Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.
“Her Long Illness,” by Donald Hall
This is the first poem in Donald Hall’s book of poetry entitled, Without, in which he chronicles the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, as well as his first year without her.
It is a beautiful, gutting collection of poems. Most of them are written in the kind of straightforward, just the facts style of the poem above. Many began as notes in his journal as he chronicled the mundane details of their life in cancer treatment, even including the jargon one is forced to become so adept with. The obscure names of chemotherapy drugs. Descriptions of procedures that outside of the context of trying to save one’s life sound hellish and gruesome, but when you’re at the bedside, or in it, are a lifeline. A hope.
There’s very little “poeticizing” in these poems. There is poetry enough, we find, in the moments or seasons of our lives when we are able–or, more often the case, forced–to see life and relationships with which we fill it for the miracle and mystery that they are.
And perhaps even more than our joy, it is our pain that has the power to bring this clarifying vision.
Over these weeks in September we will take an extended look at the Bible’s great exploration of suffering and pain, the Book of Job. Over 42 chapters we sit with Job at his darkest moment and listen to how he responds to unspeakable pain and loss.
Job is not a book that the Christian tradition, certainly in modern times, has known just what to do with. Both the questions it asks and perhaps even more the answers it refuses to give are difficult to square with popular notions of Christian piety. Job exposes the cruel lie of “everything happens for a reason,” and has no patience for “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
And Job certainly doesn’t subscribe to the notion that God doesn’t have either the time or the strength to receive our anger, despair, grief, and doubt. Or that prayer should always end in praise. Instead we’re given chapter upon chapter of Job’s unvarnished rage, confusion, and lament.
Yet in the end, if there is comfort to be found in this incredible work of ancient literature, it is that Job finally gets what he asks for, which is God’s full attention, and a response to his concerns, even if it is not what he had in mind. Most of all, he is able to find strength, courage, and imagination enough to continue to live.
After a year and a half in which we have become so acquainted to the point of saturation with the scale and depth of suffering in our world, I hope these weeks will reveal the power of scripture to speak to even our deepest pain. I hope it will open up space for us to speak of our pain in new ways. Most of all, I hope it will leave us ready to hear the voice of God that finds us in the midst of it, moving us to a place where we can begin to live again.