Day 92: Beautiful letters, and more to come
As one small expression of my gratitude, I want to go back ten days, to the weekend before we left M.D. Anderson, to say thanks for yet more beautiful letters.
It was Anna’s birthday last Sunday (the 12th). The previous night, five women friends from BodyChoir made the journey to Houston, to spend the night in adjoining rooms and then go dancing with Anna at a Houstonian incarnation of BodyChoir (where they were joined by five or six more folks from Austin). On Saturday night the seven of us were sitting in our living room at Rotary House—me, Anna, Nicky, Colleen, Sara Lo, Amy, and Gina—and we thought it would be nice to invite them to open some letters with us and read them aloud to me. So that’s what we did, each person (except me, of course) taking two envelopes. It was wonderful, hearing the quiet voices reading in the near-dark, so curious to know what they would say and so careful to get it right. I didn’t note who read what, but here they are, “in the order it was received,” as the voice mail systems say.
First was a lovely collage called “The Meaning of Love.” Several people tried to decipher the signature but couldn’t, and then the phrase “my family here in the United States” leapt out at me along with the initial “L” at the end, and I thought it must have come from Luciana, a beautiful, sweet dancer from Brazil whom we met at BodyChoir sometime last fall. Next was a card showing a beautiful orange tiger at the feet of a Buddha beneath a hand-drawn background with a golden moon, and inside was a healing message from Scott and Cherry, more BodyChoir friends—Scott had gone in for scary heart surgery not long after I came back to BodyChoir in the fall last year; Cherry’s a naturopathic nurse; both helped keep me strong during the dance and with a magical though quick visit while I was at Seton back in June. Then there was a sweet letter from Ivana Slavnic, who came to Austin from Sarajevo in 1991 with her husband, Ivo, and son, Marko, for what was supposed to be a six-month Fulbright stay in the English Department, then got trapped by the terrible war in what had been Yugoslavia—nostalgic for her childhood in Dubrovnik, praying for my health, and including Blake’s poem “The Nurse’s Song” to help me on the way. Ivana’s letter and poem were followed by a long letter fro Amparo Garcia—BodyChoir dancer, playwright, improviser, story-teller—that included the two poems she had read at our leave-taking ceremony in August, her own “God’s Real Name” and 7-year-old Sria’s lovely, funny, startlingly articulate poem about the bike ride of life. Amparo has had her own struggles with serious illness in the past couple of years; so has her friend Charley, a jazz musician and BodyChoir facilitator, who sent a poem about his own experience of cancer and a letter that included a Hebrew prayer to the God of healing that Charley had found healing as well—as if somehow Charley had tuned in to the prayers that Neil Blumofe would chant at the celebration.
Then there was a card from Liz, Alan, and Daniel—Liz and I shared a house for about 6 weeks in the fall of 1979 when we were both newly arrived in Austin; she and Alan and I have been friends ever since,; they were at our wedding and we were at theirs, and we share their delight in Daniel, now in his second (or is it third?) year at UT. On the card was a blue and white dove, and inside was Yeats’ poem “A Friend’s Illness” (Liz is one of the foremost Yeats scholars in the world, and Alan too is a student of Irish writers, especially Joyce and Beckett). It was Liz and Alan who introduced us to Ivo and Ivana and Marko… Following that was a card from Allison Orr, a fine choreographer whom we met at Deborah Hay’s “Immensity at Work” workshop in 2001. Along with the card, which shoed a an abundance of vegetables and fruit in a still life that was also somehow a cornucopia, was a letter in which Allison talked about the dance, “Sextet,” which she had choreographed in late 2002 and early 2003 for “an English professor, a Zen priest, their guide dogs, and two trained dancers,” with live audio description by Celia Hughes; it was an extraordinary thing for all of us, changing all of our lives. The sound of Dillon’s feet galloping across the stage, solo, to thunderous applause is something I’ll never forget. Next came a letter from Mark Sullivan, another BodyChoir dancer; Mark, who brought me a beautiful meal of salmon with herbs from his own garden when I was at St. David’s in the summer of 2005 and had regained the ability to eat, celebrated the love between me and Anna and sent two poems, one a short piece of his own and the other W.E. Henley’s “Master of My Soul.”
Then there was a postcard, hand-made, whimsical, from Honoria Starbuck, mail artist and historian of mail art, grower of nasturtiums, that reminded me of the mail-art mystery stories she used to send me when I was teaching in Paris in 1992—the card showed a woman in a big hat (Honoria sometimes wears big hats) holding up her hand in “a tropical area”; above the hand were tiny men in blue suits, hugging, legs in air (I keep thinking of Magritte’s men in bowler hats raining down on the streets of Paris), as the legend said, “to provoke the copulation between art and non-art” (from a mail-art manifesto). Next to be opened was an envelope containing a card signed only “Daniel” (I think this is Alejandra’s husband, a wonderful, kind man from San Antonio, a photographer who seems always to have a smile in his voice) containing a short message of great gravity (but not heaviness)—the Hebrew prayer Shehma Israel (Hear, O Israel…), such a powerful prayer, so resonant in my memory—I had flashbacks of going to synagogue with my family when I was little, not understanding the words but loving the chanting, voices of old men who had been praying at their own pace throughout the service suddenly coming together, then diverging again. At the end there was Gina, who shares her tiny house in Fredericksburg with no fewer than seven cats, holding up the card she had sent—a picture of many kittens rolling around, and a healing mantra from Ram Das: Be here now.
Then we all sat quietly for a while, taking it all in; I still marvel at the beauty of each letter and the beauty of the round-robin reading.
The next evening—Anna’s actual birthday—it was just the two of us (Anna had danced in the morning, as I said above, and I had joined the group for lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Los Cucos on Memorial Drive, near the place where the dancing had been; we sat outside in the cool, clear, sunny air), and we opened just two envelopes. But what envelopes they were. The first was from Damaun Gracenin, a very tall man with a deep voice and an East Coast accent with whom I’ve danced a few times at BodyChoir and with whom I had a long conversation that took many twists and turns exactly a year ago that night—I remember it because we were in Laura Rose’s back yard at a surprise birthday party she had organized for Anna (my job had been just to get her there, to Laura Rose’s house, where she thought the wonderful massages by Layla and Gina were the entire surprise, until she stepped out the back door and the yard erupted into Happy Birthday; and I was still weak and shaky from (what we thought was) the last round of chemo that had ended two weeks earlier—and now here was Damaun’s voice coming off the page. It was an elegant, beautifully written discourse on shallow truths and deep truths and on the nature of the self and on love, and it ended with the simple phrase “I love you,” and all I could do was sit there stunned and grateful, not realizing for a moment that I had been holding my breath. And then Anna opened an envelope with a card from Paul and Kari Taylor (who has had her own hospital stay this year) depicting a beautiful Mayan forest and enclosing a letter from Paul, who will I think be pleased to know that he succeeded in finding a poem I would never have expected from him (when I met him in 1986 in what was then just beginning to be the CWRL, Paul was a medievalist who liked the really early stuff, on his way to becoming a rhetorician). The poem was Ted Hughes’ “Wodwo,” a startling piece when it was first published in the 60s, one I hadn’t read for a very long time. The speaker is a crow, and the poem is a kind of harsh meditation on life and death and the boundaries between self and world; then Paul went on to talk about his experiences as a long-distance bicycle rider and how the long rides test the limits of self; he wanted me to know that I had affected many lives, including his, and again I sat stunned and grateful beyond words.
They are such gifts, these letters and poems and drawings. I know that they have played a critical role in helping me come through the transplant in such good shape so far, and I think my doctors know it, too, though they can’t explain it any more than I can.
This isn’t the end of the letters, either. We’re back in Austin now, but there are so many letters we couldn’t possibly open them all while we were still in Houston without rushing through them, which felt like it would have violated the spirit of care and thoughtfulness and tenderness with which they were composed and brought to us. So we’ve brought them home, and will continue opening them until we reach the last one. And then, for the sheer beauty of it, maybe we’ll read them all again.
Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks.