Friday, November 25, 2016
Monday, I led my last poetry reading session at an assisted living facility. I have been leading the club for 16 months: I have loved it and have loved the elders, but I’m ready for a break. Fortunately, one of the people who works at the facility will now take it on.
Each week I’ve collected poems that I think they might like around a theme of interest to them. This week’s collection I titled, “Giving Thanks” and I included poems that either they introduced me to or I will think about differently because of them. (There are of course more of those poems than we could read in an hour, so I’ve snuck many in the last two weeks, too.)
We read James Wright’s “The Blessing,” a gentle poem about a man’s encounter with horses that will always remind me of Sheila’s gentle nature and love of horses. Next we read the humorist Dorothy Parker’s poem “One Perfect Rose,” a poem that May Lynn introduced me to and fits her literary sense of humor. That poem also reminds me two longer humorous poems from residents: Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” that will always remind me of Geoff, one of the first members of poetry club, a man with a subtle sense of humor; and Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” that reminds me of Frank, a man with a full-bodied laugh who lived eight years in a Japanese internment camp and was one of the few of his regiment to return from World War II.
Then there was a poem from Zelda, “Leisure” by William Henry Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have not time to stop and stare.” I’ll always hear it in her South African accent. Though I’ve known for years Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I’ve never heard it read so beautifully as by Ada, who at 97 often angers other residents because she doesn’t hear well and doesn’t have much of a social filter. The first time Ada read the poem, the other residents who had often scowled at her burst into applause. To close the session we read Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” after which I’ll never forget Kaylin exclaiming, “Now that’s a poem!” Finally, I read Charles Reznikoff’s poem of thanks, “Te Deum” and finished with a reading of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a favorite poem of all of theirs which they (and you) may call simply, “Daffodils.” I printed that poem so that they could take it back to their rooms with them. I carry it in my heart with me. I remember a discussion about those beautiful images we carry with us when we are melancholy: light on the water, the swishing sound of a river, and the peeling paint on an old barn. I most remember Frank saying that when he thought of something beautiful and joyful he thought of his lovely wife of 63 years, whom we had all known until her recent death.
Though we have usually ended with a song, and I’ll never forget Pearl dancing to “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hounddog,” this week we ended with Judith’s expression of gratitude to me and chocolate cupcakes. Judith has meant so much to me since I met her: she doesn’t deal with the cognitive issues that most residents do but experiences pain from arthritis and ongoing heart problems. I love her feisty spirit: her insistence on those who work there respecting all of the residents for their amazing stories and continuing humanity. Judith is a thanksgiver. This time, she said, “You have changed my life.” About six months ago, she told me, “You have reminded me of a part of myself that I had forgotten.” Frank yelled out, “Bless you.” And others contributed similar blessings. Afterwards, many of the residents came up to say a personal thank you. Earnie kissed me on the cheek: a gentle kiss that will remain with me.
I am a thanksgiver, too, and being thanked means a lot to me.
As I left the room and headed for the stairs, Geoff’s daughter, a bit younger than I am, chased me down (not hard to do as I hobbled with my cane), saying she wanted to thank me for how much this club has meant to her 97 year-old father. She's in a family of thanksgivers. As she talked, I remembered her mother Anneka, who was sick with cancer when I arrived last June. At that point, Anneka slept most of the day, used an oxygen tank and a walker, kept her eyes closed, and was mostly non-verbal. I only ever heard her speak two words. One day after I’d spent some time in their apartment talking with Geoff about poetry, she opened her eyes wide, and said, “Thank you.”
Though I am tired and ready for a rest, my heart is full of gratitude.