“Survived By” is subtitled “A Memoir in Verse and Other Poems” and dedicated to the poet’s father Terry R Wells (1945-2020). It’s a personal journey through a daughter’s reactions to her father being diagnosed with terminal cancer and what she learnt by surviving her father’s death, written with the aim of helping others. It starts, as everyone does when receiving shocking news, with her own reactions, in “September”,
“Where is the How-To Guide for tragedy? The textbook
for Grief 101? What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Someone You Love to Die? How do people learn what to do
when their father has stage 4 lung cancer?
Have experts established scientifically proven steps? Perhaps
………..Step 1: Stop breathing as electric burning emanates outward
………..from your sternum.
………..Step 2: Feel as if seashells have been placed over your ears.
………..Step 3: Tremble like a rescue dog on the Fourth of July“
There is no guide because it’s not an easy thing to provide guidance for. The author isn’t the only one to have been told a parent or parental figure is terminally ill, but each set of circumstances is unique and personal. Some families are open, others close up. It can be difficult to find someone to talk to for a variety of reasons: one doesn’t want to talk about death, another has been through it and doesn’t want to relive it. The night the author receives “The News”, she had planned to got to a friend’s art gallery opening with a Tinder date. She messages him to say she doesn’t have the capacity for a relationship having just found out her father is terminally ill. She then complains about the date calling her when her voicemail states to text. He texts, but that’s not right either although she does acknowledge he’s probably a great guy but the timing’s off. At this point, she’s too wrapped up in her own reactions to consider this might be a decent guy who wants to say the right thing and show support.
She asks her mother if she should go to her parent’s house, called “home” in the poem, but worries “But if it’s going to be five years -“. Her mother brings her down to earth,
“It’s not going to be five years, Honey.
I can’t breathe.
Rescue dog knees.
I have a new life
I never expected to have.
Naive. Or delusional. Everyone loses
their parents, or their parents lose them first. Everyone
But I wasn’t supposed to.”
Now, she’s ready to see her father’s illness impacts on others, maybe not to the extent it hits her, but others are affected and others have been through something similar. In
“The tumors spread
across the maps of his lungs
like spider webs caught in a rainforest, a mother fighting
to protect her young in the pouring tempest, digging her fronds
into his chest, branches cinched in a silken corset, a legacy
at risk with each gust, rigging a gridiron
of wind and leaves the night
of Friday the Thirteenth.”
The cancer is a living thing doing its best to exist, oblivious to the fact that the more it digs in, the closer to death it pushes both itself and the poet’s father. She debates who she can ask for help, dismisses the idea of a self-absorbed ex and asks social media instead. They respond positively but they ask how they can help, she has no answers. There’s resistance towards the well-meaning who tell her to “cherish every moment”. Similarly to closer friends, “No, I don’t actually know how/ anyone can help me.”
She travels to her parents and her father tells her “I’m happy/ I’m not depressed./ I have a good attitude.” It helps that he’s not yet bedridden and can still hug his daughter.
“My dad stands and gives me a hug.
I remember lots of hugs hello
and hugs goodbye. I don’t remember
hugs of consolation, hugs of comfort.
He’d always been more of a ‘shake it off’
kind of dad. This hug, his hug, feels
out of the ordinary, but we are already
out of our ordinary. What will ever
be ordinary again?”
Her father is more concerned about her upsetting her mother. The poet turns to gratitude, that she will get chance to say goodbye, that neighhbours tell her that her father’s a “great guy”, that she has some time to share with him. She thinks about friends who have lost their fathers. She cares – rubbing moisturiser into skin, feeding, scheduling pills – and becomes his advocate when the oncologist recommends no further treatment, but her mother wants a second opinion. She backs her father when he declines. She also writes his eulogy where she thanks him for being a good example of how to live. She also has to adjust, “to my parents’ mother’s apartment.”
Acceptance, shown in “Halfway”, is hard won,
“I knew I’d never
see my father again after he died.
But I asked him every night he spent in
his hospice bed to please haunt me or send me
signs from the other side. I didn’t realize he was
waiting for me on the moon. When I flew there in
a hot air-balloon one night, he stood smiling, full
-bodied, when I opened the hatch. We bounded
together, weightless, marveling at our bare
feet caked in gray dust. I woke to the
sound of my own laughter,
grateful I figured
out how to
Thankfully it’s not a self-help manual. “Survived By” is a poignant journey through loss, grief and acceptance with the aim of sharing one person’s journey in the hope it will provide succour for other. The vocabulary is conversational, there are no attempts to dress up what’s happening in pretty metaphors or oblique messaging. “Survived By” is direct and concerned with authenticity, a human seeking compassion.
“Survived By” is available from Curious Corvid Publishing.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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