Is there any reason on your birthday
to believe that you have not been reclaimed
from the worm of sickness that struck you down?
In August tomato worms abounded
but the physic of the gardener’s attention
plucked them and ended their tomato
dominion. Did the physic of death
end your suffering just so? Now, like tomato
plants of September, do you bear new fruit
as a sign of time well spent in struggle
to be free of the worm at last?
Damien De Veuster, the leper priest
exiled himself on Molokai, the most
remote of Hawaiian Islands––
designated as quarantine––
to contain the contagion of leprosy,
its victims’ corpses left on the ground
to be consumed by dogs and pigs. Father
Damien reclaimed the land for burial,
to restore the dignity of those dead.
He and the colony built a church
to center community to replace hope-
lessness with joy in a sense of belonging.
He himself succumbed to the disease
and a century later was named a saint.
On his saint’s day, I bring him
the marginalized from mine and others’
families––the drunks, the junkies, the voiceless
ones, who carry a white and tattered banner
to announce they are coming, like Damien’s
congregants, their dignity restored
by recognition of their humanity,
by one man’s sacrifice of his life
that they might know the value of their own.
The winter I had pneumonia
the body-I was teetering. Hanging
between heaven and hell,
I couldn’t move a pinkie finger.
Call Kathleen, I told my husband.
She knew the room between life
and death, and if anyone could
stay the dark angel, it was she.
Through sweat-soaked flannel
of nightgowns, pajamas, day after
day, night after night, weeks
of wild coughing, crazy to catch
some breath between spasms––
water and juice, juice and water
food out of the question, ’til
my husband baked a chocolate
cream pie, and the healing began.
Six months gone, I consigned pneu-=
monia to the rumble seat, and good
health itself took over the steering wheel.
After all these years her reduction to ashes
sits unmolested on the fireplace mantle,
her mother afraid to let her go underground.
Her father had found her frozen in death
his and her mother’s love not enough
to save her from the cold and loneliness
of depression, that folded her in on herself.
If only she’d called, they’d have heard and come
running with hope for a new beginning.
A cardinal rule of spelling is i before e
except after c. Historically a follower
of rules, with spelling no exception,
I had always misspelled sieze.
It looked right but it wasn’t until
my daughter’s epilepsy broke the spell
of that rule as it applied to seize or seizure––
that it would never ever qualify
as inadvertent oversight again.
There is more of grave than of gravy, I said,
turning Dickens’ line on its head,
a reference to my father three score dead
when I dreamed him alive last night,
alive but with skin peeling, as if from
a wasting disease, but beneath that disease
deep joy, what with being alive
again, even within the bounds of dream
a smile in the eye and face proclaimed
his presence so long ago known, cut
off suddenly by death in the night
in his own bed that failed to support his life.
No whining, no crying, I quick admonish.
That was then; this is now, and he lives.
Toward what end this lively visit, this gift
given without the asking? All of that remains
to be seen. Meanwhile, I write it down.
Unlike the mattress of years past, this paper
supports his life re-given, and I can read it
out loud, as I will: His name––Edmond Thomas.
A friend diagnosed with cancer
describes the reality of how it feels
to be beaten up over and over again
with pain, nausea from treatment
to treatment, then body-slammed
onto the floor, with cancer calling
out the challenge: Now show me
what you’ve got. It is in that moment,
she says, the gauntlet thrown down
and the body a mess of disease
that the choice is made to stagger
up to a standing position, and with
tears, tears of anger for the fact
of the need of this point of decision
and by that act of standing up
new life begins to build. First floor,
second floor, up to the third, where
treatment ends and hair grows back
not straight this time, but curly
and at a great rate.