"Is a life so small?"
Lately, I hear that cry of anguish again, every day.
The heart-shaped face of my Hawaiian poet-friend, Susan Starr, arises from memory.
Eleven years ago, kay and I were struggling to fit in a visit every week or two to Susan’s little ohana perched on a hillock a third of the way up the sunny slopes of Maui’s dormant volcano, Haleakala, the "house of the sun". The rent was cheap, by Maui standards–a mere $500 per month, if memory serves. For the privilege of privacy, Susan, who could no longer hold down one of the scarce-enough social-service jobs on the island, was willing to pay almost her entire monthly stipend. The little building was furnished in lawn chairs and meditation pads–and a desk with a built-in easel, like a drafter’s desk, where Susan tried, almost every day, to produce a piece of art. There was less food than art supplies in the tiny house, and any little goodie we could bring along was welcome, provided it fell into the category of Stuff Susan Can Still Eat. The details have drifted away, but I recall that the provision of an adequate juicer posed a huge practical and financial issue. Life wasn’t easy within those four walls.
Yet Susan was one of the lucky ones.She had some medical coverage, and she received a small monthly stipend from somewhere. By contrast, had cancer happened to me as it did to her, starvation and exposure would have been my lot, for there was absolutely no coverage for the likes of me, and no social safety net, either. Once I had sold all my chattels and property, the only option would have been death on the beach. But those were the days I was confident I would never have to face cancer. I wasn’t the type. I kept my head down and worked like a dog as if, in the end, I would have earned a nice juicy bone and a comfy dog bed.
For several years Susan struggled along, through hoped-for remissions and dread relapses. Even as the cancer settled in her bones, she worked at rebuilding her life, using food as medicine and art as therapy and, she hoped, income. But income never materialised, art therapy accomplished no miracles, and all the good food in the world could not beat back the cancer.
The day she entered the hospital, never again to emerge alive, was an outrageously busy day for her friends. Such days always are hugely inconvenient, because of the nature of our overly busy lives. My daughter, our poet-friends, and I spelled one another on what promised to be a long, 24/7 watch. Throughout her last four days, Susan kept pronouncing poetry, till her last breath. Amazing stamina! Later, poet Kelly Arbour assembled these final articulations into a mystical poem (which unfortunately I do not have to hand).
Hospital care during this phase had great benefits. Susan’s pain was alleviated, while access by her friends was enhanced. All good. But nothing could mask the stark scene we stepped through, wooden as novice actors, as we accompanied her to her final ward.
The cancer had broken her neck. She lay in the bed, as able to speak, think, feel and create as ever–yet unable to move. This was her irreversible moment, the moment of no return. All hopes and dreams were to be dropped at the threshold of that hospital room.
Although it could not have happened, I remember her seizing my hand. I must have picked up her hand, which had no will of its own any more. Yet such was the force of her feeling as she spoke, that memory refuses to reconcile with fact. I feel the fierce grip of her thin fingers as if it happened. I see her face, framed in its curly abundance of graying hair, lying at an add angle, like that of a small animal, pathetically still at the side of the road after being struck by a car. I hear Susan cry out, "Oh, Eva, is a life so small?"
She was fifty-eight years old, still pretty, still productive. A good friend. A good person. And she wanted to know if this was all there was. She asked again, as if I of all people would have an answer, some comfort. "Is a life so small?"
I fought back tears, because the only answer in me was, "Yes." For Susan, as for most of us, life is that small. Far too small for the beings we believe at heart we truly are.
Ten days later, I was honored to act as the celebrant of Susan’s homespun funeral. Among the poets and artists who attended prowled a vulture or two, grumbling over the pathetic size and quality of her estate. So small a life, almost no material goods were left behind beyond some nice drawings and a pretty scarf or two. But she’d left that cry of dismay reverberating in the air she had occupied, and I never forgot it. As I face my own version of cancer, it is a gift to remember that if our capacities and potentials prove more than our flesh can handle, it’s wisest to forgive our bodies for failing us. Forgive, and be as nice as possible to the vehicle you live in, because mind and soul operate only by permission of the flesh.
Here are a couple of poems I wrote for Susan, who died Labor Day, 2000.
(for Susan Star, 1942-2000)
The tumor shakes me
as a dog unhinges rats
My neck then breaks my mind
into a hanging
flower of flesh
I float among my moments
feeling faintly ill
but my friends say this is normal,
this newfound skill to fly
I may swoop now from the calyx
of my last sun-shot morning
to the night-beds of fruits
fallen years ago;
may play the role of nemesis
dark-winged in my own,
my tiny, star-cupped garden
yet even winged, in wilderness,
in overgrown and fevered hours,
how shall I find her, that
poor naked girl lost in my jungle,
the red temple flower,
still stranded on some Wednesday
in my so little life?