The CancerLand Bookshelf: My Tree Called Life

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Early May and I’m in the backyard, digging up weeds in the garden. And as I dig around the lilies (still leafing), and the irises (already in bloom: pale yellow, ghostly white and deep purple), I think back five years ago to when this rectangular patch of earth was waist-high in weeds: tall, green exceptionally healthy weeds. So healthy in fact that I snipped a bunch of them and delivered them in a plastic bag to the local nursery with a question. “Could these be wildflowers?” I asked hopefully. “I just moved in and I’m not sure yet what’s growing out back.”

The nursery guy pulled the now somewhat wilted plants out of the bag, one at a time, held them up, and announced in a booming voice, Weed! Weed! Weed! Weed! until the bag was empty, (much to the amusement of the five master gardeners waiting on line behind me to pay for their plants). I wanted to disappear. But my humiliation was not complete. Not yet. “But, hey lady, if you like ‘em,” the nursery guy bellowed, “just keep watering them and watch them grow.”

Yes, I’m in the garden, thinking about the change of seasons and growing things in springtime and weeds that sometimes bloom with brightly colored flowers. I’m also thinking about the collection of poems I’ve just finished reading.

My Tree Called Life celebrates the writing that grew out of poetry therapy sessions run by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing located in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. She edited this beautiful anthology featuring writing from twenty-seven survivors of serious illness. As Goldberg writes in the preface of the book:

I hear a beginning: how to begin to live life far more alive, far more immersed in the energy of being here and now…living with serious illness doesn’t mean losing yourself; on the contrary, living with such challenges can – through the magic or writing and speaking stories and images into being – bring us home, even at the turning points of our lives, to who we always were.

Let me share below three poems from the book that “spoke” to me.

Excerpted from: My Tree Called Life: Writing & Living Through Serious Illness
Edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Kansas: Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing, 2009

What I Need
By Paul Hakan

Be available
Don’t disappear.
Don’t ask me how things are.
Just ask what is going on.
Don’t say, “If there’s anything
you need, let me know”
because if you don’t
have a cure, I don’t think
you’ll be able to deliver.

A Caregiver Talks Back
By Star Kenney

Stop telling me I’m strong.
Tell me you’re bringing dinner
and do it.

Stop telling me you couldn’t do what I do.
Tell me you will visit for an hour
and do it.

Stop telling me you wish you could help.
Tell me you will take them to church
and do it.

Stop asking me how I’m doing.
See that I’m tired, and take the folks to a movie.
Just do it!

The Blaring, Clear Knowledge of a Survivor
By Alex Thompson

I planted tulip bulbs today.
“About time,” my neighbor calls,
seeing a pile of weeds where I dig.
I smile. He doesn’t understand
this is no fall tidying
It is a deviant act of courage
with the blaring clear knowledge of a survivor.
Grief survivor.
Overdose survivor.
Cancer survivor in the making.
And my wild heart sees a beautiful spring.

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