Dark days

Murder has been the order of the day. Last Saturday, eleven of my fellow Jews were gunned down as they prayed. Last week, two elderly black people were shot in a supermarket parking lot, because a white man was not able to get in to a nearby church, but he was able to get a gun and point it at them for looking different than he did.

I wear this face on the inside these days.

This is me, circa 1995, angry about a government shutdown. But this image resurfaces these days because I’m still as angry as I look there. About Congress’ continued, protracted failure to enact gun laws that could save my kids from growing up in fear, practicing lockdown drills, being handed lollipops to keep them quiet as a deranged (white, male) shooter stalks them in the hallway.

This, of course, is not to turn a blind eye to the fact that hate is universal. My Facebook memory from last year on this date expresses sorrow over the day’s events. I was horrified to find that I couldn’t even remember which ghastly massacre had occurred until I looked it up. It is obvious that eradicating this type of hate will take more than bulletproof legislation. But we need to start somewhere. I’ll be voting next week. (At my former elementary school.)

Last Saturday night I tossed and turned. It was difficult to get to sleep after the day’s events. When I was finally about to drift off, I suddenly heard my father’s voice. It wasn’t saying anything particularly meaningful. It was just there, in my ear, accompanied by his habitual throat clearing.  Maybe he was clearing his throat in order to greet the new souls who were lost that day. It was good to hear his voice again, and it made me sad. (My father spoke English with an accent that I have never been able to replicate, and I’m very good at accents.)

A few weeks ago we were driving by my childhood home, which is a mile from our new house. I had decided I wouldn’t be passing it on a regular basis, since the azalea bushes that lined the walk are now gone, as are most of the trees I knew. On this particular day, there were renovations going on, apparently in the kitchen, which my father had renovated himself. So we got one last look at his handiwork as we drove by that day, and saw the cabinets he had installed heaped in the driveway. (At least the garage he built is still standing.)

More evidence of my dad released to the world.

We’re working hard to make progress on our new house. Every day brings a new wrinkle or near-calamity. The contractor was here for a walkthrough and noticed a leak sagging the drywall on the living room ceiling. Now we need to retile our shower. This morning, a tree expert walked us through our backyard and demystified our trees for us. Black cherry, mulberry, sassafras, gum. They seem to like to grow in community, so I had assumed they were all the same thing. “Birds must have planted em,” the tree guy said. The one that seems to be leaning precariously towards our neighbor’s fence turns out to be fine. But another tree, a black cherry, needs to come down. We’re trying to decide between using it as firewood or having them split it so that J., who has always dreamed of taking up woodworking, can try to make us a new coffee table.

I tried all my usual self-improvement techniques this month (giving up sugar, taking up running) but now, at the tail end of the month, it has all fallen by the wayside. November has typically been a month where I try to reignite my writing practice, but I’m almost afraid to make any sort of commitment to myself. It would certainly help to pass the time: I have some translation work coming up, but not until the end of November. I will meet my new dermatologist this Friday, the same one who treated my father. I have a CT scan on November 19th, the first in a new location, and then an MRI in December. Today’s date squares with the time when the scanxiety kicks in, and the dread, and the sense that something may not be right.

But it’s also Halloween today, so I should rehearse merriment in advance of taking the kids out tonight. Here’s something to crack a grim little smile at.



Welcome, new readers!

C’mon in!

If you’ve found your way here from my essay at Cancer Wellness, welcome! You’ll want to see my About page for some background reading.

If you’re a faithful blog reader, click through the publication link above to read an essay that just may make you a little angry at me.

Making Me Understand: Robyn Hitchcock

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now.)

I wrote this post months ago. It fell victim to a slip of the finger in my mobile WordPress app and got deleted. So I’m finally getting back to rewriting it now. Sorry for the delay!

The primary musical landscape in my home growing up consisted of Classical sprinkled with some Folk (Pete Seeger), Jazz (Louis Armstrong), and Spirituals (Paul Robeson). There was exactly one Beatles record in my parents’ collection, which they bought when they lived in Israel in the early Sixties and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

However, my parents were not the only musical influencers in my home. I had two older brothers, quite a bit older. One had musical tastes that were less mainstream, which led to my listening to King Crimson and Brian Eno at age five. (The latter album has become one of my favorites. The cover art of the former continues to terrify me.) The other brother had tastes that tended towards classic rock. There was a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and representing the US, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jackson Browne, and The Beach Boys.

I got a hand-me-down clock radio in fourth grade, and at that point was able to determine my own musical destiny. I started with the classic rock station (which, I recall with horror now as a parent, had Howard Stern as its morning drive time DJ). I veered towards Top 40 towards the end of elementary school as a means of having common ground with my classmates. In junior high, a time of Peak Alienation during which I spent three mostly miserable years in private school, I vacillated between Top 40 and a station that played “Urban Contemporary” (which encompassed everything from Luther Vandross to rap). An influential friend taped me a Boomtown Rats album, and I began to gravitate towards music from the UK, helped along by the weekly radio broadcast, Rock Over London.

In tenth grade, I switched back to public school. I had to start from scratch making friends and carving out a place for myself. My brothers and their musical influence were long gone from the house. Tell me, what did you do on your fifteenth birthday? On mine, I wound up going out with my parents that evening to see an important documentary about the Vilna ghetto. On the way home, we made a stop at a hospital to check whether a friend of a friend had died of cancer. When we got home, I was beside myself with frustration. I knew I needed to do something drastic. Of course, I headed straight to my radio. At school, I had heard about another station that I had been meaning to check out, so I tuned it in and never switched it back again. (“I think they’re playing John Lennon,” reads the journal entry in which I recorded the fateful turn of the dial.)

From then on, my pace of music discovery quickened, and my meager income from part-time and summer jobs was immediately absorbed by record purchases. As a budding poet, I was attracted to music with compelling lyrics, and one of the best discoveries I made during that time was Robyn Hitchcock.

Invisible Hitchcock (1986)
Invisible Hitchcock (1986). (I think of this album cover every time I buy a big bunch of radishes.)

Okay, so I was also a teenage girl, ergo not impervious to the effects of his deep English growl and that dark, mysterious glower. I didn’t realize then that I’d be entering into a lifelong relationship with his music.

A ticket to a Robyn Hitchcock concert guarantees the bearer more than just excellent live renditions of his songs. He is just as famous for his between-song patter, which he elevates to the level of what looks like improvised storytelling meets stream of consciousness meets acid flashbacks. Even his communication with the person at the mixing board is conducted at this level. Hitchcock is a born showman, but not in the way that one might say the same thing about Danny Kaye.

I have probably enjoyed forty Robyn Hitchcock shows over the years, possibly more than that. I’m always hoping the arc of his next tour will swing by me. He takes requests for his shows today via Facebook, but many years before that was an option, he’d either do it from the stage or when running into fans outside the venue. I still remember a much younger RH outside of Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, walking away from the building with his girlfriend. My friend J and I greeted him and he said with a huge smile, “Got any requests?”

Here, then, is a brief and incomplete history of my life punctuated by Robyn Hitchcock:

  1. I see him for the first time, performing with his band, The Egyptians, in D.C. I am transfixed.
  2. I see him while living in Michigan after grad school, and most vividly remember a show at the Magic Stick in Detroit. I went alone, as I sometimes did because I didn’t have many friends. I was feeling smug that night, though, because I had just interviewed for a job in NYC, and it seemed to me it wouldn’t be long before I was living there. (I was wrong, it took me another nine months to get there.) This was the first time I saw orange traffic cones with Robyn’s drawings on them for sale at one of his gigs. They cost $20. I told the person at the merch table that was ridiculous. “No, it’s not!” they sing-songed. (Yes, I kind of wish I’d bought one now.)
  3. A feature length film of Hitchcock performing in an empty storefront on 14th Street in Manhattan, directed by Jonathan Demme, was released a few weeks after I moved to NYC. It’s streamable, so you must watch it. I have a copy on VHS I’m hoping to eventually get to watch again. My friend T heard about a “secret” show in conjunction with the film release at the Mercury Lounge, so we showed up there at midnight, and got to see Robyn perform. At one point he decided to play “Electrolite” by R.E.M. Michael Stipe stood on stage to hold the lyric sheet for him. In that moment I knew there was no more exciting place on earth to be living, and I felt that way for twenty years. (Even though I have now left, I still feel that way.)
  4. Very early on in my relationship with J, it was his birthday. We went to see a Robyn Hitchcock show to celebrate. I bought J a copy of one of his albums, Eye. He already had a copy. I already had a copy. Now we had three copies between us. When we moved in together, we eventually got rid of one of them. (The third had different cover art and we couldn’t decide between them.)
  5. Fast forward to the early bleary-eyed days immediately following the birth of Young J. He was born in late December 2006. After a couple of days it was apparent I wasn’t getting anywhere with nursing. J went out to buy me a breast pump on Christmas Eve day. Robyn had recently released Olé! Tarantula with his group, the Venus 3. I cannot listen to that album without having very strong sense memory of listening to it while sitting on my bed, painfully attached to a pulsating breast pump, frantically trying to figure everything about motherhood out all at once.
  6. I have small kids and get pneumonia and never sleep for a bunch of years. Probably missed a lot of Hitchcock shows during that time. Or I went to them but don’t remember them. I do buy 2009’s Goodnight Oslo. Actually, my calendar says I saw Robyn at the Bell House in Brooklyn that year. I think that was the show where he performed Eye in its entirety.
  7. We reconvene with 2013. April 24: Melanoma surgery and sentinel lymph node biopsy. April 26: Robyn Hitchcock’s 60th Birthday Show at Webster Hall. I had bandages on my back. I had been given strong painkillers which didn’t help, so I weaned myself off of them in time to have one drink at the show. I stood with my back to the wall so no one could knock into me by mistake. I felt lucky to be alive, and lucky that Robyn was still alive and that we were in the same room. Robyn had just released Love From London. I got pathology results: Melanoma in transit.
  8. Fall 2014: Lung metastasis. Lung biopsy. Collapsed lung. Radiation and immunotherapy treatment and treatment-induced colitis which stops the treatment. I had bought The Man Upstairs, released in August that year, and the song “Ferries” from that album forms the basis of one early post here. On November 10, we go to see Robyn perform at City Winery. This is the point where I am just starting to have to accept I am probably very sick. He plays “Trouble In Your Blood” and I feel he has written it just for me. I lie in bed for a few weeks, in agony and unable to eat. I daydream about being able to eat Brussels sprouts without pain. And I listen to The Man Upstairs over and over. By Thanksgiving I am miraculously better, but immunotherapy is no longer an option.
  9. 2015: I recover. I get a job. I get a clean bill of health for my lungs, and the very next day am diagnosed with almost a dozen brain tumors. I quit my job. I take high doses of dexamethasone which frankly made me a totally different person, one I’d be afraid to live with today. In the midst of the crisis, I decide that we need to take a safari tour of South Africa with Robyn Hitchcock that was being organized by an Australian travel agency. It was going to cost well over $7K per person, and the kids weren’t necessarily going to be welcome, but we were hoping to bring them anyways, and I somehow thought we could crowdfund this trip. I cut my steroids dosage just in time to realize that the whole endeavor would have been insane.
  10. I’m not sure whether Robyn toured in 2015, but I made up for missing any dates in 2016, when I saw him perform three times. At the last, at City Winery in November, he played my request!
  11. While my father was hospitalized for two weeks in early 2018, I could not stop listening to Robyn’s beautiful and elegiac song, “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford.” It deals with memory loss and death in a hospital. It somehow helped me, even though it also tormented me, since my father met the same fate. This recording (taken from the end credits of “Storefront Hitchcock”) is one of my favorites. In thinking about my own fascinating and complex father this year, I have also thought about Robyn’s relationship with his father, which is chronicled or mentioned in a number of his songs.
  12. The only remarkable thing about this list is, I am sure every Robyn Hitchcock fan of long standing could compose their own.
  13. Robyn Hitchcock is now sixty-five years old. I wish him a long and healthy life. I wish myself the same.

Inscribed and sealed

It’s almost Yom Kippur. The holiday starts tonight and ends tomorrow night, and in between we are expected to undertake a spiritual journey unaided by food (or, more worryingly, caffeine). Many people wish each other an “easy fast,” because it seems like the kind thing to do. Perhaps it is because I am a difficult person by nature, but the notion of it being easy chafes me, it seems to run counter to the entire purpose of fasting. I am hoping to have a meaningful fast… if I choose to even fast. My medical condition technically excludes me from the necessity of fasting, but I have to take my meds tomorrow. I have to fast for three hours to take the morning ones anyway. So perhaps I just keep it going.

I’ve started in medias res, as I often do. The fact is, I haven’t checked in here since our big move, so here is what you need to know in three pictures.

Across the street is an enchanting patch of trees from which deer occasionally emerge.
We never knew there were so many shades of brown. We will eradicate them all from our walls, in time.
We have a reminder of our Brooklyn lives every time we walk through the door. (We used cookie cutters to leave that message in the sidewalk for future generations, or at least until the sidewalk is torn up again.)

I met my new oncologist, Dr L, last week. In order to do this, I had to drive to Baltimore and see him in a new outpatient building that adjoins the hospital. The hospital being the same one where my father acquired a hospital infection and died just over seven months ago. I had to park in the same garage. It was triggering, to say the least, and I did cry when Dr L was getting my medical history and asked about my father. The new cancer center issues trackers to patients so their location in the building is always known. This is meant to eliminate the need to call people’s names loudly in waiting areas. I found the waiting area deserted, the tracker creepy, and just generally ached to be back at NYU among familiar people — Nelson, NPs Kathy and Rajni, Dr P…

Dr L and NP Megan were wonderful, and the pharmacist has been great at following up to make sure my prescriptions are transferred smoothly. I cannot fault them for not being my former caregivers. But I also came to a realization after that difficult visit to Johns Hopkins: I don’t actually need the new team to mean the same thing to me as the old team. Dr P and her team had to save my life. Twice. I went through some of the darkest experiences of my life while in their care, and they brought me to the place I am now, namely: in long-term remission, taking my meds on a modified dosage schedule, having scans less frequently than before. For Dr L to take on the role that Dr P did, then, would mean that my life would need saving once again– and I don’t want to be in that place, ever.

The other day Facebook reminded me it has been four years since my lung collapsed after a biopsy. Time accelerates and collapses in on itself and is an unreliable narrator. I still feel the dread and strangeness of those days four years ago on my skin. That was the year I decided Yom Kippur was optional, and opted out in favor of a day of reading, contemplation, and conceiving this blog, which will celebrate its fourth birthday (?!) in November.

I haven’t come to any useful conclusions about God in those four years, ever since I decided to be on hiatus from God and adjust my participation in any religious observance to be devoid of spirituality and register purely on the level of public singing. Do I still feel this way? I don’t know. I suppose I’m less angry now in terms of my personal circumstances, and more angry in terms of global circumstances. I acknowledge that something saved my bacon, but I am still not sure that something was God. I am grateful for Science, but I guess a faithful person who isn’t opposed to the notion of Science might easily turn that around and say, “AND WHO MAKES SCIENCE POSSIBLE?”

I’m going to wrap this up for now. There is a lot more to say, and I’m hoping that I’ll be less silent this year. For the moment, I’ll leave you with one more photo so you can situate where these half-baked thoughts are coming to you from…

My desk surveys trees, squirrel drama, and rooftops.

Farewell symphony

The sun sets on our life in NYC

The kids have been at camp for over two weeks. I’d say we were in the sweet spot of kid-free time, but that would be a little bit of an exaggeration. For one, I can’t turn my head without looking right at a wall of shelving to be emptied and dismantled in advance of our big move at the end of this month. Also, after just one week at camp, Young J broke his elbow, and we had to spend 24 hours traveling up there, taking him to a doctor, shepherding him through his very first MRI (I was relieved to see an MRI of a broken elbow does not require you to be as far inside the tube as the brain scans I get, but I kept him company anyways, trying to distract him, but also not make him laugh too hard). While we thought we’d be bringing him home, it turns out that his camp has a lot of experience taking care of campers on the injured list, so we left him there. He has a cast now, covered with signatures, and a waterproof bag so he can at least get in the pool with his friends (but not go down the waterslide). Young J is learning a lot this summer, I imagine — just not the things he was hoping to learn, like archery, martial arts, and rope climbing. I’m just so glad he gets to spend time with his friends, rather than home with us, moping. Young A, judging from the photos that are posted daily, is having the summer of his life at camp.

J and I went away to the shore for a few days, where we did nothing more strenuous than log many hours sitting on the beach (inside our tent, of course) or hopping up and down in the surf. I wore my new swim tights, which weren’t too uncomfortably hot, even at midday. It felt strange not to have any children to look out for. I trained my eyes on the horizon, instead, and was rewarded with the fleeting sight of a couple of dolphins swimming by.

House concerns

Three weeks from today, a truck loaded with our yet-to-be-packed belongings will pull up in front of our new home and begin unloading its contents. This feels surreal, too soon, disorienting. I should be out gulping up the last few days of city, but instead today I went to see my GP, Dr. S, for a final checkup. It felt strange and wrong to be saying goodbye to her. She has been my doctor ever since a severe bout of pneumonia landed me in the ER in October 2008, and I was sternly reprimanded by the ER doctor that I didn’t have a doctor of my own. I was mired in motherhood then, ignoring my own health in favor of caring for Young J. Dr. S was a godsend. When I first went to see her, I was still coughing so hard I would vomit every time. Using her complementary medicine training, she very casually suggested that I try a homeopathic remedy, alongside the antibiotics I was taking for the pneumonia. I found the pellets at my local pharmacy, and started putting a few under my tongue every few hours. Before I knew it, the vomiting had stopped.

Over the years Dr. S has seen me through several more pneumonias, as well as side effects from my cancer treatment. She donated to my bike ride in support of immunotherapy research. And last November, when I feared I had developed yet another case of pneumonia, I managed to reach her on a weekend, a day before she was to run the New York City Marathon, to get a prescription for a chest x-ray. I don’t anticipate I’ll ever find another doctor like her.

I was nearly in tears when I left the office, and not only because it marks the end of my association with Dr. S. A few years ago, she took over the office formerly occupied by my kids’ pediatricians. She did a few renovations, but she never removed this light fixture in the bathroom, which I remember staring into when I was a bleary-eyed new mom, and the brief respite I got was when I went to use the bathroom.

Goodbye, weird light

Every interaction feels fraught for me right now, every time I leave the house I may encounter someone I won’t be seeing again for a time, or maybe ever. Because of the nature of real estate transactions, we may be between two places towards the end of this month, and I’ll come back up here in late August for a checkup with Dr. P, which will mark a new experience for me — becoming a couch surfer in a city that was once my own. You don’t slough off twenty years of inhabiting a place so easily, even if you are moving back to your hometown. The entirety of so many of my life experiences have been lived in one city — career development and atrophy and rebirth, love and courtship rituals and marriage, childbirth and child rearing… all of this, and near death experiences too.

I’m looking for auspicious signs everywhere. Our hotel room number this week provided one. As did our housekeeper there, Michelle. We met in the hallway our first morning there. Within minutes, we had confided in each other as cancer survivors, and hugged.

(My lucky number is avoided by some.)

In the time I have left, I’m looking for balance. I’m hoping not to get overwhelmed or overemotional, although both are fairly regular afflictions for me. Once the kids are back next week, they will be looking to me. I never moved anywhere as a kid. What do I offer them? I guess, this: Moving isn’t easy. We will be sad, but we will also be happy. Where we are moving, it will be harder to get good pizza and bagels. It will be easier to go swimming, and to see stars in the sky. There are people we love and will miss who love us and will miss us here… and people we love and who love us and who will welcome us there.

It’s a start.

A new one

A new season began. It had any number of false starts, and there were many points where it seemed prudent to put the winter boots away, only for them to be needed again. Spring is now officially confirmed. First I browsed the flowers at the botanical garden, and then, finally, got around to planting my own.

Thoughts of my father come and go. When they come, they are sometimes sharp and painful, other times the gentler nudges of saudade.

His presence keeps making itself felt. For a translation job I finished this week, I worked on an essay about Ingmar Bergman, Pa’s favorite director. As it happened, there was an entire paragraph in the text explaining how it was that Bergman came to have such a great following among cinephiles in South America, and particularly Argentina, where my parents come from. (He and my mother attended retrospectives of Bergman films in Buenos Aires, and after the screening psychologists would help the audience parse the dense symbolism they’d seen.) My jaw dropped as I read this, and I wanted to pick up the phone right away to tell my father all about it.

We are going through different cycles of saudade and sadness as we prepare to say goodbye to our beloved Brooklyn (and New York) this summer.

Seventy boxes, just a start

J and I have decided to move our family to the Washington DC area, where I grew up. This is not an easy decision. I have lived in New York for twenty years, and J has never lived outside the state of New York in his life. But the move offers everyone exciting opportunities, so we are making it.

The process of moving is destabilizing and stressful, but provides brief moments of happy discovery. I celebrated my twentieth “Appleversary” shortly after my father died in February — two decades living in New York City. So it was fitting to find the other night, in a folder labeled “Floor Plans,” this sketch of my very first New York apartment. My employer at the time, Columbia, offered me subsidized housing in one of the many apartment buildings they own in the campus area. I had to choose between two apartments within a short time span, and I was in New Orleans at a conference when my turn came up. My father took the train up to New York for the day, visited both apartments, and produced this floorplan of the apartment he thought I should take.

Of course, he included the measurements of the other apartment, in different color ink, so I wouldn’t feel shortchanged at not having been able to see it.

Pa chose well — it was a lovely apartment and I spent five very happy years there before moving in with J. Every evening I had a front row seat to sunset over the Hudson River. In 2000, I watched from my window as a historic parade of tall ships sailed up and back from the George Washington Bridge. I did not feel the oppressive sense of living in a cramped space that is the stereotype of most New York City apartments, especially the first one that you live in when you arrive as a young person. I bypassed that struggle. I had ten foot long windows in both rooms. I could see the river, and across it, the mainland of the U.S. (lest I forget where I’d come from). Now, as my time in New York winds down to a matter of weeks or months, the past twenty years flood forth, in memories and in boxes.

In preparation for selling our apartment, we had painters in for a week. After a few days of attempting to live here while the painting took place, we decamped — first to J’s parents’ house, and then to friends. I was between assignments, so I was able to devote my full attention to a memoir called Educated, by Tara Westover. She tells a gripping story of her fundamentalist family’s life on an Idaho mountaintop. (I won’t spoil it for you — you simply must read it.)

Her father is a central figure, and as I sat on my friend’s couch on a sunny afternoon, waiting for the dust to literally settle in my home, I came across this passage which took my breath away:

Alongside all of the love that I have expressed in my memories of my father is the fact that he was a complicated person — the most interesting people are. Our relationship wasn’t consistently harmonious — because good ones often aren’t.

For me, the idea of moving back to my hometown was, at first, impossible to conceive. It even angered me. New York was my dream and my goal, as early as age ten. Dreams change, of course, especially when children are involved. When we began discussing our move with the kids, Young J (age 11) said, “You know, I’ve never really seen myself as a city person.” It was a stunning expression of self-awareness on his part, but not at all a surprise. He’s long dreamed of living in a house “with stairs inside it,” something which would never be possible for us here in Brooklyn. He adores the country, by which he means anywhere with greenery that you can go a day or longer without hearing a siren. Young A (8) is less enthusiastic, because he’ll miss beloved friends and teachers, as well as the NYC subway, which he deems superior to that of Washington’s, because it is older and dirtier (a child after my own heart).

Moving back home seems unthinkable without Pa there to obsess over every single detail of our home purchase, the traffic volume in our new neighborhood, or any number of minutiae I can’t even think of which he would have sent numerous emails or made any number of calls to us to discuss. Moving to a house without Pa to scrutinize its floor plan seems impossibly sad.

A few weeks ago when we were visiting my mom, I saw my grandfather’s old writing desk in the corner of her cluttered dining room, finally unburdened of the boxes that had been sitting on top of it for years. I realized that I wanted that desk for my own, and I could never have it in our current apartment. That was a crucial turning point for me. It pitted NYC versus a longed-for connection to my past — and unlike prior rounds of the same battle, I wasn’t all that sure that the city should win this time.

I also found myself, late one night, hard at work on a floor plan of Mom’s apartment, trying to figure out what size of couch might work best in her living room. I used my father’s graph paper and his father’s ruler.

Here but not here

It is not that he won’t be there, I’ve come to realize. It’s that he will be there to guide my hand when I need his help. And maybe now it is even easier to let him.

Making Me Understand: “Souffles,” by Birago Diop

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or artist means to me right now.)

When I was in junior high, I hated school. I hated being in my skin. I reached my current height of six feet right around eighth grade. It was not a source of pride.

But beginning in seventh grade, I had a Happy Place, and that place was French class. I loved my textbook and its little cartoons and dialogues and photos of Paris and the countryside. The language came to me almost effortlessly. And I loved the poems in the textbook, which we could memorize and declaim in class for extra credit.

My textbook in eighth or ninth grade, Scènes et Séjours, included a poem somewhere in the middle of the book that spoke to me with its incantatory vibe and authoritative tone. I was just starting to discover poetry, and this one really intrigued me.

There was no biographical note about the author. There was just the poem, and my assumption that the author came from Francophone Africa. I loved the poem so much, I not only memorized it — I also, at the end of the school year, bought my copy of the textbook.  I have toted it around with me ever since, even to college, where as a French and Italian major, I mostly had no actual textbooks, just small, obscenely expensive imported paperbacks of novels to read, or sheaves of photocopied poetry or plays or literary criticism hand-selected by my professors.

I took the textbook out the other day when the refrain of the poem refused to leave my head and I couldn’t seem to find a standard version of the poem online:

An English version (one of many that can be found online) is here.

Birago Diop was a Senegalese writer, veterinarian, and diplomat, whose childhood was steeped in folktales told by griots. As a writer, he became affiliated with the Négritude movement.

One analysis of this poem emphasizes its source in Animism, the belief that there are souls not only in living things, but in all things — and that there is no separation between the spiritual and material worlds.

No surprise, then, that this poem has resurfaced precisely now, bobbing like a cork in my mind as I begin to make my way out of the initial shock of my father’s death and into the unfamiliar process of situating this loss within everyday life.

Since losing my father, many things have been revealed to me about the way the departed make their presence known in the world. Not just the Velcro I spoke of in my previous post, and not just the glimpses of the many other things my father loved popping up where I least expect them. 

I find I have new ways to interact with people I may have known for a long time, who dealt with the loss of a parent before I did, and who now welcome me to the (admittedly sad) club. We can talk about things, find points of intersection, and muse about how well our fathers might have gotten along.

There have also been unexpected communications from beyond, mediated by people my father might not even have bothered to speak to while he was alive. This week, I found myself unexpectedly in receipt of such a message from my father, transcribed by someone who was a stranger to him, someone I have known casually for a long time, someone for whom communication with the dead is a normal occurrence.

(I would have laughed if he’d ever called me Princess)

I wanted to believe it was a put-on, and “Princess” nearly threw me off. Who can wrap their head around their dead father reaching out in this way, and in such unfamiliar handwriting?

What the person who mediated this communication did not know was that this particular week,as I headed in for my next brain MRI, I’d really need that sort of reassurance, whether or not it was actually from my dad. My anxiety this time was tempered by grief, but it was still there. My continued health is not a foregone conclusion. But I have outlived my father, which at several points might have been a less certain thing. I wouldn’t say this gives me a sense of comfort, really. It is just one less thing I have to dwell on.

Yesterday morning, I went for my scan. Today, I saw Nurse Practitioner Rajni, who told me right away that my MRI looked just fine. I told her my father was dead, which was news to her, because the last she’d heard, I was headed down to see him (and asking what to do about taking my medication that needs refrigerating). I narrated his final days for her, and each time I do this for someone feels like a bandage being ripped off, a wound reopening.

Being back in a medical setting was not easy, neither yesterday at the MRI facility (where I was largely okay, except for a brief moment when the technician placed my IV and my vein collapsed and she had to start over, and I thought of the many times in the hospital that my father was stuck), nor today, when Nelson, my favorite technician at Dr P’s office, consoled me as I cried while he took my vitals. He too was on the verge of tears, telling me about losing his father to cancer four years ago.

Last night before going to sleep, I realized this would be the first time I’d get scan results and not be able to call my dad to tell him. (I dissolved into tears, of course.) This morning as I was rushing to my appointment, I saw my father’s plaid shirt draped over a chair and knew I’d need to wear it.

My father’s shirt was there with me, getting the news. In the past three weeks, I have tuned in to things (choses), and also to beings (êtres). And I think I might have learned the lesson that this poem implanted in my head so long ago: Les morts ne sont pas morts.