My eyes were beginning to blur while looking at a quarterly magazine in the waiting room. I was going to find out the results of all those tests I had been having since late August. Even before the surgery by Dr. Gray in September of this year, I knew already in my heart and head. It had come back. Or, never really left. But I had not had much trouble for almost 7 years.
So, when the post-surgery lab reports came back from Stanford recently, Dr. Yee, my primary care physician personally called me 6:40 PM on a Friday to say he was referring me to an oncologist 30 miles away. He said the oncologist's office would call me on Monday morning to set up an appointment. Dr. Yee soberly said, "You have to go."
So, here I was in the waiting room for the third time, tests all done, waiting to hear just where I stood. Each of my visits here had impressed on me that I was no longer in the minor leagues of ailments. There were some really sick people in this room. Many were wearing hats or wigs to hide hairless heads. Some were in wheelchairs, and no one seemed very energetic. Even the family members accompanying these cancer patients seemed tired—weighted down from the burden this disease places upon everyone close to it.
As tired as I was, I felt as if I didn't belong here. If this were a scene from a bad martial arts movie with a plot more warped than usual; I could single-handedly take on all 20 to 30 people in the room at once. Not like the carefully choreographed scenes where only one attacker approaches the good guy at a time. Heck, I was Hercules compared to anyone here.
When she walked in the front door to the waiting room at the oncology clinic, my first impression was of a very sick middle aged woman. Quite attractive in her day, I thought. Wispy, thinning blondish-gray colored hair, barely covering the sides of her head. On top was a knitted cap, haphazardly placed as if she had been involved in a snowball fight at a family trip to the hills. The big coat, sweat pants and fuzzy booties added to the look of someone trying to keep warm in inclement weather. It was a sunny, warm, autumn day. Short sleeve shirts and sunglasses were more the norm but seemed completely lost to her. Darkness under her eyes and her fragile almost translucent facial skin reminded me of looking at a marble statue. She had a clear plastic tube near her nose hooked around her ears. She was pulling a green oxygen bottle behind her on wheels. There seemed to be a defiant courage in her struggle to pull the small tank over to a seat. She was going to do everything for herself as long as she could. She was followed by another woman in her late fifties and a handsome, slightly overweight but robust man in his mid-thirties wearing jeans and a golf shirt.
This trio's entrance caused me to lose interest in the magazine. The interaction between them as they sat kept my attention. The man was very kind and attentive. The 50ish woman got a paper cup of water for the ill woman who appeared to have an almost unquenchable thirst. Then, it hit me. The woman on oxygen wasn't middle-aged at all. More like, early- to mid-thirties. The man was her husband. The 50ish woman, was most likely there to help her own daughter who was, in my opinion, not long for this world. She still was beautiful, but the cancer was taking its toll.
I couldn't help it, but as I sat watching this loving couple chat, my eyes watered up. A lump grew in my throat. I was looking at a married couple on a journey where they soon would part and go separate ways. One would journey into the unknown; the other would be left behind pondering life and its meaning. Perhaps soon, he would have to explain to little curly haired, big eyed children that Mommy still loves them even though she's no longer there. My observation of the scene was one of those moments when you ask why and consider the eternities.
My name was called and I got up and went through the door—following the nurse who three weeks earlier during a painful procedure called a bone marrow biopsy. That day, she was looking for something in all the cabinets of the room I was in. She said, "This may be your lucky day. I can't find the needles." The doctor told me it would be an unpleasant experience. For 3 weeks I considered showing up all 'liquored up' but what good would that do? The nurse said, "Oh, here they are." She plunked down a big plastic package on the tray. I stared at the hardware she had just exposed. I asked her, "When do they stop calling them needles and start calling them pipe?" I had daintier looking tools in my carpenter's tool box. He was right about it being unpleasant.
Dr. Medhi came in. He sat down and said it was confirmed that I had lymphoma. Fortunately, a low grade or slow growing type. Most likely could be kept under control with radiation and occasional surgery. He said if I had to get cancer, this was the type to have. We both smiled. I knew that many prayers were answered.
I left the clinic that day greatly relieved that although my future health concerns may not always be pleasant, most likely my condition will not shift gears into something faster. I drove back to Modesto and pulled into a KFC for a big Pepsi and a bucket of chicken to celebrate. I didn't have someone to immediately share my good news with in person but I also didn't have to face what that young couple was staring in the face either. I just hope they were able to smile with Dr. Medhi that day too. I sense that somehow their courage made them smile.
Book Review of Lighting the Shadow
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Four Way Books
Review by Katie Strubel
Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths is an emotional, honest, and intimate look into the aftermath of loss, grief, and the ways they can completely envelop our lives in one form or another. Griffiths wears her wounds with unwavering acceptance, and in this collection, those wounds take the shape of little moments loss leaves behind. In fact, the aftermath of loss and steps towards healing appear multiple times in this collection, first introduced in the opening poem, "The Dead Will Lead You:"
Mercy is the pulse of lupin
in a yellow field. My mother's
eyes are forgotten vases of irises.
Lighting the shadow, a woman
crawls out beneath her own war.
Moments like this underscore a key source of vulnerability in the collection's work. The poems are interested in showcasing the balance between the internal and external battle loss and grief have on the mind, how the concept of healing is not a one-way street of permanence, not congruent with the continuous waves of unexpected mourning. In "Elegy," the speaker seems to grieve the person she used to be when noticing the difference of how she used to view the world compared to now. Using the visuals of changing landscapes, she attempts to memorialize the ways these places accepted and contributed to her growth. The poem turns introspective, reflecting on what ways she abandoned parts of herself that were once so cared for:
My secrets have chapped lips. Once I gave them honey,
blood, & language. I never inquired of their subtle pain.
Why should I want their torment? Why do I believe in fools?
Griffiths' poetry acknowledges the unavoidable pain of life. The poems in Lighting the Shadow move through the shadows of loss, giving off their own light. Without sacrificing a poignant eye for imagery and emotion, they commemorate the grittiness of hurt and its contribution to human emotion and evolution. Griffiths writes, "brightness in the dark // please believe something," and reminds us to breathe through the mess of life.
Book Review of Wade in the Water
Tracy K. Smith
Reviewed by: Spencer Soule
Turning the final page of Wade in the Water (Greywolf Press, 2018), the latest book by two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith, it is easy to see how she earned such honors. Smith's previous collections of poetry, The Body's Question, and Duende received high praise for their poignant and technically impressive discussions of race and identity in America, and her collection Life on Mars earned the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2011. It speaks to Smith's incredible versatility that she should follow Life on Mars — a collection of poems examining humanity through the lens of futurism — with Wade in the Water, an empathetic and often heartbreaking examination of America's racially divided past. Indeed, time plays a significant role in Wade in the Water as Smith explores the lives of African American's and the injustices incurred against them by an apathetic and reluctant white government during the civil war and reconstruction periods. Using letters and statements of African American's living through this most turbulent chapter of American history, Smith crafts erasure poems that speak as ghosts out of the past: "for instant look & see/that we never was freed yet/Run Right out of Slavery/In to Soldiery & we/hadent nothing atall..." Smith's meticulously crafted erasures give life to voices too long left unheard by the passage of time and by our own misguided desire to forget.
In "Declaration," an erasure poem assembled from selections of the Declaration of Independence, Smith awakens readers with a sharp list of grievances and appeals for redress: "We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. —taken Captive on the high Seas to bear—" These examinations of America's past only grow in urgency as Smith transitions to poems based around America's current woes, coupled with her sense of belonging as a modern African American woman. In "The United States Welcomes You," Smith adopts an interrogative persona that seems to embody everything wrong with America's current approach to immigration: "Why and by whose power were you sent? / What do you see that you may wish to steal?" But Smith is not pessimistic. Amid such grand themes, Wade in the Water offers plenty of simple, beautiful images connecting American life to the universal human experience. Later in the collection, Smith provides a potential cure to isolationist nationalism with elegant imagery: "Until I can understand why you / Fled ... let me imagine / you are my mother in Montgomery / Alabama, walking to campus —"
Wade in the Water is Tracy K. Smith's invitation for us to plumb the depths of our American consciousness, the ugly and beautiful, to see if we can't find those universal qualities that tie humanity together.