Poetry is the best gift during a final visit

Dear Mary Oliver,

I didn’t follow my own rule and now it’s too late.

I took your poems to Arizona a few weeks before my grandma turned 90. I knew it was the last time I would see her. Diabetes had taken two of the things she loved in life — reading and hiking. Several mini-strokes had stolen most of her short-term memory and much of the rest.

For three days, I sat at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. When she’d awaken, I’d read your poems to her.

Someone I loved gave me a box full of darkness./It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Grama, my Uncle Neil and me camping with the Boy Scouts in the 1960s

My mother never loved me. After she left my father and me when I was a baby, Grama, a third-grade teacher, picked me up each afternoon from day care and kept me all summer. Those first months I would not let Grama go to the bathroom without me. Her love was a rope that saved me then — and later.

You do not have to be good…/You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

My mother kidnapped me shortly before my fourth birthday and my childhood ended. I saw Grama only two times during a space of six years. The second time, I was living in Moline, Illinois, when my grandparents parked in front of our house, their huge Oldsmobile pulling their Aristocrat trailer. They were retiring from Chicago to Tucson and visited me in the yard for several minutes.

The bear … who sings to himself the secret song no one has ever heard…/as anything on earth/could ever be—/this is the bear/I want to see.

The summer after I finished the sixth grade, my mother realized she could be rid of me for an entire summer for the price of a plane ticket. Three summers in a row, I flew to Tucson.

Only 5 feet 3 inches, Grama would hitch her trailer to her Ford F-series truck that had two tanks for leaded gas. The first year, we went to the Chiricahuas, mountains so deeply worn by erosion, it’s as though God has stacked boulders one upon another, creating solid towers that only look precarious.

I was 11, and Grama 60, when we grabbed a ride from our campground in the back of a pickup truck. It wove its way up a mountain road in the Arizona sunshine. We sat in the open bed without anything securing us, admiring the landscape in which Geronimo successfully hid from the U.S. Army. We got off at the top of a mountain and spent the day hiking back to camp.

Lying together in the camper at dusk, Grama’s stories filled my lonely child’s soul. Stories of living in Florida on an Army base after my grandfather had been drafted at the end of World War II at age 36 and she was pregnant with her first child. Stories of the bears that frequently roamed America’s campgrounds in the 1950s when she traveled with her four sons. Stories of traveling shortly before retirement to Japan, where decades earlier Grandpa had been stationed with the Army of Occupation.

The following year, Grama introduced me to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. On our way back to Tucson, we stayed the night at my Uncle David’s house in Phoenix. In the cover of night, we were skinny-dipping in his pool when a helicopter hovered overhead, shining a beam of light upon us. We hugged the side of the pool until finally the pilot pulled the cyclic stick and flew away.

The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.

The last time I camped with Grama at the Grand Canyon, December 1989.

When I was an adult, Grama regularly visited me in Ohio. She’d read any books in my house that she hadn’t already read. She was a big fan of Zane Grey’s westerns, but she also enjoyed her fat etymological dictionary. Well into her 70s, she took free literature courses at the University of Arizona and would send me her books at semester’s end.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those/ who think they have the answers./ Let me keep company always with those who say/‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.

Grama took me to my first symphony, my first opera, my first art song. For a time, she was president of the Tucson Opera Guild. For much longer she was a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art. Yet she often told me that the more she knew, the more she realized she didn’t know. It brought her joy to know she could always learn more.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

Grama’s last digital clock had 2-inch-tall numbers. Calculating the last possible minute I could leave her and still catch my flight home, I watched my final minutes with this love of my life flick away. I awoke her and she was alarmed at the tears spilling down to my jaw before wetting my shirt.

“I’ll miss you Grama.”

“I’ll miss you too, Holly. And I’ll miss all that poetry.”

Your words, Mary Oliver, reached past Grama’s injured brain and touched her everlasting humanness.

When death comes…/I want to step through the door of curiosity, wondering;/what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?/When it’s over…/I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Grama died six months later and I felt as though I’d lost an endowment of love. I keep her number on my cellphone because it makes me happy to see it there.

Express gratitude quickly and often, that’s my rule. For 11 years, I meant to write and tell you how you guided our last time together, Grama and me. Your poetry mixed beauty with my grief and touched the woman who gave me love and, therefore, life.

Now you, too, have stepped through the door of that cottage of darkness. I don’t know what you found inside, but I like thinking you might meet up with Dorothy Christensen and talk with her about the many things you both treasured, especially nature and dogs. Give her my love.

All my best-

Holly

p.s. “Alligator Poem” is one of our favorites.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

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