Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Fisherman in the Hospital Bed

I knew Helen for 14 years. She died in 1998 at age 50, beneath the double whammy of colon cancer and bipolar disorder. She was one of my best teachers.

She had about her an extraordinary simplicity. A staggering generosity. When the relative of a friend of a coworker fell ill, Helen spent her lunch money on a get well card. She dreamed of going to Paris but instead bought gifts for others at yard sales. No sooner had she thrown a July Fourth cookout than she fretted over whether enough people would come to her Halloween party, after which it was time to plan Christmas.

Once, when we met at an outdoor cafe, we found we'd each bought each other an iced coffee, and laughed at four tall cups dripping condensate on a hot summer's day.

One early December Helen taught me about Advent candles and I taught her about my menorah, but somehow the explanations became secondary to the magic. Weeks before either holiday we almost set her apartment ablaze, thrilling to the simple joys of candles and light -- enough for a dozen Christmases and Chanukas combined.

It wasn't a manic episode -- just Helen's bubbly way-of-being between them.

Her vocabulary seemed to quadruple during her manic episodes (I had never seen her depressed), but what appeared a sudden boost in intelligence came at a terrible price. Helen had fought an ongoing war with her medications. Given their side effects, I could understand why. She had fainted once, in the middle of an event given at her assisted living complex, from the buildup to toxic levels of the chemicals in her system. Her boundless optimism and stubborn will chafed against a life of pharmacological trial and error. Friends and family formed a valiant support system that at times struggled to survive its own tensions.

One bout with mania in 1995 landed Helen at McLean Hospital -- whose patients had included Sylvia Plath -- for 6-1/2 weeks. During that time she suffered a "flu" that raised her temperature to 102. Her fever broke, then climbed to 104 degrees: the first outward sign of cancer. When it ticked up to 105 the nurses drenched Helen in ice water to bring her fever down.

Once, when interviewed at Cambridge Hospital, Helen was asked if she was ever suicidal. Never, she said. To her, suicide meant people slashing their wrists -- so whenever the thought came to her she dabbed perfume on her wrists instead.

This time cancer, not bipolar disorder, landed her there. She had gone from eating well to being unable to keep any food down.

My friend Michael had given me a copy of Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield's Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart. One of the shorter, simpler tales (attributed in some places to Anthony deMello, in others to Leo Tolstoy) describes a bishop's visit to a remote island, centuries after missionaries have stopped by. The bishop comes upon three fishermen who proudly proclaim, "We are Christians!"

But they don't know the Lord's Prayer, have never heard of it. When they pray, they say, "We are three, you are three, have mercy on us."

The bishop is appalled at what he sees as both ignorance and heresy. He spends a day teaching the fishermen the Lord's Prayer, which -- after much drilling -- they can finally recite back to him before he departs.

Months later the bishop's ship returns to the island. As he recites his evening prayers on deck, he happens to notice a spot of light in the east.

The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen. "Bishop!" they exclaimed. "We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry meet you."

"What is it you want?" asked the awe-stricken bishop.

"Bishop," they said, "we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, 'Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come...' then we forget. Please tell us prayer again."

The bishop felt humbled. "Go back to your homes, my friends," he said, "and each time you pray, say, 'We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!'"
I thought of Helen's Advent candles and my menorah burning willy-nilly that December day and thought she might like the story. I brought the book to the hospital and read it to her.

She loved the story. To her it was about fishermen praying. Her face beamed. "That's wonderful!" she effused, as much as she could, gladdened in her physically weakened state.

The gentle irony, the walking on water, seemed to have bypassed her completely. But that, I realized, was perfect. Helen didn't have to know about the simple, "miraculous" abilities of the fishermen because she was one of them, herself.

For Helen
(written March 1, 1998)

In the heaven of my dreams
you sit with your cat
outside a Paris cafe.
Tinker Bell dines on chicken livers
culled from French hens.
Rich pastry melts in your mouth.
And you flirt with all the well-toned waiters,
your infectious laugh piercing gray Parisian clouds.

You could not leave Tinkie and left,
could not leave and left again.
Not to pursue the City of Light
but to be medicated, radiated,
hooked to an IV, rushed to the ICU.
Before, you'd save,
then sabotage your savings.
I watched you panic
if Tinkie so much as sneezed,
and understood
why Paris remained a dream.
Old dowager Persian
who followed you from house to studio,
apartment to apartment.
Unable to wait for you
during your third-to-last hospitalization.
And so, finally,
you followed her.

For thirty years
you fought the demons
that landed you in locked wards,
emerging back into the world triumphant.
Then the demons changed form.
Invaded your cells. Metastasized.
The time and strength others used
to climb the Eiffel Tower,
you used to open your Christmas presents --
waving away our offers of help.
Ten days before you died
you met us in a brown velvet dress,
tinted hair framing your heart-shaped face.
You thanked us for cooking dinner,
insisted on doing the dishes
attended by a frisky angora kitten
who, this time, took care of you.

In the hospice they said you were unresponsive.
But your blurts diminished
with a hand on your shoulder, or stroking your arm.
Your eyes unfocused and motionless, your breathing erratic,
your body still,
your one communication was sound pushed
from parted lips.
We watched, as the priest dropped enough wafer on your tongue
to guarantee salvation
to a soul that was giving always.

Transfigured by mortician's skill
you lay sleeping
but with a chest that never rose.
I looked upon you with a child's confusion: How
could you be so beautiful and never breathe?
After the funeral
your brother's lover handed a friend
the bag of clothes you had gathered
at yard sales for her daughter.
Those of us among the living
sobbed in each other's arms,
now that you were out of pain
that it was our turn to feel.

When the doctor could guarantee only
that more of you would be cut out,
you had him put his scalpel away.
Quality of life, you said,
not quantity.
Quality that came
at a cafe that tried to be Parisian
during the lunch hours when you were able to work.
Quality of joy,
singing when you could sing.
Your former choir director
singing back to you
on the last day of your life.

In the heaven of my dreams
the voices of angels rise
from a celestial Notre Dame.
They mingle with your laughter
that sparkles like the finest champagne,
like the Seine in summer sun.
And the body under your pretty dress is whole.
And the lover of your dreams buys you dinner
amidst Tinkie's inquiring mews.

And I receive your postcards
as they flutter to my heart.

Only now, they are postcards from home.
And I miss you.


Blogger Dale said...

Lovely. Thank you.

8:30 PM  
Blogger twila said...

What a beautiful poem. So full of love, of life. Thank you for sharing Helen with us.

2:35 AM  
Blogger Yankee, Transferred said...

aaah, just beautiful. Thank you for making Helen live.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the poem...particularly like "now that you were out of pain, it was our turn to feel" but the whole thing really. It reminds me of one I wrote about my brothers...about an imaginary heaven and a postcard too. Thanks for sharing it. I love the her dabbing her wrists with perfume.

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm sending this poem to my hospice friends..both clients and colleagues
cuz you so reach us
and connect us to helen
and each other
and our inner chambers

thanx dear one

12:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home