A few days after Christmas, a dear friend from high school passed away after a 15-year battle with breast cancer. When I first met Christine freshman year, she was the prettiest girl I’d ever met and certainly the friendliest. Anyone sizing up the two of us—she blond and bubbly, me silent and awkward—would not have marked us as friends. The fact that we were was to Christine’s credit, not mine. Hers was an open heart, an unusual quality for one so fair of face.
She never lost her friendly nature or her beauty, not through many years of chemotherapy, radiation, and personal tragedies. Year after year on our annual high school girls’ weekend, my friends and I marveled at how great she looked and how she still kept generating fun.
Of course at the very end, cancer took its usual toll. As terrible as it was to see Christine’s brittle bones protrude from under her skin, it was worse to understand how much she was suffering and had been suffering for so long without complaining.
The second morning after she died, I woke up with a line of poetry in my head. The lines are from a poem by Roethke, a poem I had read in passing a long way back and hadn’t thought of since. And yet there it was, presented to me like a breakfast tray an unseen hand had set on my lap. This is the thought I woke up with:
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones
That was Christine, lovely in her bones. I hold onto that line when I think of her. Loveliness in her bones, not cancer. The poem gives back what cancer took away. (You can read the entire poem here.)
Another poem has been floating around in my head since she died. In this case, I knew the poem but not the particular lines. I had to look it up. The poem is “In View of the Fact” by A.R. Ammons. Last January I had posted the last few stanzas in tribute to my friend Barb who died almost exactly a year before Christine.
I’m glad to have it in front of me again. Even though the poem is written for an age group years ahead of mine, his words offer needed solace.
It may be long but it’s breezy. If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, skim down to the last three stanzas.
In View of the Fact
by A. R. Ammons
The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who
died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:
it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:
now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never
thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us
are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that
a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,
so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our
address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our
index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:
at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip
to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on
the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we
think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to
be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .