustion, the recent radiation treatment to target the uncountable constellations of cancer spots in his brain, and the lack of time left, and because of his deep love for his wife and family, friends and community. Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School and author of Die Wise, talks about how we need to wrestle with the angel of death to find meaning rather than fight the executioner of death to deny its power. John does this through how he lives and writes as well as why he writes. Four days before he died, John wrote,

Billy Collins said, when he was at Unity (Unity on the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri), that if you are going to major in poetry that you would need to major in death. Words, wherever they come from, are a great mystery, and can bring a relief and awareness and recognition that weren’t there before, even to those saying them. We have to teach the dying about the process of dying as much as the living care how to care about the living!

In his poems, he acknowledges the strange concept of his remaining time and how to best use it, explaining, “If there is an additional theme I think about it is when Carlos Castaneda is told: ‘You think you have time, but you don’t!’” Coming to class regularly, even in late March of 2016 when he was in the middle of almost-debilitating radiation, he wrote through his pain, in full view of whatever life was left. After the class and for this article, he wrote me:

When I had my surgery about 8 years ago, I thought I would always stay in the here and now. I didn’t. I would slip into old habits and patterns and be as I always was, at times, and not who I wanted or could be. Life without pain easily led to denial or delusion. This calling has been different. Life is palpably been counting down. It is a consistently softer world now: the consistent beauties and sharpness of my wife, family, friends, nature are here, but so is the elbow of a woman standing in Walmart, the seeming chaos of urban traffic. And the pain, terror, dread and sorrow of tomorrow and tomorrow all mixed and needing invited in with tenderness and love.

I think of dying and grief, one a physical, emotional and total ending experience, and the other the mourning of what’s vanishing, drastically changing, and leaving a massive hole in our lives, as overlapping and mysterious. I also see grief and dying as more a place than experiences, skills, or feelings: a landscape of vast forests and tundra, sudden tropics and beach-side cottages, then massive parking lots where I can’t remember where I parked my car or how to get home. Colors are more vibrant, peaches never tasted better, nights never were longer, and pain never more acute. John’s poetry isn’t a map because the very nature of dying and grief defies maps, directions, and timelines. Yet poetry, especially John’s, can be a lantern to hold up while walking the changeable path. Long may this light shine!

Here are some of his poems and comments on each poem:

When It Is My Turn Now

When I feel the air stirring,
the brush of wind signaling
that the sweet angel of death
is winging her way to where I lay,
will I be courageous?
Will I whoop and shout
or will I cower?

Will I be able to say to my Beloved
what matters and what can fall away?
Will it be a song and not a lament?
Will I be able to mine the gold from the depths
bring the precious cargo (my heart, my love)
into the light of day as an embrace?

Or will my voice be stilled?
and if so, will my silence be enough?

John’s comments: One of my early poems and doubts. Saying the words is more powerful than the words to wife, family, friends. Think I can know.

Talking to My Wife on a Late Winter’s Evening

I heard myself say,
as I was sitting zazen,
I will miss this.

How you can hear the hum of life,
the rush of blood
when all else is still.

I sit across from a young woman who,
while gazing into my eyes,
recites the Five Remembrances

She is shining.
There is a brook flowing inside of her,
cascading with life,
a river underneath
and another, deeper still,
whose waters fill my eyes
pool, catch at the rim, spill
because she is so perfect, so complete,
because this cannot stay.

One day, like every other day,
she will leave the house under an abundant sky,
intent on serving the world,
and will not come home this night.

As I recite the Five Remembrances, I watch her eyes.
She cannot hold back, is overcome.
She knows that I am ill, that I have not escaped.

We break through the thin shell of life,
falling into an intimacy of strangers,
not dependent on familiarity or remembrances.
I will miss this.

John’s comments: This is one of my first attempts to write about peace and loss, following a retreat to Joan Halifax’s Zen Center in New Mexico. It was, and is a revelation still. That we will lose all we love, sooner or later….everything, everything.

Reasons to Love Grief

Because it looks like it is, bent over and weeping,
0r like something other: a dark stranger with a fedora
pulled down over a shadowed face.

Either way, recognized or not,
nobody calls its name.

It isn’t invited into the parlor for tea,
for it makes the guests fidget and stutter,
their cups rattling in the saucers.

So grief sits on the stoop, tiny and trembling,
or with sweat beading at the brim, glaring,
and polishing its gun.

You should love grief, because, chastened so,
when it goes out, if it goes out at all,
into the assault of the world,
it’s under cloak and veil, too ashamed,
too raw to reveal itself, all rag and bone.

Love grief, because there are moments when
it decides to go some distance away –
to a lonely cabin by the lake, which it considers
jumping into because it’s always wondered
what it would be like to drown.

You should love grief because it isn’t itself anymore.
It goes out to bars, drinks all night, hurls insults,
gets into fights and comes home, all cut and bruise.

Love grief because when it looks in the mirror,
it does not see itself reflected back.
It has been hollowed and emptied out
and simply wants to drop down
into the stone cold ground.

You should love grief because it is a lost girl,
abandoned by those who should have loved her.

Even her friends just chit and chat,
talking about their next meal,
getting their fill of the world
while sitting next to them,
there is someone starving.

It is all that, but it is also this:
the tenderest thing just a tear away
from breaking wholly open,
letting the deepest love it has ever experienced
come spilling out.

And love your grief because
if not you, who then.

John’s comments: In a death-aversive culture, grief takes a big hit. You just can’t go there. More readily now, but not easily. There are so many vagaries to grief. Takes so many shapes and forms. I wanted to show those using words that make sense. Well, wherever they came from. This was started at Turning Point then edited at a shoe store. 

Tikkun Olam

When all was darkness and the light was to be carried
into the deepest night, the containers of this sacred cargo,
unable to withstand its presence, shattered.

Shards of light penetrating everything and everybody becomes hidden.
In the beginning, there was the wound and the light.

Tikkun Olam: it is up to us to gather these shards.
This is how we heal the world and repair each other
For my latest bone scan I was injected with Technetium-99,
a radioactive isotope sent out to find every tumor
which has taken up residence in the shadowy interior:
Left Femur
Right Sacrum

This geography of bone marks the coordinates of my cancer,
my own shards of light in their increasingly fragile vessels.
We will all end up as pocket change and broken bones
soon enough,never again to be assembled in just this form.

This is to be mourned in the day among friends and strangers;
In the night, sitting alone in the pounding silence.

But this brief life we have still!
Like breath forming on a window looking out
onto a limitless sea, a momentary shower falling
from an empty, cloudless sky – This is to be sung!
Stay awake, friends.

One day, beyond the nearing threshold out into the Far Lands,
you will glimpse all at once the Once Upon a Time,
the Fervid Present, the Whatever Will Be – all the same thing.
Try to take in the immensity of this.

Gather me up, and I’ll gather you to dance
under the narrowing sky into the silence

John’s comments: I have always loved and believed this story…..the fact that energy is neither created nor destroyed. That life is immutable. That science is real. That spirituality is real.  

Things I Don’t Know

How I was born into a brightening day,
wearing nothing but light and air.

How I learned to turn and fly, watching the ball thrown
by my father at field’s end trace the curve of the rounding earth
to fall gently into my glove, knowing
that he would never put his love beyond my reach.

How I was graced, after five decades, to meet my wife:
The words a revelation still ringing through the days
and nights. My wife, whose heart is thrumming
beneath my chest even as I write these words,
and live in the spaces between.

I don’t know how it came to be that my doctor proclaimed
I had cancer and dropped us into twenty feet of darkness.
Or how we were ever able to climb out, discovering,
to our amazement, that these broken vessels
hold such fragrant honey,

That this world is a baptismal font and not a drowning pool.

That if you are still, very still,
a stampede of wild horses will come
and bear you into being, back into this world.

Or how, when you come home against a darkening sky
life will wiggle up to you, turn its belly up
for your stroke, for your pleasure.
I did not know how much I have always been home.

John’s comments: Everything that ever happened, “good or bad” (sometimes months or years later) in my life has been a mystery!! May it always be. 

The Dying Has Begun

The strafing has begun.
The radiation has lit the lesions of my brain
on this already star-strangled night.
My own constellation of Cancer.

The beams will not discriminate.
They will help me live longer,
but there will be considerable collateral damage.

I know my body may flay and bleed.
Soon, I will have neither tooth nor claw.

I am the uncertain child searching for the certain hand.

However, the savagery of the heart,
the fierceness of the soul
knows that something wondrous is happening soon.

Spring clefts the sky and is sung
with reds, yellows, pinks –
a riot of colors

As the lights blink out, one-by-one, in this life
they burst open as they flow through
the portals of death.

Take in all that you feel:
the terror, the dread, the heartache
and sorrow, and this,
this ongoing mystery.

John’s comments: If you’re going to write poetry, you have to major in death anyway, and be really good at it.

Caryn’s comments: This is one of the last poems John wrote on March 6, 2016 at Turning Point.

All poems reprinted with permission from author and publisher from John’s book I Have My Home in Two Worlds, available at http://lulu.com

Turning Point provides services, classes and support for people with serious illness and their caregivers. See more at http://turningpointkc.org.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate is the author of 19 books, including The Divorce Girl, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet, a bioregional memoir on cancer and community; and five poetry collections, including the award-winning Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image with weather chaser/photographer Stephen Locke. Founder of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely, particularly for people living with serious illness and their caregivers. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-leads writing and singing retreats. www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com

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