The forsythia has grown so tall and thick with age that it almost obscures the roofline of the gazebo tucked behind it. The key word, of course, is “almost,” since you can still see the wooden shingles from the driveway. Despite the obscuring foliage, you know the gazebo is still in there. And that’s the way it is with my friend who’s still “in there,” although she’s deep into her own self with an illness that is relentless in taking her further and further into a silent and separate world.
In trying to make sense of it all, I continue reading more of the Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. These poems more often than not hammer us with the thoughts of senseless loss and death. In his poem On the Slain Collegians, Melville speaks of “each grape to his cluster hung,” a familial thought that has the ring of ripeness, succulence and tenderness along with fragility. As my fragile friend’s world continues to shrink, she also is like a grape hanging on to her cluster of family and friends.
In another poem, Melville writes about the wasteland that comes from war and the dashed ideals of the young who had no idea what they once so enthusiastically embraced. As he writes in The College Colonel,
Not as they filed two years before,
But a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn,
Like castaway sailors, who—stunned
By the surf’s loud roar,
Their mates dragged back and seen no more—
Again and again breast the surge,
And at last crawl, spent, to shore.
As I have discovered, words in such circumstances can betray us and rob us of any sense of peace. At worst, they can become our own nightmare. When language loses its balm and we are reduced to the howl of why, we seem to punish ourselves at the very moment we are most in need of soothing words. Without the language to soften our pain and grief, there can be a form of violence done to the spirit when the words cannot come or do justice to our thoughts.
In this sense I had no words when she stared so intensely at me at times during my visit. It was as though she wanted to tell me something special, but she could no longer find the words or make her lips talk. But she was still granted the tender mercy of being able to smile and take delight in the “kiss therapy” that her life mate constantly floods her with.
As Emily writes in The Soul has Bandaged moments,
Caress her freezing hair-
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover – hovered – o’er-
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme – so – fair-
… Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night …
The loss that Whitman seems to want to register here is of a life and of a spirit rather than the maiming, the discomposition into separate parts. This discomposition or discordance of no longer being the woman I remembered from childhood focuses the hatred I feel toward this disease. Without my own proper words, I rely on the poems as my way of saying goodbye, since the disease has robbed us all of the reciprocity of words.
In Whitman’s phrase,
… One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget …
And in the words of the ancient Hebrew prayer,
“May her soul be forever
bound up in the eternal bonds of life.”