IN THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE
When I woke from anesthesia,
I was quoting Shakespeare, saying, “I feel strange,
but, as Shakespeare says, I must
greet it as a stranger.”
The nurse in the recovery room
tried to orient me, but I replied, “
So I have heard,
and do in part believe.” I said something
about Love Pantry, next to a Thai restaurant,
where Linda and I had joked about going.
There she was beside me. I kept saying,
“So glad to see you,” as if I’d come back
from the other world, casting off dread
like an anchor. I know nothing
about heaving an anchor. I know a few things
about meteors and grief. And if I’d chosen
to go on in my pedantic, loopy way,
I could’ve said, quoting Shakespeare,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.”
But I was happy as I sucked at the ice chips
Linda fed me with a blue plastic spoon.
They were the best things I ever tasted. At midnight,
the nurse let me have a cup of raspberry jello.
It was the best thing I ever tasted.
If only these opiates could last, each breath not empty,
each moment bright and flickering.
When the lab tests came back,
the surgeon said, “We got the cancer.
It hasn’t spread to your lymph nodes.”
Again, I felt gratitude and thirst,
which I tried to remember as the pain began,
an anchor dragging, my works and days
connected to a catheter. As I turned to my routines,
walks and one book, I tried to get it back,
that strange gift from the other side. I wanted
to join it to an orange on a white plate,
bitter at first, sweet underneath, a crow
on a picnic table, an empty bowl
that a friend filled with water for her regal white dog.
I tried to connect the crow’s
arrogant croaking to the pain in my back.
But, no, you don’t need to know how OxyContin
knocked the pain down from a seven to a two,
don’t need to hear how they stitched me together.
On the beach at Moclips, where we went
before the surgery, Linda flew a blue kite,
a smile of pure delight on her face,
the sun half-hidden in gray-white clouds.
She said, “Maybe, this isn’t the last goodbye—
maybe you’ll get lucky again.”
And her face in the recovery room,
her smile—you can take a blackboard
and set God’s stars on it. You can take
an orange and chew the pulp,
savor the juice that tastes like nothing else,
as the word “orange” rhymes with nothing else.
I can’t tell you what Linda means to me.
Perhaps, our life isn’t a string of moments,
each one no more or less important
than another, as the Buddhist poet implied.
But I was talking about gratitude and thirst.
I get to park my ancient green Subaru
under the linden trees, near the privet hedges,
with their sweet white flowers.
from Rattle #43, Spring 2014
Tribute to Love Poems
[ download audio]
Richard Widerkehr: “You ask why I love poems. I think of the woman in Fiddler on a Roof who said, ‘I’ve cooked his food, shared his bed, given him children. I must love him.’ In poems, I wrestle with water, sticks, dreams, stones, syllables, and stories. I wrote ‘In the Presence of Absence’ in a workshop led by Ellie Mathews at Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington, in the summer of 2007.”