Sunday, April 30, 2006

Shrink Age: Poets Caring for Elderly Parents

Several friends and acquaintances are right now dealing with the anguish of aged parents whose health is failing. By coincidence, I've just met with an informal group of teachers who think that there might be something unique in the perspective of teachers on this very issue.

This brought to mind poets who have written about this theme, Linda Pastan and Jane Kenyon.

Kenyon prepared her last collection of poems with her husband during her own terminal struggle with cancer. Among the last poems she wrote before illness claimed her are several that deal with caring for her husband in a battle with cancer that he won, and with the final illnesses of his parents and hers. "In the Nursing Home" begins,
She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.
I read the poem during the last of my grandmother's 106 years, and was struck deeply by the idea that shrinkage is the essence of the condition of extreme age. Another poem of hers, "Eating the Cookies," makes a ritual of packing away the great-grandmother's belongings into boxes and plastic bags after her funeral. Finding a tin of cookies in the house, the poet rewards herself with one cookie for each room she empties, until the house is empty, and only one cookie remains. Reading this to children, I asked, "So, what should she do now? Just gobble it up?" Immediately they "got" it -- when the cookie is gone, so is the grandmother, and eating it has become something akin to Communion.

Linda Pastan's collection Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 touches often on this theme. With bittersweet humor, "The Cousins" describes those strangers that see each other only at funerals, remembering their ever-more-remote childhoods together. "Go Gentle," similar in brevity and sentiment to Kenyon's nursing home poem, is addressed to the grandfather who taught her to swim. "The Death of a Parent" begins,
Move to the front
of the line
a voice says, and suddenly
there is nobody
left standing between you
and the world...
and grows stronger from there, building to a common image of sunset, in an uncommon way, "as the sun drops/ its rusted padlock/ into place."

Shrink Age: Poets Caring for Elderly Parents | Category: Poetry


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