A Cancer Diagnosis and the Healing Words of a Poem by the Palestinian American Poet Hala Alyan

Palestinian American poet, novelist and clinical pyschologist, Hala Alyan. Photo credit: from her website.


Spoiler

Can you diagnose fear? The red tree blooming from uterus
to throat. It’s one long nerve, the doctor says. There’s a reason
breathing helps, the muscles slackening like a dead marriage.
Mine are simple things. Food poisoning in Paris. Hospital lobbies.
My husband laughing in another room. (The door closed.)
For days, I cradle my breast and worry the cyst like a bead.
There’s nothing to pray away. The tree loves her cutter.
The nightmares have stopped, I tell the doctor. I know why.
They stopped because I baptized them. This is how my mother
and I speak of dying—the thing you turn away by letting in.
I’m tired of April. It’s killed our matriarchs and, in the back yard,
I’ve planted an olive sapling in the wrong soil. There is a droopiness
to the branches that reminds me of my friend, the one who calls
to ask what’s the point, or the patients who come to me, swarmed
with misery and astonishment, their hearts like newborns after
the first needle. What now, they all want to know. What now.
I imagine it like a beach. There is a magnificent sand castle
that has taken years to build. A row of pink seashells for gables,
rooms of pebble and driftwood. This is your life. Then comes the affair,
nagging bloodwork, a freeway pileup. The tide moves in.
The water eats your work like a drove of wild birds. There is debris.
A tatter of sea grass and blood from where you scratched your own arm
trying to fight the current. It might not happen for a long time,
but one day you run your fingers through the sand again, scoop a fistful out,
and pat it into a new floor. You can believe in anything, so why not believe
this will last? The seashell rafter like eyes in the gloaming.
I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in.
I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.

Hala Alyan from The Moon That Turns You Back, Ecco, 2024 and The New Yorker, Sept. 28th, 2020

Hala Alyan’s latest and fifth poetry collection, The Moon That Turns You Back,  speaks of resiliance and loss. Among others the loss of miscarriage, the loss of displacement. Daughter of Palestinian parents, born in the US but resident for many years of countries in the middle east she is a clinical pyscholgist, poet, newspaper commentator and novelist living in Brooklyn with her family.

I have been following Hala’s poetry and articles in The New York Times for some time. Her searing piece on fear and her thoughtful reflections on the reality of being Palestinian especially in the United States. And her poems. But her writing was brought into bright focus for me when my friend Rosemary sent me an email that included the last two lines of the poem above.

I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in.
I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.

So much in her poem Spoiler for all of us but also, now, for me. All the losses and setbacks in a life. The deaths. And these lines especially:

This is how my mother
and I speak of dying—the thing you turn away by letting in.

The reality of these lines as I face an esophageal cancer diagnosis that is likely incurable. I have been living with this for four or five weeks now. Still seems surreal. I speak of dying a lot these days but I am not resisting it. Not welcoming it. But accepting it. Whether I have months or years it has in such a strange way brought the reality of my living into sharp focus. The love I have received and given back as best I know.

The remarkable metaphor in Hala’s poem of building a lovely sandcastle on the beach seems so real for me now. In a way my sandcastle came crashing down when the scope doctor gave me my diagnosis four or five weeks ago. And yet. And yet. Since then I have been building something precious and new.  A life where sorrow has evoked much joy and laughter. Much beauty.

And I write this waiting to fly to Rome to visit my beloved La Romita School of Art where I led four ten day retreats since 2017. This need to reconnect to a place that has such spiritual and poetic significance for me. Where I will hear the echoes of tears and laughter as poets shared their new poems. So much beauty beauty made of words there. Fierce and gentle beauty.

As it appears my tide may be coming in hard and fast I want to keep building and remembering beauty. Thank you Hala.

I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in.
I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.

2 Comments

  1. Liz
    Posted July 6, 2024 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Richard, those last two lines I could save and look at every day, to serve as a reminder.
    Journey well in your beloved Umbria and La Romita where as you say, so much beauty was and is created.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted July 10, 2024 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Those lines are such a great reminder for me. Bless you. Bless you.

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