In his second essay for Cancer Wellness about his mother's last days, Robert G. Margolis writes, "No one, I felt, is ever done doing what they want to do in their life, even after their life is done."

Herbert, Zbigniew. Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems. Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Ecco Press, 1999.

Sunlight struck the surfaces of buildings. It was July. The heat felt like time had an arrhythmia; the day grew without a regular pulse. My mother appeared to be walking behind herself, not able to match her steps or pace from the week before. I walked beside her. She looked intently at the familiar details of her neighborhood block, as if what was there differed slightly. Or maybe each day actively dying made the familiar strange and unexpected. The neighborhood was curiously and inexplicably alive, but soon to be gone, like her. She wore her beach hat—a faded pink baseball cap with the faint smell of sea salt. It was the place she’d rather be if she could. She listened for the faraway ocean, her great comfort. She was not strong enough to travel there anymore. Her immediate sense of place extended to the edge of the ocean, resounding in her memory miles away. She drew the ocean to herself as if she were the moon. I listened too, but to something else: her clenched, obdurate silence.

“Your silence is severe today, Mom,” I told her.

“I am in a rage,” she said.

“I let this last word amplify.

“It is unspeakable,” she said.

“What is, Mom?” I asked.

“All of it,” she replied.

“All of what?”

“Nothing I say about it would be right.”

“Not any of it?”

“No,” she said succinctly. “But I do not want to die with this anger. What can I do? Can you help me?”

Maybe each day actively dying made the familiar strange and unexpected.

A few days before, she stridently declared that she had done everything she needed to do in her life and was ready to die. Her metastatic colon cancer was readying her to die, too. I nodded, but only to indicate I had heard. No one, I felt, is ever done doing what they want to do in their life, even after their life is done. In her declaration, I heard instead the same obdurate silence, a silence protecting a fierce negation, a rage when confronted with an impasse beyond her language.

“You were in this rage a few days ago, weren’t you, when you said to me that you are ready to die?” I finally asked.

“Yes, you’re right. I was,” she said.

“Sounds to me, Mom, like you wanted to say that your life was done, because you say it is and not because, against your will, you are dying and will die soon,” I said.
“You’re right,” she replied.

“It’s not working, is it?”

“No, it’s not working. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to die with this rage.”

She was not seeking the obvious answer, something a therapist or counselor could offer about her anger. “Unspeakable,” she uttered, and I wondered what, or whose, words did she need to speak? She wanted her own word, something beyond herself.

“Nothing I say about it would be right,” my mother said to me. I heard the rage of her silence growing gargantuan by the limits of language. The rage had become the menace to her late summer days, and fall was near.

“It is Unspeakable,” my mother said.

“It” was everything. It was life—forever a stranger and a secret.

The neighborhood was curiously and inexplicably alive, but soon to be gone, like her.

I was a reader. If I could help my mother at all, it would somehow come from literature and my imagination. I associated “unspeakable” with the title of my favorite book, “Raids on the Unspeakable” by Thomas Merton. “The Unspeakable.  What is this?” Merton asked himself. It is, he answered, “the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said.” There are persons, Merton wrote, who are “stricken to the very core of [their] being by the presence of the Unspeakable.”  My mother now was among them.

“Raids on the Unspeakable” is a supremely ironic phrase. No one can successfully carry out a raid on the Unspeakable.  Though a read could capture some of what Merton mentioned, like “difficult insights at a moment of human crisis.” In his “moment of human crisis,” Merton said he responded with poetry.  During my mother’s “moment,” I surmised, she could have a similar response.

My mother simply needed to read poetry, I decided, though not just any poetry. She needed to read poets whose voices could be heard coming at once from deep within and far beyond herself. Poems, as the poet Hayden Carruth wrote, like “the Iliad, the Odyssey, the book of Genesis/ … acts of Love … which/ continuously bestow upon us/ What we are.”

I brought my mother many books and photocopied pages of my favorite poems. She read them in solitude. Sometimes I read to her. I was trying to reach her. Maybe she could “hear” some portion of what I had heard. There were poems by Carruth, Denise Levertov, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. We talked about the poems, but I don’t remember anything we said.

A few weeks or so after we’d begun our own “reads on the Unspeakable,” the book of poems she most needed came to us as if summoned.  At this time, I worked in a university library, where I was able to see all the newly acquired books before they were shelved. One day, I saw “Elegy for the Departure,” a newly published book of poems by Zbigniew Herbert translated from Polish. I opened the book to a page and read the conclusion of an untitled poem:

one must dream patiently
hoping the content will become complete
that the missing words
will enter their crippled sentences
and the certainty we wait for
will cast anchor

My mother’s dream, her hope and wait, and precisely the words she needed were here. I delivered this book to her, sensing that reading it could be transformative. She read one poem, “A Journey,” again and again, and it became her own alchemy. The poem begins:

If you set out on a journey let it be long
a wandering that seems to have no aim groping your way blindly

It is both a guide to an epic itinerary and a realization of its own. Call it alchemical operation and effect.  At least it was, felicitously so, for my mother. 

For days thereafter, when I’d arrive at my mother’s home to help her take her afternoon walk, she would be sitting in her hand-hewn walnut reading chair with Herbert’s book of poems on her lap, open to “A Journey.” Once, seeing this, I said to her, “Have you been somewhere, Mom?”  “On a journey,” she answered with a tired smile. 

Our afternoon walks each day became a workshop for this one poem. What did this verse or that verse mean? What did it mean when Herbert wrote:

Discover the insignificance of speech the royal power of gesture
uselessness of concepts the purity of vowels
with which everything can be expressed sorrow joy rapture anger
but do not hold anger
accept everything

As I walked with my mother during these days, the rage and obdurate silence dissolved. She was in the midst of her own “conversation with elements question without answer/ a pact forced after struggle/ great reconciliation.” 

And she was not returning. 

Great reconciliation was imperceptible, then suddenly visible, like a leaf’s change of color in fall.

Herbert, Zbigniew. Elegy for the Departure and Other Poems. Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. Ecco Press, 1999.


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