A Poet of 20 Carats
Four days before this past Christmas, I went to my friend Alex’s memorial service. She died on December 17th after a three-and-a-half year battle with eye melanoma, and after living for two years longer than her doctors expected. A large hoop with ribbons dangling from it dazzled in the sunny doorway of the Glade Church, in Blacksburg, where Alex had been an active member and where the memorial service took place. The minister spoke from the pulpit wearing a vestment adorned with butterflies. A large round mosaic that Alex had made with the word JOY in the center hung above the altar instead of the traditional crucifixion cross.
Sitting in the pew beside my close friend Alwyn, taking in the scene, I understood how Alex, a feminist and artist, had been drawn to the church, described in a hand-out as “a caring faith community, open and affirming in the free church tradition where worship and diversity is celebrated.”
Alwyn, who first met Alex through their mutual animal rights activisim, squeezed my hand during the eulogy as the minister was sharing Alex’s thoughts on death. Because she knew she was facing a premature death, Alex prepared the words she wanted to leave us all with. “Don’t think of me as dead,” the minister related Alex saying, “Think of me as making room for someone else to be born, like someone made room for me.” I reached up to my neck and ran my fingertips along the turquoise and jade gemstone necklace that Alex had made and gifted to me.
She was a realistic and brave person who rarely spoke about the toll that fighting cancer had on her. So when her husband, Paul, read her most recent poem about her struggle, Alwyn and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes. The poem, “The Balance Gets Tipped,” begins: I had not known which way to yearn … Was I to move toward life … Or towards death?
Paul continued reading … This morning I knew certainly … I curled my toes like a ballerina … I shook off the pain, sweat and shallow breathing of the night … I got a look in my eye … Like a horse that is going to bolt … While brushing my teeth … I took a few dance steps … Ready to fight for my life … I descended down the stairs … bent on breakfast. Alex was not the type to brood for too long. She was upbeat and always interested in learning what life had to teach.
After the church service, everyone adjoined to a room for refreshments. There, while nibbling on cheese and crackers, I counted a dozen other necklaces that Alex had made hanging from the necks of other women. I asked about the hoop of ribbons, and Paul explained that Alex, always the artist, had requested the last week of her life that an array of colorful scarves be draped around her bedside, the bed she was confined to in the study of her home where family, friends, and hospice volunteers gathered to visit and care for her. She died before her wish could be fulfilled, so friends made something beautiful they knew she would approve of to hang in the church. On the ribbons people wrote their last words to Alex, along with blessings and condolences for her family.
Before leaving the church that day Paul and I promised each other that we would put together a booklet of Alex’s poetry in time for an art show the following month in her honor. I agreed to type the poems and email them back to Paul so that he and Alex’s daughter could print and bind them.
A few weeks later, I received from Paul two notebooks full of Alex’s handwritten poetry. Many of the older poems had appeared in the Museletter, a Floyd community forum, and I was familiar with them. I was particularly interested in the ones written in the last few years of her life that I hadn’t read because I was hoping to get some insight into how she managed to cope with the fight she endured.
I am permanently shut out of the pool of human normalcy … where most people splash unconsciously … All my joy in seeing this creation … is pinned on my one remaining eye … She revealed in a poem titled, “One Eye Shy.”
As she went on to describe how easy it was to lose her eye, in and out of surgery in a couple of hours, but how hard it was to get used to, I wondered why I never really looked at her prosthetic eye as we sat across from each other playing Scrabble. She seemed whole and not disabled to me.
I was newly shocked thirty times a day … By my halved vision … And the possibility of recurrence … It was like ogling the sword of Damocles … Inside the building … Wherever I moved … It followed … she wrote.
Choosing which poems to include in the collection and then typing them felt like being in Alex’s presence. Like her paintings, sculpture, and fiber art, her poetry strikes a balance between reverence and playfulness and inspires me to strive to do the same. With titles that include “How I Got on My High Horse and Never Got Off,” and “A Mother Daughter Memo,” her poems highlight the sense of humor she had, her love of animals, nature, and family.
In a poem called “A Poet of 20 Carats,” Alex’s description of a poet’s words as rare diamonds is reminiscent of the poetic ability that she possessed herself.
Ready to dazzle … Priceless, yet within reach … Formed under pressure … and …Bequeathed to the next generation, her poems are like those diamonds, and like the gemstone nuggets she used in the jewelry she made. Created to stand the test of time, Alex’s words radiate out, inviting others to enjoy their value and the insightful impressions they make.
Note that appeared in the most recent Museletter along with one of Alex’s poems : Alex was a past sister member of Floyd Woman’s Circle community. She passed away December 17th 2006 after a brave 3 ½ year battle with cancer. A Memorial Art Show featuring her multi-media art and the art of others is currently showing at the church she belonged to, the Glade Church in Blacksburg through March 25th. A booklet of Alex’s poetry is available for sale in Floyd at the New Mountain Mercantile, the proceeds of which will go to the Church Building Fund. You can also make a donation to the church fund in Alex’s name at 1600 Glade Rd, Blacksburg, VA 24060 or contact Colleen for a copy at email@example.com.