Life, an improvised affair, rarely has the unity or clarity of Art. Our conflicts seldom resolve or even, as Drama prescribes, “stay in the moment.” And our prose: Instead of paragraphs cohering around a single idea, we speak in fragments, non sequiturs, ellipses. The phone rings, a child cries, and our train of thought, insufficiently fueled, derails.
But once in a while, as I saw on a singular afternoon, Life beats Art into print, yielding a poem direct. Sadly, but perhaps necessarily, this occasion was forged by impending death.
Jill and Don knew his 5 percent chance of surviving the brain tumor was “no chance at all, really.” Yet they fought, just as they had earlier fought Jill’s own cancer, beating her terminal diagnosis. Incredible: not only the double-whammy of deathly disease visited on one couple, and one so young (they were in their early 40s), but the sequence: Just as my best childhood friend made it to year seven—recovery—her husband began having bad headaches.
By the time I joined them to help out, Don was much altered. Once dynamic and athletic, now he was thin and weak. He’d wander off from the house, ask for water when he had a glassful in hand, parrot Jill’s remark as his own. Yet the tumor had not altered his personality—warm and positive—nor his emotional center: his wife, his daughter Shelly, his son Pete. Though his memory was reduced, Don remembered what he loved. When two colleagues visited, he recalled the one he’d always liked, “but who was that other guy?”
Thus, the state of things on that afternoon.
Don and I were in the kitchen talking, Jill was on the phone negotiating the sale of their boat (for the revenue she’d need “after”) when, moved by the crystalline light characterizing the Pacific Northwest on its best days, I asked Don, “How about a walk around the block?”
“Sure!” he shot back, enjoying his own crystalline moment, increasingly rare.
After suiting him up in sunglasses, ballcap>, and, the heat notwithstanding, a logger’s jacket, we stepped outdoors arm-in-arm and continued our kitchen discussion of his Army years: boot camp at Fort Ord, service in Germany, touring with Jill.
What he stressed this time was his exercise of choice: His Selective Service number almost up (this was during Vietnam), he enlisted rather than be drafted and applied to OCS rather than “be stuck with the grab bag.” “Control,” he said, his frame quaking with emphasis, “it’s vital to me.”
While he chuckled ironically, and we waved at the gallant Jill driving past, I fought the impulse to bawl. Control? But Don saw his margin: Knocked to the ground, you can sit where you’ve landed, or you can get up. “You gotta get up”
At that point—we had rounded the first corner—Don, fixing on a shoelace that had come undone, dropped down, collapsed actually, to retie it. As he worked the right lace and I reworked the left, he ticked off his life choices: going for a Ph.D. in special education, going for “my Jill,” being an active father. But down on the asphalt, I wondered: Could he get up again? He did, laboriously, resting wordlessly on his knees, then pulling himself upright.
“Yeah,” he beamed, readjusting his cap, “you gotta get up.” I beamed too. “You could write the book on endurance, Don.” He thought about that, his smile fading. “Only a short one, I’m afraid.”
Seeing that he was tiring, I asked if we should turn back, but he gestured forward. So, heading for the second corner, I picked up the conversational thread, about choice, noting that though we Americans aren’t readily given to philosophy—“Except in extreme situations,” he put in softly—we act on our premises.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “for good or—not-so-good.”
“You can be a drug dealer or,” I squeezed his arm, “an educator.” I could have added refugee counselor, Ski Patrol member, Sunday School teacher.
As we rounded the second corner, passing from shadow into sunlight, Don removed his jacket and handed it to me. Though his pace had slowed to step-step-pause, step-step-pause, the words now tumbled out of him faster and faster. We’d come to the truly animating topic: family.
About son Pete, nervously anticipating high school, he wasn’t worried. “You’ve read his autobiography,” he said, referring to Pete’s 40-page project. “Such detail, such life!” Pete could be a “handful,” he chuckled, “but I understand him. He’s just like his dad.”
And Shelly, a junior: straight A’s, tennis star, student leader. “What do you think, Don: our first woman president?” He gave a thumbs-up: “Yeah.”
Then, as always, back to “my Jill.” Since I was his historical reference—Jill and I go back to kindergarten—he liked me to tell the old tales. So, rounding the third corner, I told again how for graduation we’d conceived a “nifty” send-off, a cross-country drive, a plan roundly rejected by our parents; and how, in my father’s sports car and at Jill’s encouragement, we came down Mount Rainier in neutral. “Yeah,” he laughed, “she encourages me, too.”
As we approached the fourth corner, Don took over, to tell once again his favorite story—meeting Jill—relating how, armed with a B.A., he left home in upstate New York and headed west to Seattle and grad school, feeling “in my bones” that “big changes” lay ahead; how, approaching the city, he was “knocked out” by Puget Sound, then, on the University of Washington campus, he was “knocked out again” by the “beautiful Jill.”
“That,” he laughed, “was it!”
Soon they were inseparable. Now and then they’d “cool it,” agree to see other people, but within hours they were on the phone again, inseparable. “That was it.”
It was a story that never failed to evoke his deepest passion, and for that reason I grew apprehensive: Coming up, our path rose to an incline—modest enough for the fit but surely Mount Rainier for Don. On my arm he seemed frail as a leaf. I was prepared to scoop him up, carry him back should he fall.
But he didn’t. Love fuels.
Once inside, now completely spent, he moved toward the bedroom, “to get down.” As I lifted his feet onto the bed, he handed me a gift. “Gute Freudin,” he said, meaning good friend, then whispered, “Now where did that come from….?”
“Well, Don,” I said, “it came from your childhood, speaking German with your grandfather.” But he was fast asleep.
Out in the kitchen, sitting at the window, I mentally retraced our steps. If poetry is feeling condensed, our hour-long walk had been an ode to final, and also first, things: love, choice, purpose, friendship. Only slowly did I become aware of cars going by, newspapers being tossed onto doorsteps, a phone ringing.
And in the other room, the poet lay dying.
Don died two months later. Jill perseveres, “after.” And both children are well-married. For this essay their names were changed.
Carla Seaquist, who relocated to her native Pacific Northwest from Washington, D.C., is a playwright. Her play “The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” will be produced in the Festival of Emerging American Theatre. She has published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor.