The Poetry of Caregiving
What is the essence of caregiving? Donald Hall—a former New Hampshire and U.S. poet laureate— found out when his beloved wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, was dying of leukemia. He drew inspiration from his memories of the way his mother had cared for elderly relatives. From the tenderness of Kenyon's nurses at DHMC. And from poetry.
Nursing her I felt alive
in the animal moment,
scenting the predator.
Her death was the worst thing
that could happen,
and caring for her was best.
Poets are not practical souls, so the standard wisdom goes. But those who fall for that shibboleth have clearly never met Donald Hall. Few people have faced the death of a loved one—surely as practical a matter as life metes out—with Hall's tender thoroughness. In 1995, his beloved wife of 23 years, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia. She was 47.
Thirteen years later, it remains a great solace to Hall, the immediate past U.S. poet laureate, that he was able to spend so much time caring for Kenyon while she was dying. "I could be with her all the time," Hall says, "from 6:00 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:00 at night."
Kenyon got much of her treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, an hour's drive Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, N.H.—home for the couple since 1976 and for members of Hall's family since 1865. Her cancer was diagnosed in January of 1994; she was an inpatient at DHMC for a month of chemotherapy and returned home for an all-too-briefmonth of remission. Then, in March of 1994, the leukemia came back. A bone marrow transplant was her only treatment option. Hitchcock at that time did just autologous
bone marrow transplants (using a patient's own marrow after it's been purged of cancer cells), but because Kenyon had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her own marrow would not work. At the suggestion of Dr. Letha Mills, their Dartmouth oncologist, Kenyon got on the waiting list for a donor transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and began the agonizing wait for a donor. (Hall and Kenyon became very close to Mills and her assistant, nurse practitioner Diane Stearns, he explains in his 2005 book, The Best Day, The Worst Day. Hall was touched by the fact that
Mills made a house call while Kenyon was on her deathbed. And that both of her primary oncologists, Mills from Hitchcock and Dr. Kris Doney from Hutchinson, came to Kenyon's memorial service.)
At last a donor was identified in October of 1994, and the couple flew westward. Hall found an apartment in Seattle but spent all day, every day at the hospital with Kenyon, returning to the apartment only to sleep. When Kenyon entered the sterile cocoon of a laminar air flow room, she was separated from Hall by a thick curtain of plastic. Hall could touch her
Susan Reynolds is a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, for whose pages she has also written about Hall's work. This is her first feature for Dartmouth Medicine.
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