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“I have a problem. I know you can’t help me, but I want to tell you anyway.”
She approaches me after the first class of a four-week writing course I’m teaching. Her blue eyes search my face earnestly. I quickly take note of her dangling earrings and bracelets.
“I’m a poet,” she forcefully continues. “But look at my hands. I can’t write with these hands and, when I do, I can’t read my own handwriting.”
She reports that she’s 89 years old and has been writing poetry most of her life. Even published a poetry book and is working on another – love letters to her deceased husband, who suffered with dementia the last nine years of their marriage.
“It wasn’t a great marriage,” she casually notes. “He didn’t even like poetry. I told him that if he didn’t like poetry, he didn’t like me.” So now she’s writing him letter-poems to better understand their dynamic – a challenge on several levels.
“My hand can’t keep up with my brain. My inspiration comes in waves of thought, but I can’t get them down. And then I forget them.”
I flash back to the devastation my mother felt when the brain tumor robbed her of the ability to type. She too was a writer – a syndicated columnist, a prolific writer of essays and letters. Paralyzed on her left side, her inability to place her fingers on the correct keys of her typewriter was one of the most bitter consequences of the crippling disease.
My new student and I stand facing each other, and I wonder where this conversation is going. But I do know she’s right: I can’t help her. I couldn’t even help my own mother.
“It’s even hard for me to use a keyboard now,” she laments. “And anyway, it’s not the same. I don’t want to write poetry on a keyboard. People tell me to use a voice-activated machine, but that’s not how you create poetry. You know, right?”
While I don’t know much about the poets’ craft, I do know how important it is for me to physically record my thoughts, pen and paper being my preferred media as well. More significantly though, I think about how merciless the aging process can be, stripping us of our ability to pursue our deepest desires and passions. It seems cruel to let poetry still actively form in Pat’s brain without a way for her to transcribe it.
Is she still a poet if no one reads or hears her verse?
As she stares into my face waiting for my response, an article by John Updike pops into my head. The Writer in Winter was written the year before he died at 77 years of age. Focusing on how challenging it can be to skillfully use language as we age, Updike wrote:
A few images, a few memorable acquaintances, a few cherished phrases, circle around the aging writer’s head like gnats…He sits down before the word processor’s humming, expectant screen, facing the strong possibility that he has already expressed what he is struggling to express again…With ominous frequency, I can’t think of the right word. I know there IS a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness…
Feeling unnerved by this Ghost-of-Christmas-Future glimpse into my coming years, I turn my attention back to Pat and ask the obvious: “Have you tried a pen with a larger barrel? Or you could use your favorite pen and slide a hand grip over it. They sell those in office supply stores.”
Her face immediately softens. “Oh, like little kids use,” she remarks, without any seeming sensitivity to the comparison drawn. “No, I haven’t tried those, but that’s a great idea. I didn’t think you could help me, but you did immeasurably. See? You do get it. I knew you would. Thank you.” And off she goes with a spring in her step, her bracelets jingling.
Truth is, Pat just helped me more than I helped her. I offered her a too-simple solution to what became for me a much-more-complex issue. She was able to help me place a higher priority on my writing practice, a practice I love so much, yet too frequently neglect – sadly analogous to many of my relationships as well. How often do I choose to do something other than write, allowing mindless, insignificant activities to take precedence over my passion for the written word?
At a considerably younger age than Updike when he wrote about “the misty rim of consciousness,” I sense that my own literary talent is already fleeting. The “right” words too often elude me, even as I obsessively search for them. Pat has just reminded me that I must capitalize on my gift of self-expression while I’m still able to do so.
The following week, she brings me a copy of her published poetry book, barely-legibly inscribed “To my journaling mentor.” I start reading it in the parking lot after class; the verses are so poignant, I can’t put it down. She is indeed a poet. And will continue to be so, well into her tenth decade.
copyright 2015 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of the play, The Stone that Started the Ripple, about a modern-day reunion of the founding suffragists. Her book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, consists of 300 vignettes about the caregiving and loss experience. Her creative nonfiction essays have won awards and have been featured in national trade and literary publications. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.