An Imperfect Qasida for a Sick Mother

It’s evening time after a monumental day of traveling the parkway to the cancer center, where I sat in a rocker by the fire with my mother and sewed a new button onto my bag, a mother of pearl button in the vague asymmetrical shape of a flower, selected from a basket of buttons brought in the car by my mother upon my request, after I’d decided to carry the old tapestry sack purse with the broken button closure and the images of medieval seeming animals – a hare, an antelope, a pheasant – frolicking on a red background amidst a vining fleur-de-lis in shades of country blue, green, and gold. “It will give me something to do while we wait for your appointment.”

I didn’t, of course, need anything to do, but the thought of sewing a button on my bag on the day of my mother’s prognosis was satisfying in the way of a small ritual.

I used pink thread and briefly remembered the winter I was in college and decided I loved the color pink, and my mother brought me a pink wool sweater. Today, I wore a pink cotton dress under a grey wool sweater, my hair in two long thin braids. I wondered, as I sat across from the vitals station where they weighed my mother, if wearing my hair in long braids to the cancer center was rude or insensitive.

Now, the next morning after waking up too early and going to run in the dark anyway. It is better to get out of bed too early than to lay in the bed and think about cancer, the giant masses in my mother’s abdomen.

The chemotherapy, we learned yesterday, did very little to reduce the ‘disease burden.’ This means that it did not work, the chemotherapy. “We have mixed results,” the physician’s assistant with a country-sounding name of Raeleen informed us, looking owl-like through her glasses behind the full facial shield she wore in addition to her mask. “The left ovarian mass has reduced from 8cm to 6, and so that is good. We also noted a slight reduction in the fluid near your lungs. The areas on the colon are the same, and the lymph nodes are the same,” Raeleen explained as my mother listened, eyes blankly stoic above her mask and below her hat.

I reached to put my hand on my mother’s back and felt the bones of her spine under the sweatshirt she wore. “They are giving the good news first,” I thought to myself, recognizing that the matter-of-fact Raeleen seemed to be mustering to deliver an update on the right ovarian mass. “The right side…well, the response to treatment is a little disappointing.”

We’ve all noticed that my mother’s belly stands out like kwashiorkor, like pregnancy. Her midsection is hard and round while her arms and legs have become spindly and thin.

Her body looks like a misshapen cell.

Nonetheless, my brother was hopeful, and my aunts were hopeful, expecting a miraculous proclamation of a cure, or at least a surprisingly good response to the treatment, significant shrinkage.

My father has been convinced of my mother’s imminent death and the incurability of the disease since they found it back in May.

In the early weeks, his death prognosis seemed to too much, and I was bothered by his crying in the living room, his bewildered statements about “the man is supposed to go first, the man is supposed to go first.” My father comes from a long line of tragedy, like most families. However, some families write their histories by the tragedies that befall them and some write their histories by how they overcame. My father had the hospice nurse come out to the house within the first month, when my mother was still puttering around in the garden and hadn’t yet decided on chemotherapy. “We just want to keep her comfortable,” he would say with grave resolution while my mother was standing at the sink doing dishes. Like any good connoisseur of family tragedy, my father told anyone he could tell that his wife was dying of stage IV cancer.

He spoke to the scheduler at his eye doctor on the phone in hushed tones, “Well, we’ve just found out my wife has terminal cancer…”

He returned bearing condolences from the veterinarian where he’d had a dense tumor-like mat shaved from the right flank of his golden retriever. My mother bristled, “I’m not dead yet. You send condolences when someone is dead,” she spit out the word dead, “and I’m not fucking dead yet.”

On Oct 1, 2020, at 6:54 AM, Faith Rhyne <> wrote:

This morning is the day that I take my mother to the doctor. I will be the first person to have ever been allowed to accompany her to an appointment due to the provider precautions in place because of the pandemic. It has seemed cruel to me, to make a person sit alone and hear that they are dying, to have to make notes about the size of their cancers, the names of the chemicals they will take, the months that they may live.  They are allowing my mother one accompanying person for this appointment, which follows an imaging appointment that she attended alone two days ago. She had one additional round of chemotherapy early in the month. The purpose of this appointment is to learn whether there may be the option for surgery and – if so – what ‘debulking’ might entail, as far as the partial removal of organ systems and the recovery process from such a surgery, the likelihood of recovery. The other option that we anticipate may be put forth is the option that is offered when there is no other option. The acceptance and management of eventual imminent death.

My family chose me to accompany my mother to this appointment because they have the impression that I am able to absorb information reliably and be calm-headed and diplomatic in a crisis or an emotional situation.

This, to me, is ironic.

Nonetheless, I suppose if the choice between me and my father must be made, it is better to not put him through the experience of having to maintain social composure in a strange environment and to ask intelligent questions about medical prognoses when he is being informed that his wife of 47 years is going to be dying sooner than later.

So, my brother will be bringing my mother to the parking lot of the Ingles on Hwy 74-A, where I will meet them to drive my mother down the parkway to the Hope Center. My brother will drive alone back to my parents house to wait with my father for the phone call from the physician, which is how they – my father and my brother – will be attending the appointment. My mother and I are going to be recording the proceedings on our phone and there is something very grim to me about the prospect of having a recording of the news of my mother’s imminent death, the technical details of the cancer that seems to have gotten larger from the looks of her abdomen, though that may simply be the effect of the rest of her having shrunk significantly.

I am at the track walking in the dark and typing into my phone. I swerve slowly between lanes, not looking where I am going. I ran 5 miles, then stopped to walk so that I would have a chance to take notes before I go back to the house to shower and drive East for the morning to begin.

My right hip is slightly injured, a bursitis or inflammation of the piri formis, but if I tilt my pelvis back and run fast it doesn’t hurt.

Running on the flat track in the dark gives a person a good read on what is happening with their form and mechanics.

The moon was full yesterday, the harvest moon, and is still bright in the western sky. The air is clear and cold.

Yesterday, I submitted another poem for review and felt good about meeting the goal. I wrote the poem as a modified qasida – and felt okay about using the ancient Arabic form because my mother is half Lebanese and I studied Arabic for four years and know how to write qasida in Arabic.

More and more, I appreciate the importance of learning and understanding the proper forms of things before breaking form. I guess in some respects, it could be argued that all forms are inescapably the constructions of men and thus there is nothing much sacred or timeless about them. The forms are tests and games. Fuck forms and their expectations, their constraints. Write how you want.

I like games, though, and even enjoy tests at times. There is something satisfying about working within constraints.

This past couple weeks has been busy. I have been working and running and writing. I have spent a lot of time with my 16 year old daughter. She wants to go visit my mom everyday, wants to drive from the Ingles, stop and get coffee, listen to the radio, talk about her professors at the community college classes she is taking, the work she has due, the ways that her old friends have disappointed her. She is going through a lot this season, but is shrewd in her emotionality. She may be repressing a lot, or just happened upon the perspective that it is no use being sad or stressed about anything you have no power to change and that if you have a problem you can change, you should change it and not complain.

She is not a sympathetic person in general, but does have compassion for animals and for homeless people and for old people who are alone.

Everybody else, as far as she is concerned, are complaining about first world problems.

I found a big box of apples at the bus stop by the school, and made pies for the equinox to share with my parents, my aunt, and with the women who give my mother reiki and make her tinctures for nausea that don’t really work.

An Imperfect Qasida for a Sick Mother 

The river has no way to remember

the sound of her voice speaking low

naming the sun in early September

rising to leave us far below

We trust that the day will last forever

forget the eventual night

she loved the clarion calling of dawn

the announcements made by the light

spartina alterniflora, juncus

sway and sigh in the saline breeze

nephila web crystalline with the dew

the cats’ lazy yawn, stretching ease

“Look here,” she would say, “here is the water,“

“…and there,” arm swept wide, “there is land.”

“Now,” she would whisper, reaching to break surface,

“look what I can do with my hand!”

brackish current clear in the cup of palms

fingers pressed close, hand curved to hold

offering the gift of a simple alms

made of water and salt so old

The sky was in the ripples, silent cloud

seeking out the deaf waiting shore

“You’re holding the ocean in your hands,” spoke loud

grinning while saying nothing more

How could you name the sound of wing-made winds,

air stirred by the heron and egret

the slap of a fin, the echo depends

noises made with no hint of regret

She taught the language of awe’s quiet gaze

upon the world born again new

each day unfurling in amazing ways

what can a person really do?

This was the question, the legacy left

the weight of seeing beauty true

some stolen long glances, some returned theft

impossible to unsee you

We rose and ran, delighting in the air

as it cooled with coming autumn

gobbling the sweet wonders of the fair

wheeling whirling, brilliantly dumb

Now at the end, unexpected and close

swooning sick as the ride clatters

burnt fruit, sizzle fat, varicose

wasted time that suddenly matters

We woke up one day to notice at last

the marsh pocked and balding in spots

the land itself disappearing quickly

washed away like our worried thoughts

The forest does not ring with echoed names

the house is gone, the road erased,

buried with the fields of our old games

and with all the maps home misplaced

She looks across the hopeful orchard trees

dying with a damp weather blight

watching birds before migration journeys

saying nothing of mortal plight

chemicals can keep it back, slow it down

see the cancer with big machines

measure, cut, induce a deep sleep and drown…

turn the body into ravines

They give fresh words for death, carcinoma

to be fed the juices of plants

they create ports and install the stoma,

build the body’s brutal entrance

She sits and gravity wins yet again

She walks with the slowness of time

She holds in hand the shaking pen

letters sprawling goodbye, no rhyme

The grace of somniferum slurs the clock

ferries toward the warm coming night

steers the creaking ship away from the dock

catching a certain lilting light

My mother will die this season, we know

report on this like the weather

she is graven, cold, grey, slow

we hover as birds, together

The substance of her laughter, her living

vengeance silent in the dead breast

All these forces explode, justice giving

May they never be laid to rest

The river cannot remember the skies

the way that you and I might

but, has knowing that never lives or dies

never names the wrong nor the right

I will travel with the name she gave me,

with my Faith, with my mother-name

casting ashes in the river-to-sea,

all is endless, final…the same.

2 thoughts on “An Imperfect Qasida for a Sick Mother

  1. Last night, I wrote for a few minutes about a project I am a) valiantly and b) foolishly attempting to work on and then the writing disappeared – no draft, no sent, no trash.

    I am not sure if this means that the project is a brilliant secret or a bad idea, or that I need to be more careful when shifting from screen to screen on my phone. The writing about small complete segments being part of a larger coherent whole was alright, a not-terrible concept, and I could feel the deep and genuine *ungh* of satisfaction when I considered the appeal of working with a limiting structure.

    I have faltered in my working on the project over the past couple of days. I have less than a month now to complete it.

    My mom had major surgery on Wednesday. I spent the night at their house on Tuesday and drove them to the hospital at 6am, crescent moon low in the eastern sky and my mother wearing her big faux-silk Audubon free-gift bird robe I got her for Christmas from the consignment booth a few year’s back. She’d never worn it before, but it was suitable attire for riding to the hospital in the early morning two days after my fathers mid-October birthday. It kept her warm and, more importantly, kept her clean going—to-the-hospital clothes from getting dog hair on them. My mother had to take a disinfecting shower both the night before and the morning before the surgery, and so dog hair from backseat of the car was to be avoided.

    I dropped my parents off at the hospital and walked the mile and a half home in the dark, thinking about my mother and her tumors and my father and his dying wife.

    I didn’t run at the track, because it closes at 7:00am, when faculty begin to arrive at the middle school to sit in their classrooms alone and talk to their computers. There is a loop around the neighborhood that is a generous mile, 1.1 or 1.2, and I ran it five or 6 times.

    I don’t get bored running anymore.

    I don’t get bored doing anything at all. I have a very high tolerance for both repetition and low levels of entertainment.

    My cat has been dying all summer. I don’t think I have said anything about that here. Maybe I have. I don’t know. He had cancer and he began to enter into the final stages of death the day my mom had her surgery. Drifting in and out of awareness, with small flurries of meowing panic. I made him an appointment for euthanasia.

    My cat died yesterday morning at home and we buried him last night.

    This morning I woke up early to run at the track and saw a fox at the middle school, a rare and special sight. There was a tremendous wind blowing and it sounded just like the ocean.

    It has been a challenging week. In the midst of all the surgery and dying cat, my kids are working and going to virtual school and I am working and everything continues on as it does.

    Only now, as I write this, do I realize that I am exhausted.

    • My mother did not die that season. Nor any season after that, as of yet. She is still alive and has been living fairly comfortably with advanced stage IV ovarian cancer, miscellaneous peritoneal cavity cancers, something happening with her colon, her lung, her liver, and her lymphatic systems. She is having a spot on lip biopsied this week. She has gotten to see another whole series of seasons, and it appears that – barring the unforeseen – she will be able to enjoy yet another fuckin’ Christmas replay of the same suffocated 20th century white American post-Victorian reactionary gluttony still reeling dumbly from the World Wars and all the other wars, a century of wars, three centuries of war, millenia…? Still reeling, war machines warming and humming, burning and vibrating, exploding underwater, simmering always always. Who cast the first stone, some forgotten Australopithecal howl of rage over a bone, thrust of heat lust. We really should have gone the route of bonobos, imo. I mean, who started all these freaking wars?! It’s crazy. I have been hearing about war my whole life. Sigh. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s simplistic to think that war machines can just stop, but just like single incidents introduced violence, single incidents can introduce peace, can change the direction set forth by some Neanderthalis motherfucker way back whenever the hell, it doesn’t even matter now. So, yeah my mom is Alive and that is a miracle – aided significantly by Taxus, platinum, the alchemy of modern medicine, and the steady tireless hand of an extremely Christian gyne-oncologist and his extremely kind fellow surgeons and assistants who somehow managed – by a process that was probably full of Holy Spirit flow – to excise ___that which I will myself not to envision or speak of and thus make real in my knowing___et al and

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