Opinion Poems offered me an anchor as I lost my son, so I shared them

(Eleanor Davis for The Washington Post)

Josie Glausiusz is a journalist living in Israel who writes about science and the environment for National Geographic, BBC Future, Nature and more.

In the early hours of March 23, 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.

How has poetry helped you through difficult moments? We want to hear from you.

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” as, with his “vorpal sword” in hand, he defeats his “manxome foe.”

My son was also a passionate reader. But toward the end of a year punctured by surgeries, rounds of radiation, hospitalizations and medications, it was harder for him to focus. Instead, I would sit beside his hospital bed and read aloud to him, mostly Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.

One evening in the hospital in mid-February, I read him some of my favorite poems, poems that my own mother had read to me as a child. “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. In a calm interlude each day, I searched my anthologies and on sites such as Poetry Daily for the “right” poem to share. The “right” poem could be about almost anything: an apple tree, an insect, a pie, a miracle. Some were classics: “Everyone Sang,” by Siegfried Sassoon; “A Modest Love,” by Sir Edward Dyer (“The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall”); one, a psalm: “The Lord to me a shepherd is, want therefore shall not I.”

People responded with heart emojis and their own favorites. My mother shared Shakespeare soliloquies: “We had to learn chunks by heart,” she wrote. My sister and I exchanged messages about the poems of R.S. Thomas, which we studied in school, recalling one that begins, “All right, I was Welsh: Does it matter?”

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.”

The poems took on a life of their own. Friends shared them with their friends, saying the verses added joy to their day. “The poems that you send express in words feelings that I have no ability to express,” my friend Marilyn wrote. One old school friend bought new collections, telling me: “It’s been years (actually decades) since I’ve read poetry, but you have rekindled an interest!”

* * *

At 9:22 a.m. on March 23, 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 shared “Late Fragment” with my poetry group, and 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’t 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.”

Friends posted yellow heart emojis; they added comments, quoted favorite lines. I felt loved and supported. And I was able to get up in the morning and take care of my daughter, who has lost her twin and only sibling, from whom she had never been apart.

Seven weeks before my son died, we had celebrated our daughter’s bat mitzvah. In synagogue, she read beautifully from the Torah portion of “BeShalach,” in which the Israelites, fleeing slavery in Egypt, cross the Red Sea on dry land, “as the waters formed a wall for them on their right and on their left.” Itself a beautiful poem, it reflected my feelings: that our community had formed strong walls around us, supporting us at every step of our grueling journey.

Perhaps that’s why the poem that is most meaningful to me is “Moisés,” or “Moses,” by Luis Alberto de Cuenca (translated from Spanish by Gustavo Pérez Firmat). 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.