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Words to Live By

Private Collection/Photo by Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images
Peter Vilhelm Ilsted: A Girl Reading in an Interior, early twentieth century

It is Christmas Eve, 2013, and I am dressed like a bauble in a black and gold sequined pencil skirt, chainmail gold necklace, and black patent heels with gold buckles as I head off to my local North London hospital for a PET scan.

“You’re not going to the hospital like that, are you?” says my husband. “You’ll make the scanner short-circuit.”

I ignore him. It’s my older son’s fifteenth birthday today and I’ve got a celebratory lunch to get to the moment the PET scan is over. Whatever a PET scan is. The National Health Service, with whom I am developing a precipitate and intimate relationship following a diagnosis of head and neck cancer three days earlier, has apparently written me a letter explaining the scan. But I have not opened it. Who would open such a letter?

Before the appointment I make a planned diversion to a nearby bookstore. I have poetry to buy, as a matter of urgency. Should I kick the bucket in the next six months or a year, I won’t have left my sons, aged twelve and fourteen, a code of conduct or moral legacy, and I am turning to poetry to step into the breach. Quite what I have been doing all these years I don’t know.

A cursory audit of The Few Important Things I Have Shared With My Sons That Might Influence Them In A Positive Way amounts to six items:

1. I stopped eating meat when I was nineteen because of the cruel husbandry of mass-produced meat and battery eggs then in common practice.
2. I once turned down the opportunity to visit the East End gangster Reggie Kray in HMP Parkhurst, the notorious Category B prison on the Isle of Wight whose former inmates include Jack the Ripper and one of the Moors Murderers. Reggie, who had nailed his rival, Jack “the Hat” McVitie, to the floor through his throat, had a photograph of me in a strapless fuchsia silk ball dress on his cell wall. We struck up a correspondence after I did some research for his book—I use the term loosely—on East End slang, and he had requested that I visit him in prison. I was successfully vetted by the Home Office, but then pulled out. I decided it did not do to humor murderers.
3. When the boys were seven and five, I ripped out pictures of Margaret Thatcher from a newspaper weekend magazine and together we burned them on an open fire in a cottage in Suffolk. They already knew the “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” chant, so we recited it together.
4. A few years later, the former British prime minister stood behind me in The Daily Telegraph offices where I worked. I wanted to pour my can of Coke over her. I refrained.
5. I do not shop at Primark.
6. I bang on about how the drugs trade is immoral and exploitative.

As for what the boys will actually remember about me, I can’t think. Probably just me shouting, and the fact that I made them make their First Holy Communions. They think, erroneously, that I believe in God, hands down, no questions asked, and are embarrassed when I wear a black leather belt studded with the legend “Jesus Rocks.” They do not think the garment is to any degree ironic.

They know, I think, that I avoid squashing spiders, even though I am scared of them—and ants, too. So I put this on the list:

7. It is wrong to squash ants and spiders.

And that’s about the best of it. Should my prognosis in the new year put me on a meter, my sons will need words to live by, hence the emergency poetry dash. It is a big ask of any poet, but, since the emergency audit has revealed me to be a mouse amongst men, a necessary one.

The poetry section is upstairs at the back of the store, poetry the disagreeable habit never shared in polite circles. A series of round tables is covered with short stacks of books. I run my fingers over them, not looking at the titles, my head too full of all the life lessons I have not given the boys: how to love, how they must put happiness above money and ambition, how they must be good and kind and always try to put themselves in others’ shoes, how they must look out for each other, brothers united.

That’s it, I think, leaning on a book, they need to stand by each other. I glance down, move my hand. It has been resting on The Picador Book of Funeral Poems.

I turn to the individual poets lined up in po-faced A-to-Z formation on the shelves. Within seconds, my index finger is teasing out an Auden spine. But I can’t buy the boys Auden, much as I love the Anglo-American poet. He is the muzak of poetry nowadays, thanks to that Nineties romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. Imagine if the boys think that’s how I discovered him, when the truth is I have had a crush on the poet since I was fifteen and came across the lines “I shall never be / Different. Love me” from “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day.” A homosexual wordsmith offering himself up as defenseless, vulnerable, and in need of love was a marvel to me.

The fact that I got the poem’s meaning all wrong and that the “I” in question was a personified Music in a poem exploring the power of God’s grace is by the bye. We live and learn, and perish the thought that the boys should learn the wrong things about me. This posterity business is trickier than I thought. Perhaps I should have gone down my mother’s route. She died from cancer when I was nine, my sister ten, and my brother fourteen, four years after our American father had dropped dead and left our mother nothing.

Auden’s reworking of the Ten Commandments in “Under Which Lyre,” his Phi Beta Kappa poem for the Harvard class of 1946, is hard to beat, though. I’ll take “Thou shalt not live within thy means” and “Read The New Yorker, trust in God; / And take short views” to my grave. If my sons manage to have these four on mental speed-dial before I get there, then that’s some sort of legacy partially sorted.

I continue to scour the shelves, but what is it I am looking for? Poetry that will resonate with two freshly motherless teenage boys and with the motherless adults they may become, I suppose. Nothing is fit for purpose, and I dismiss the entire literary canon as a bit limited when I spot Ezra Pound, lovely, flawed Ezra. He was a defender of fascism, a shameful anti-Semite, and he did go on. But even as I think this, the precision-perfect lines, “As if the snow should hesitate / And murmur in the wind / and half turn back” from his poem “The Return” play in my head, and I think, half turn back. The poem is about ancient warrior gods, once “‘Wing’d-with-Awe,’ inviolable,” now diminished and reluctant to return to earth. But the snow can’t turn back, and neither can I. The poem, suddenly, is all about me, my life, my death. Perhaps this is why I have chosen poetry as a survival tool for the boys: sometimes, as an adult, life gets lonely, and the right poem, at the right moment, can make it less so. I grab a tissue, and blow my nose with gusto.

Sylvia Plath, nestling close to Pound, gets sprayed with phlegm. I should buy the book if only to save shoppers from my germs, but I won’t. She had two children herself and put her head in the oven, which is a bit off-message for my purposes. Seeing Plath reminds me of the late British poet Elizabeth Jennings, who suffered much mental anguish in her life, and adored her own mother. “O you are / The way a blackbird sings / And shapes the air,” she wrote, years after her mother’s death. What economy of expression, what grief contained.

In the early Nineties, I interviewed Jennings in her café of choice, a humble affair next to Oxford bus station. Mental illness marked her out. Fragile, she sat across from me in an old raincoat, despite the heat, a plastic shopping bag beside her swollen feet, her back as bent as a fishing rod when a huge fish has taken the bait. I wanted to say to her then: If you can write like that about your mother, words so tender, are they not enough to heal you?

They’re not, are they? I am beginning to see that now. Words are not enough, so why am I seeking them out for my sons?

I head for the exit. But on my way out of the poetry section, I spot Walter de la Mare. I remember this twentieth-century British poet as being good on childhood and on being a Catholic, like Jennings. He was big on fairies, too, and moonlight and animals, and then I think of Sebastian, my younger son, and how, when he is tucked up in bed, he is my elfin creature covered in moss and I heart-soar at the magic of him. So the pair might be a good fit. I buy the collection, along with the Auden, and hurry off to the hospital, clutching the books to my chest like liquor in a brown-paper bag.


Seven months later, with chemotherapy and radiotherapy behind me, I flounder in the bleak white wastelands of recovery. My immune system is done in, and I am myself diminished. I have not read a single book; cancer has taken my psyche hostage and words have turned against me. Ordinary ones and unfamiliar medical ones wrong-foot me, turn sinister, frighten me.

One night, I try to find solace in words again and persuade Sebastian to climb into my bed and listen to the British actor Ian McKellen reciting Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with me; he is studying the ghoulish epic poem at school.

It is as entrancing as ever. After the storm, and the albatross’s appearance through the fog, the wind returns and the stupid mariner shoots the bird, the very source of the wind, God’s grace. So far, so par for the course. But then McKellen gets to the famous lines “Water, water everywhere / Ne’er a drop to drink” and I nearly choke on my own saliva, while I’ve still got it. The words feel so horribly prescient, it’s as if the sailors themselves have leapt off the deck to throttle me. All the fabled side-effects of my forthcoming radical radiotherapy come horribly to life: the damaged salivary function, the perpetual thirst, difficulty in swallowing and talking, the risk of choking to death, the blistering tongue. “With throats unslaked, with black lips baked / We could nor laugh nor wail.” The poem is a head-and-neck cancer patient’s worst nightmare.

I have one more brush with poetry, in the form of someone reading Keats on a CD; the poet’s romanticization of death in “Ode to a Nightingale” just about finishes me off. I want to hurl the CD out of my bedroom window. I give poetry a wide berth after that.

During my recovery period, it dawns on me that my desire to bequeath my sons some form of handbook for life was misplaced. In that initial moral audit, I had identified my failure to teach them how to love. That is what I should have focused on. But how could I, when I did not myself know how to love and had failed to grasp love’s reach?

From the moment of my diagnosis, and then my prognosis, a positive one affording me a 70–80 percent chance of my curative treatment being successful, I pondered the nature of love: Had I left my sons enough of it? Does love endure? Is love bankable? What, in short, is the measure of love?

I stumble upon the answer courtesy of an illness that forced me to look back on a childhood marked by loss and the absence of love. An orphan’s life such as my own, lived with a hotchpotch of strangers and then, from the age of fifteen, alone, kept me on my mettle. Looking back on that time with my mother-eyes, I only now see that if you’re parentless and live on your wits, if you don’t belong and wish to do so, you look out for love, take it if you find it, look out for more. But you don’t bank the love; you live off reserves, and do not accrue funds. My sons, by contrast, are emotionally entitled; they default to a state of happiness whose roots reach deep, deep into the constancy of love. There is, for them, no question of where the love comes from or if and when the supplies will dry up. This is not because I am in remission, following a successful treatment, and they no longer fear for my health. It is because they have never known a dry riverbed. The experience of love is alchemical; it creates in a child a place of abundance, of safety.

During my illness, close friends were attentive, and I was gifted many acts of love. Little by little, each had broken down my steely resistance to receiving, and asking for, help. My vulnerability became my strength. I came to see, for the very first time, how love works. It is a two-way process: you need to let love in. And by doing so, you can give more in return. Love yourself as a mother loves her child and, should your mother be suddenly gone, or another heart-wound were to be inflicted, it will be easier to heal. .

Love is a habit; it is learned. It is also a question of entitlement. My sons, I now realize, are safe on both counts. Love is not mutable, as memory is; its essence is imperishable. I only came to see that through the transformative process of writing my past, writing out the absences, and the losses, and my brush with death. Having initially sought other people’s words to pass on to my own sons, and found them wanting, I deployed my own.

I was partly inspired to do so by an ill-fated family vacation in Amsterdam during my recovery. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum, I suddenly understood why the troubled Dutchman painted; I saw how he used brush strokes to conjure his own anguish, saw how he made the impulses that warred within him manifest.

Words themselves may not be sufficient, but the process, the story, is everything. It led me to love, the only legacy that matters.