POEM WITH TWO ENDINGS
Say "death" and the whole room freezes -
even the couches stop moving,
even the lamps.
Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.
Say the word continuously,
and things begin to go forward.
Your life takes on
the jerky texture of an old film strip.
Continue saying it,
hold it moment after moment inside the mouth,
it becomes another syllable.
A shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.
Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.
Neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,
each swallows and swallows the world.
The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.
(but the vanished, the vanished beloved, o where?)
- Jane Hirshfield, from "Given Sugar, Given Salt," 2001
A dear friend, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, recently spoke to me of her journey supporting her religious mentor through imminent death. A remarkable, much loved priest: a woman at the end of long illness, a long fight. My friend spoke of her mentor's graceful and accepting release, teaching and offering wisdom without regret or rancor. Her core grief, her unspoken question, echoes the final line of Hirshfield's beautiful poem. We love. Life is not a content-free experience but a weave of meanings and symbols, memories and attachments. After death, what fills empty hands that once held another's? Where does the love go?
Today I heard the news that Elizabeth Edwards has unwillingly, but with grace, surrendered her fight against her cancer: grace, her hallmark in life and it seems, death. Hirshfield's poem focuses on the truth, life exists in balance with death, and hints at the durability of love. That we love beyond the grave. The heart supersedes the temporal moment, the past; yearning into the future. The beloved dies. The bond is broken and the poet asks, "o where?" Oh where goes love when the body ceases?
In my own journey of loss - my father in my youth and then as an adult my husband and my mother within weeks of one another - I acknowledge simultaneous losses entwine with mine. My children. Their loss borne in the depth of mine. We seek the path between then and now, toward an unformed future. The way toward balanced, confident hearts. To love, still. To live forward. To accept the barb within the tender hold.
The word "faith" is one I think on. Not theological faith, but the verb: an act of faith, belief in what lacks substantiation. What it means to the self. What it means applied to life, the work of life; and death, the work of death. Faith flexes, it shimmies with strain, eases into acceptance. Faith addresses the poignant agony in the "o" of "o where?"