Ahead of Time

On poetry and mourning

Kamran Javadizadeh
Illustration by Joules Garcia

Ninety-three days before she died, my sister sent me a message. Five and a half years earlier, Bita had been diagnosed with stage four intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and deadly form of cancer. She was forty-three. There was a thirteen-centimeter mass—roughly the size of a grapefruit—in her liver. When the radiologist friend who’d helped get Bita into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center saw me in the hospital corridor after her diagnosis, he burst into tears.

Bita had been in treatment ever since; I had been beside her for nearly every appointment. They tended to be on Mondays: I’d take the train from Philadelphia to New York City and meet her in the waiting area of her oncologist’s clinic. Inside, I’d watch and listen and take notes. I discovered I had a talent for explaining to the doc­tor what my sister wanted to know but was reluctant to ask directly, and for explaining to Bita the implications of what he’d actually said rather than what she was afraid she’d heard. I’m a poetry critic and a teacher. What I did in the oncologist’s clinic was not so dif­ferent from what I do in the classroom or on the page. I listened and redescribed what I’d heard; I connected threads, or tried to.

Now it was the sixth summer after her diagnosis, and I had brought my six-year-old daughter from our home in Pennsylvania to California to visit my parents and stay for a few weeks in the house where Bita and I had grown up. Bita had herself been six when we’d moved to California from Iran; I had been one. For the first few years we shared a bedroom. I don’t remember much of it. The shag carpet in our room was red, faded from the sunlight that poured through the sliding glass doors each afternoon. At night, our mother would tuck us in. In my earliest memories, we’re each in our own bed, lying in the dark. I am refusing to speak Farsi. Each night, before she lets her leave the room, Bita makes our mother promise that everything is going to be okay.

Was this—the way a balloon’s string slips from a child’s fist—how I was going to lose her?

That summer morning, out in California with my daughter, I’d pulled an edition of Langston Hughes’s poems from a shelf in that same childhood bedroom (eventually it became mine alone) and idly flipped through its pages. I landed here:

Island

Wave of sorrow,

Do not drown me now:

I see the island

Still ahead somehow.

I see the island

And its sands are fair:

Wave of sorrow,

Take me there.

Time washing up on my shore: a poem from the previous century, a book from another life. I snapped a picture with my phone and, in what had become a daily ritual, posted the poem to Twitter. Bita was on Twitter, too, but almost always passively; she rarely posted.

This time, however, there was a reply from her, two hours later: “Love you baradar – I’ll meet you there.”

She sent that message from a hospital bed. Her white blood cell count was off, and her doctors were concerned that she was exhib­iting early signs of pneumonia. Where, I wanted to know, was this “there,” and when would our meeting take place? The poem asks for deliverance—it is a prayer for a utopian future—but its terms are strange. Its present is full of pain, “sorrow” that threatens to fill the same airways that allow for breath. In that sense the poem’s continuation, line by line, stanza by stanza, is evidence of its prayer having been answered.

“Many a green isle,” Shelley once wrote, in lines that, an ocean away and a century later, Hughes might have recalled, “needs must be / In the deep wide sea of Misery.” Without dry land, Shelley implies, one could not go on suffering; relief must exist, in his weird logic, because it is a necessary precondition for the con­tinued presence of the suffering speaker. For Hughes the logic is weirder still: the very wave of sorrow that threatens to overwhelm him today will convey him to relief tomorrow. Sorrow is both his affliction and his vehicle. A wave, after all, is not so much a thing as a dynamic and empty form that moves through matter, reorga­nizing it as it passes through. The wave is not the water; it is the shape the water takes. No more is it, then, the sorrow; it is sor­row’s rising. But if, by some chance, the wave carries rather than overwhelms us, then we might find that it has taken us somewhere else—and left behind the pain. In the poem, what rescues the “now” from perpetual “sorrow” is its attachment, by means of rhyme, to a “somehow”: a world that cannot be explained but that is never­theless plainly there.

I’ll meet you there. I don’t know whether I believed my sister’s words on that afternoon in July. I’m not sure—I wasn’t then, and I’m not now—what she meant. I’m not sure that she knew what she meant, either. By the time she wrote those words, she had endured more than five years of constant, often grueling, treatment: che­motherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, then all of them all over again. She very badly wanted to be cured. She had two little boys, just five and seven when she’d been diagnosed, eleven and thirteen that summer. She also very badly wanted her time of illness to be over. That those two desires might not have been reducible to the same outcome was something we both understood, here and there, now and then.

one hundred and one days before she died, my sister began to not make sense. I heard it happening on the phone, an effect at first so subtle that I could explain it only as a change of tone. She sounds a little dazed, I texted her husband. Childlike, almost. She was telling me about a birthday party—one that had never happened—that she had organized for my daughter; when I insisted there hadn’t been such a party, it was as though I could hear her smiling through the phone, like we were sharing a private joke.

My own senses felt like they had slipped out of sync. My sister’s voice, three thousand miles away, was in my ear. Meanwhile what I was looking at was my daughter, learning how to swim: her limbs spread out like a starfish, her chin and belly pointing up to the Californian sky, floating on the surface of the same pool around which all our own childhood birthdays had been celebrated. In the photo albums our mother has made of those parties, the years pass quickly, Bita always ahead of me. Friends from school swarm around in the background, cousins hover at the edges of the frame.

Before a person dies, you talk to them. They die, and you still want to talk to them.

Bita’s eyes tend to find the camera, mine are on her. I can feel the warmth of her cheek, smell the nape of her neck.

Earlier that day, at home in New York, Bita had lost her balance. Her ability to coordinate her body’s movements was suddenly fal­tering. Now she was in the hospital, where she was awaiting tests that might reveal something (a brain metastasis? a stroke?) that could explain this abrupt change.

Part of me wondered how abrupt it had been. Hadn’t I heard her fraying, drifting off, the last few weeks? Was this—the way a balloon’s string slips from a child’s fist—how I was going to lose her? I could feel myself growing angry with her. Couldn’t she try harder to make sense?

Maybe it was that worry that had led me, earlier that same morning, to poke around in her childhood bedroom: searching, I suppose, for some secure line between us. What I found was The Dead and the Living, a book of poems she’d brought home from college nearly three decades earlier. Its author, Sharon Olds, had signed the book on its title page in bright red ink, and dated it “January 1992 / Georgetown.” Bita would have been a college soph­omore. She had taken a class, I remembered her telling me, in which the poets had come to campus to give readings. The book was full of notes in her handwriting, annotations she must have made in class, pink Post-its pressed onto pages to which she’d become particularly attached.

On one of those pink squares, in Bita’s hand: “very reminis­cent of a poem I wrote for my grandmother / I read this on a per­sonal level.” Our grandmother—we called her Maman—had died in Iran two years earlier, days before Bita’s eighteenth birthday. She remembered her in a way that I, still a toddler when we left, could not. Sitting on the edge of my sister’s bed, I read the Sharon Olds poem that had moved her three decades earlier:

Birthday Poem for My Grandmother

(for L.B.M.C., 1890–1975)

I stood on the porch tonight—    which way do we

face to talk to the dead?    I thought of the

new rose,    and went out over the

grey lawn—    things really

have no color at night.    I descended

the stone steps,    as if to the place where one

speaks to the dead.    The rose stood

half-uncurled,   glowing white in the

black air.    Later I remembered

your birthday.    You would have been ninety and getting

roses from me.    Are the dead there

if we do not speak to them?    When I came to see you

you were always sitting    quietly in the chair,

not knitting,    because of the arthritis,

not reading,   because of the blindness,

just sitting.    I never knew how you

did it or what you were thinking.   Now I

sometimes sit on the porch,    waiting,

trying to feel you there like the color of the

flowers in the dark.

The poem worries through and about its broken lines. Until the very end, each line is interrupted by empty space. Those caesuras—each of them a held breath—rehearse the abiding concern of the poem: how can we stay in touch with something we can’t see?

Before a person dies, you talk to them. They die, and you still want to talk to them. But their body is gone. When my sister would come home from college, I would sometimes go into her room and just sit there, hoping she would ask me about what felt at the time to me like the major dramas of my life (I would have been four­teen, fifteen). I was too shy to raise them with her. Now she was drifting away and I was in that same room, holding a book of hers from those same years, her notes inside, and all I could do was read to myself.

The touchingly literal conceit of the Olds poem is that death is like this: a problem of a body having gone missing. You face some­body when you talk to them; if their body is gone, and you wish to go on talking, you must search for a new way of facing them. The poem elaborates this hypothesis, testing it out. The speaker turns to a “new rose,” only to realize that at night we can’t see color, leav­ing the lawn “grey,” the rose “glowing white.” Has the poem found a new way of seeing in the dark, or has grief drained all color from the world?

The desire to talk to the dead requires the “as if” of figurative language: a descent from the world of the living to an underworld. As the poet addresses the absent grandmother, she conjures her into the poem, and yet what appears is a person who had already, even in life, turned toward the darkened state of death: not knitting, not reading. The only unbroken lines in the poem are its final ones, in which the speaker seems to have reconciled herself to having noth­ing more than the imperfect, residual knowledge that death allows.

At the heart of the poem, though, lies a terrible doubt. “Are the dead there / if we do not speak to them?” If our speech is what has seemed to grant others their presence in the first place, have we been fooling ourselves all along? Have we mistaken the projection of our own imagination, reflected back to us at night, for a dim impres­sion of the person whom we miss? “Why do I tell you these things?” John Ashbery asks at the end of one poem. “You are not even here.”

All around me that summer in California were relics of my sister’s presence.

My sister’s voice was slipping away. We’d soon learn that it was neither a stroke nor a brain tumor that had caused the alarming changes we were seeing and hearing. Instead, the immunotherapy that seemed for the time to be stopping her cancer’s growth had caused a swelling in her brain. We’d have to suspend the treatment; it was not clear that any good options remained.

I felt so far away. I kept typing the words I feel like I’m in hell to my friends. All around me that summer in California were relics of my sister’s presence. I sat at the dinner table with my daughter and my parents and realized, with a kind of dull shock, that there were four of us around the table again. In place of my sister now sat my daughter, who was the age Bita had been when we moved into the house. I looked at her, and I looked at my mother looking at her, and then at me. Nobody said a word.

four hundred and ninety-nine days before she died, my sister asked me to tell her the future. In our family—as in many Persian families—when we want to know what the future holds, we ask the poet Hafez. A practice in which we half believe: ask a question, open Hafez at random and point to a passage, then take the lines as an answer.

When Bita first received her diagnosis, our aunt Mahvash had asked Hafez what would happen. His answer—“May your body never need a doctor’s care”—was something we had all been car­rying around as a secret talisman, a private assurance that, bad as everything seemed, it would all turn out okay in the end.

I tried to be careful about the comfort I found there. I knew, of course, as the next few years went along, that the only thing keep­ing Bita alive was her doctors’ care. Treatments would work well enough, and then they wouldn’t. She would be feeling well, and then she wouldn’t. But by the early summer of 2020, four and a half years after her diagnosis, we had begun to allow ourselves to think that the latest treatment, an immunotherapy clinical trial at the National Cancer Institute, just outside of Washington, DC, really was working. Scans and tests had been encouraging. She felt well. Maybe the future was unbounded, ordinary, after all. For the first time since she’d been diagnosed, I’d gone weeks without seeing her. These were the early days of the pandemic, and we were being very cautious—the weeks became months. But this was also a relatively uneventful time in her treatment, and so perhaps my presence felt less necessary. She was even—in some strange way, she admitted—enjoying her time alone, time for herself back near her old college campus at Georgetown.

I was at home in suburban Philadelphia when I received her text: “I asked hafez if my next scan would show that I’m okay and this is what I got.” She’d attached a picture of a section of a poem:

Since that cypress tall and straight

Joined the parting camel-train,

By the cypress sit, and wait

Watchful till he come again.

Here, beside the bubbling spring

Where the limpid river runs,

Softly weep, remembering

Those beloved departed ones.

As each pallid ghost appears,

Speak the epic of thy pain,

While the shower of thy tears

Mingles with the summer rain.

And the river at thy feet

Sadly slow, and full of sighs,

Tributaries new shall meet

From the fountains of thine eyes.

I knew it was a terrible answer. I couldn’t really read it, could only scan it quickly. I remember feeling distracted by the way Bita’s fingers looked in the photograph, holding the book open. They had darkened from four years of chemotherapy. I thought of the cypresses that used to line one side of our swimming pool in California. I thought of the string of deaths, our grandmother’s included, that seemed to punctuate the years of our adolescence, losses from which I felt more and more alienated, each happening a world away from the American life I knew.

I can still read the texts now; they’re on my phone. Her next one:

Kind of freaked me out – don’t really get it. Plus this is a book I just got in the mail and I just decided to ask this question at random

What could I say that would be both true and a comfort? I typed back, “Don’t be freaked out! Most of the time it makes no sense!” And then, “I don’t read anything in particular there that’s relevant to you.” I think the first part was true. At least, when I asked Hafez a question, I often had to flip around until I found something that seemed like an answer. But the second part was a lie.

My reassurance worked, at least for the time being. She thanked me, told me she needed that, that I was the only one who could give that to her. I think what she meant was that she trusted me as a reader of poetry, and trusted also that I wouldn’t lie to her. Which is perhaps another way of saying that she knew I would tell her only the kinds of lies she needed to hear and would have no choice but to believe.

One thing I found myself saying to my sister in the years that followed her diagnosis was that what we wanted was for the future to be unknown.

And then her scan was bad. The tumors had started to grow again; her disease had progressed; we’d have to try something else. And the next 499 days, in retrospect, were a sometimes slow, some­times rapid descent.

When Bita first received her diagnosis, our parents were in the air. They knew something was wrong, but not what; they knew it was bad enough that they should get on the next flight to New York. I left the hospital knowing I would have to meet their cab on Bita’s block, knowing that I would have to tell them what I’d learned that day. I wanted to tell them outside so that they could scream or cry or ask me to repeat and explain the truth before they went upstairs and saw Bita’s two little boys. Knowledge, that night, knowledge of the future, felt like death.

I talked to a radiation oncologist, a friend of a friend, in the days after Bita’s diagnosis. He said that, in his experience, being a can­cer patient, or loving a cancer patient, meant learning to live with radical uncertainty. I know what he meant. Still, one thing I found myself saying to my sister in the years that followed her diagnosis was that what we wanted was for the future to be unknown.

I’m looking back at the Hafez that Bita sent me and reading it again. Grief there seems to produce the ghosts of those you’ve loved. The river by which you weep is slow. You can take your time. Your tears mingle in its stream. I don’t read poems to know the future. I read them to hold the future at bay. Grief may be the knowledge that you can’t do that in the end, that the future won’t be like the past. You feel it now. Like water to the page, it spreads in all directions, it thins the surface, it touches what you cannot touch.

Kamran Javadizadeh is associate professor of English at Villanova University. His work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and PMLA. He hosts the Close Readings podcast.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023

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