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40 Greatest Stories

The Death of a Poet

Young Judith McPheron, fuller of life than most, faces the end.
By Michael Berryhill |
In the night, ghosts visit Judith in her sleep, asking her age, asking what terrible sin she has committed to deserve such a punishment. Her father-in-law hears her groaning in her sleep.

He is relieved that she is in good spirits. That night he tells her that liposarcoma is a very rare disease, and no one knows much about it. No one, she notices, uses the word cancer.

Out of this avoidance, another cancer poem comes:

To name a lump
is to distinguish
something we wish
were still nothing
to give it shape
and almost
the status
of a piercing organ.
(Who, really, eats
liver without wincing?)

I relinquish control
but do not want
to stop knowing
the names of things.
And it is curious,
yes, like words
we can’t imagine
once they grace
the formerly empty
piece of paper
that something grows
from nothing.

After her cast is removed, Judith is taken to another doctor. He is facing the wall when she enters the room. He turns and greets her as Mrs. McPheron. Judith notices he is 6 inches shorter than she is. He wants to know if she realizes why she is there.

“To swim the English Channel?”

The doctor suggests that perhaps she doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

“Well, yes, I do. I’m the gravity. I manufacture my own.”

He is annoyed and confused and doesn’t know what to say. Judith decides she is in enemy territory.

“Well,” he says, “Friday I will cut a section out of your leg, and Dr. Collins will implant radioactive gold seeds, and you’ll have another cast, and then we’ll see. Where’s your husband? What does he do for a living?”

“I’m a librarian.”

“Oh. Read a lot of books?”


“Go home, and wash with this soap every hour. This is the easy part, you know.”

“Oh. What’s the hard part?”

“Waiting. Want a tranquilizer?”

Judith rides back to her father-in-law’s house in the fine desert air, sorting things out.

Liposarcoma is a rare form of cancer. It strikes at any age, but most often people between 40 and 60. Judith is 30 years old.

She thinks of the medical shows that were popular on television when she was in junior high school. It seemed that 20 minutes of an hour-long program would be taken showing the doctors and relatives agonizing about whether to tell the patient he or she had cancer. All the factors were considered, and added up slowly, like the counting of a bridge hand.

They must have been taking payola from the American Medical Association, she thinks. Off the air, doctors are so casual and matter-of-fact that she is forced to create a counter-theory. Since no one, especially the good-guy doctors, could be so callous, they are really acting gruff to hold in their torrential feelings, which would drown them if given a chance. It is the Puritan demeanor with a vengeance. Since anyone who shows his feelings is crude and probably an emotional fake, then those who show nothing are the genuine, but dignified, emoters. This leaves no room for the truth.

• • •

The desert air is like raw silk. Between washings of her leg, Judith fussily bunches her papers together. Doves coo in the backyard. Her husband brings her a blue cowboy shirt for her return from the hospital. Presents are a kind of insurance to him, she thinks. A grandfather clock rings every 15 minutes until it is time for her trip to the hospital. She dreads it. She thinks it is like prison.

She makes a list of things she is afraid of: Being in the clutches of people who would want to lock her up in the loony bin if she acted normal. Acting normal. Getting stuck on a bedpan for an hour. Her job dissolving and floating away while she is gone. Dissolving and leaving a ring around the tub as she goes down the drain.

From her hospital window Judith can see yucca, mesquite, creosote and crown of thorns. She has no complaints about the vegetation. People peek in to see her, squeeze and poke her. She concentrates on her breathing and counts the tiles in the ceiling. Her father-in-law comes in with the Houston specialist, who sports a waxed mustache. He tells her twice how lucky she is to have virtually an entire hospital at her disposal. Judith wants to tell him that her grandfather was a socialist, but stops herself.

“Yes,” she says, “and I will soon have the most valuable leg in the Permian Basin.”

She has the room to herself because of the radiation she will emit. She will contaminate those who come near her, especially women of childbearing age, if they stay too long.

“Why,” she wants to know, “won’t I contaminate myself, then?”

She makes up a melody for Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and sings it aloud: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” She brings it down to a whisper when she hears someone coming down the hall.

The next morning the anesthesiologist comes in early to prepare her for the surgery. He is a New York Jew, like Judith, and she is flooded with a secret comfort. She represses an urge to wink at him. Her husband comes in and lays out a hand of solitaire on her blanket, asking the cards, it seems to Judith, for an answer. The surgeon comes by and tells her she will be able to do anything she wants after the operation except play tennis.

“Fine,” she says, “I’ll give my racket to the Salvation Army.”

No one laughs. Judith feels guilty for not being athletic and promises herself she will take up running, or at least serious walking, if she gets out of this okay.

After giving her a shot, they wheel her away to the operating room with side rails up. They cannot keep her from floating. She watches everyone dancing around in the operating room for as long as she can. No one says a word to her. Why should the actors talk to the props? she thinks before going completely under.

• • •

A gray blob comes up to her cheek, touches it. She is gray. A voice tells her to wake up. She struggles to open her nostrils, her eyelids. She is singing a chain-gang song.

Never been to Houston, boys,
but I been told
women in Houston
got that sweet jellyroll.
Raise ’em up higher, higher,
drop on down,
raise ’em up higher, higher,
drop on down.

Someone is massaging her toes, a young Chicano; Judith can tell through her hands she is not in a hurry.

“Hey Ladybug, how you feel?”

“Glub, glub,” says Judith.

Judith giggles, thinking of the man in Oklahoma who had gold football emblems fitted into his front teeth. She tries to point to her teeth, giggling, but her hand seems glued down. None of this seems to make the nurse nervous. She sees her leg, white and huge again, with a plastic sack of blood sitting near it. A pudding? she thinks.

She talks to the nurse, Carolyn, and finds out about her four children, how one of her daughters wants to be a doctor. Carolyn loves her work. Judith struggles to find her father-in-law’s phone number, written on a matchbook. She gets excited, wondering where her husband is, and tries to calm herself. She picks up the receiver and asks it how she will ever call her husband. Her eyes won’t focus. Carolyn finds the number and calls him for her.

“Where are you?” she shouts. “Where? You’re abandoning me.”

“Don’t you remember?” he asks. “I was there all afternoon.”

She remembers nothing.

He comes and stands in the doorway because he has had his limit of her radiation that day. He smiles and caresses her with his eyes. Nurses want to know if they can get her anything for the pain. A sledgehammer? Judith thinks. She wants to know why she feels so funny, and her husband says it’s because they have given her a shot of something to bring her out of the anesthesia.

He leaves, and Carolyn asks her if she wants to pee. Judith loves her for not saying urinate or eliminate or empty your bladder. At night someone gives her a sleeping pill, and she wants to say she doesn’t think she’ll need it, but she can only cluck her tongue.

Later that night she looks up to see her husband sitting very straight. He talks about Melville and Ahab, and they argue about the metaphysics of missing legs.

“I cannot deceive you now,” she says. “All the ships in Christendom and some beyond will never quell that whale.”

His answers are serious, discreet, always on the side of moody Ishmael, the gazer from the mast, the man who escaped Ahab’s mad quest.

She asks what he is doing there again, so near, and he turns into the IV stand. She is devastated by the self-deception. A nurse comes in.

“Another shot? You want another shot for pain?”

There’s no shot for this. All night long she glides in and out of conversation with him.

Tarantulas crawl down the walls, and she counts the hairs on their legs. The tiles fall from the ceiling one by one, and the ceiling draws closer and closer to the bed. It will all go away, she thinks, if I can hold out for the light.

• • •

Judith stares at the bouillon on her tray and shouts silently at it: “But I am only 30 years old!”

Her leg throbs, and she still cannot focus her eyes. Terrified that something is wrong with them, she buzzes for a doctor. A guy she has never seen before strolls in wearing Bermuda shorts and knee socks. He stuffs another pillow under her leg and pokes the sack of blood.

“Nurse, empty this.”

“Well?” Judith asks.

“You rest. I’m gonna go play golf.”

Who knows, she thinks, if you complain they might gouge your eyes out and keep them on a chain in their pockets, a sort of good-luck charm. She hates herself for being so afraid.

• • •

Carolyn leaves for another floor.

“Bye, Ladybug. I’m off to the babies.”

Judith tries to hide her disappointment. In three days Carolyn has become her mother — better than a mother. Judith resolves to learn Spanish and fly away with Carolyn to the babies.

She tries to figure out the nurses. They snap like rubber bands when the doctors come by.

Only the ones at the top and bottom of the hierarchy can afford to relax. Those starched caps ain’t just for looks.

Her husband and brother-in-law come for a visit. There is only one chair, so she invites them to sit on the bed, but they are afraid they will hurt the leg. Or it will hurt them, she thinks. She keeps asking when she can go home. Soon, in a few days, they say.

A kid comes around with a fancy machine to teach her how to breathe properly. She didn’t know she needed lessons. She is offended and bored. She still can’t focus her eyes well enough to read more than a few sentences at a time.

But she has gathered some facts about her surgery. One of the doctors has said it was a beautiful incision. Her hallucinations and eye trouble have come from a clash of two kinds of anesthetics. The tissue, muscle, bone and other guck they took from her leg was clean. She wonders whether they had to chop it out. She will need crutches. Her arms feel useless. They tell her to eat red meat, but she gags at the thought of a dead animal making its way down her throat.

The day she is to leave the hospital, Judith sits in her chair, trying to pull her skirt over her head, telling herself over and over again: This is not happening to someone else. She tries to get the skirt down around her hips without getting up but it resists, a live and willful creature. She checks her watch every five minutes and wets her thumb to smooth her eyebrows.

She awakes on her father-in-law’s green couch, sweating, disoriented and full of guilt. She should not be lounging around in full view, advertising her illness, she thinks, but stiff behind white sheets and closed doors. It seems to take half a lifetime to maneuver with the crutches to the bedroom.

It is hard in a world of healthy, white-teethed, smiling, smooth-cheeked, gentile giants, she thinks. I do not care to be cared for by such glittering competence and well-being. She wishes she were an avenging angel. Then she would avenge herself.

Her brother-in-law makes red enchiladas for dinner. Like Judith, he has a passion for northern New Mexico. The red enchiladas are an apprenticeship in loving the region, a sort of ceremony.

I am glad to have a nose to smell with, a tongue to taste with, she thinks. I am happy that all the world is not washed clean and deserted every night.

The Houston specialist has phoned and said she requires no more radiation treatment. Her friends at work have sent her a new fountain pen with a gold point. She ought to write the Houston doctor a thank-you note with it, she thinks; it’s expected.

She brandishes the new pen like a sword. With this she will fight off the encroaching barbarism. With this she will write the poems of her life, and if need be, the poems of her death.

• • •