In the early hours on Tuesday, about 12 hours before our treasured 12-year-old son died from a rare form of brain cancer, I climbed into his bed at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, wrapped him in my arms and recited the poem “Jabberwocky”:
“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe.”
My child was no longer conscious, but I hoped and believed that he could sense my presence, and that my voice would comfort him and soothe his furiously beating heart.
My son had learned the words to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem by listening to me recite it to him and his twin sister at bedtime. A brave, bright, imaginative, optimistic boy, he loved the drama of the poem and the courage of the “beamish boy.”
One evening, I read him some of my favorite poems, “Cargoes” by John Masefield (“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir / Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine”) and a Shakespeare sonnet (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). He listened, rapt and smiling. Then we talked about the meaning of the poems.
A few days later, I started my own poetry group on WhatsApp, calling it “Poetry Is Medicine,” and invited friends to join. I had found, during earlier crises, that the rhythm of poetry can soothe my anxieties. With just a word or a phrase, a poem can reach the hidden places that prayers or well-meaning advice cannot.
The poems offered an anchor to me during unpredictable and painful times.
Family members and friends contributed. One sent “Chinese Foot Chart,” by Kay Ryan: (“Look, / boats of mercy / embark from / our heart at the / oddest knock.”). Another carefully translated the Hebrew poem “Apple of Imperfection,” by Varda Genossar: “First speech is the speech of love. . . last speech, silence.”
At 9:22 a.m. on Tuesday, I shared the poem, “Jabberwocky,” with my WhatsApp group. My son’s heart stopped beating 3½ hours later, as I held his hand and sang to him. For our family, my husband, our daughter, his loss is a catastrophe. The space that our son had filled with his loving nature, his exuberance, his magical smile, his luminous observations and his laughter was replaced by a gigantic empty hole. I stopped posting poems.
Then my friend Leyla sent me “Late Fragment,” Raymond Carver’s last published poem: “And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, / to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
It offered me some small comfort because I knew that even in my son’s darkest hours, he was always loved – and still is – and was never for a moment alone. I began, again, to share poems and songs. One was “Taking Care,” by Callista Buchen: “I sit with my grief. I mother it. I hold its small, hot hand. I don’’ say, shhh.” Another was “Theme in Yellow,” (the title contains my son’s favorite, “cheerful” color) by Carl Sandburg: “When dusk is fallen / Children join hands / And circle round me / Singing ghost songs.”
Our poetry community had formed strong walls around us, supporting us.
Perhaps that’s why the poem that is most meaningful to me is “Moisés,” or “Moses,” by Luis Alberto de Cuenca. On the eighth day after my son died, I read it aloud beside his grave.
“Give me your hand. We have to cross
the river and my strength fails me.
Hold me as if I were an abandoned package
in a wicker basket, a lump that moves
and cries in the twilight. Cross the river
with me. Even if this time the waters
don't part before us. Even if this time God
doesn’t come to our aid and a flurry of arrows
riddles our backs. Even if there is no river.“
Josie Glausiusz is a journalist living in Israel who contributes to The Washington Post.