The Wisdom of Others
Concerning Illness

"Can there be worse sickness, than to know / that we are never well, nor can be so?"

~~ John Donne (1612)

"A human being sheds its leaves like a tree. Sickness prunes it down."

~~ Edmond and Jules De Goncourt (1862)

"Two Women in the Garden of the Ward"

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills . . .
In the day-time, you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun,
but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”

~~ Isak Dinesen, “Out of Africa”

On restful mornings, Emma and I tie crimson bandannas around our heads. We are told the florid color will make our movements through the garden easier to track. For security we must share a single pair of pruning shears. Only the red-headed woodpeckers who nest in dead trees accept us as their own. Old growth branches of the butterfly bushes need heavy pruning, but Emma’s hands are clumsy and her clippings modest. The tranquilizer has left her tentative. Each cut, the nurses assure, will move her nearer to the sun.

She does not speak ill of anyone but herself. I read to her of Blixen’s farm, slightly bitter scents of coffee-blossoms. She asks if she might smell the pages as though perfumes could linger there. Emma is loved by someone poor and must leave this place when the money runs out.

One limpid evening, I knot the end of my bandanna on the branch of a sawtooth oak; I imagine the fabric hangs like the newspapers say Emma did in the cold of the night. I hack so far into the heartwood, I know the butterfly bushes will not live. A legion of woodpeckers ascends, bow their red heads in deference to me on their passage to more hospitable climes. I have cut with so much passion the pruning shears are split in two, yet I find myself no nearer to the sun.

© 2002 MJM

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