April 1 will be the one-year birthday of The Joy of Poetry. Like the birthday of a person, a book’s birthday deserves to be celebrated. So that’s what I’ll do here for the next month, sharing a few more stories about the story — how it came to be, where it is now, where it might be going.
I chose this photo, the one that highlights the dedication page, “For Merry Nell,” because on Monday I spoke to the Christ-centered breast cancer support group she started in Austin, Bosom Buddies. Actually, she was the co-founder, along with Hazel Miller. Both women have since passed away.
Not long after her first round with cancer, Mom was invited to join a breast cancer support network. She didn’t like that she wouldn’t be able to share Bible verses and talk about Jesus, so she started her own group. It was just an Austin thing. It still is.
The group meets at Westlake United Methodist Church at noon on Mondays. Want to feel humbled? Have a bunch of Bosom Buddies make you lunch.
It was my favorite talk I’ve given since the book came out. And it was different than all the others. This was the only one in which we could all dive into the Legend of Merry Nell. I always talk about Mom’s 29-year journey with cancer, but these women wanted details, dates, diagnoses. My dad was there as well, so we were able to answer questions as a team.
This group was also unusual in that they felt free to ask questions. Or interrupt me. Or veer the conversation. It was glorious.
Normally, I bring a poem for us to discuss as a group, to show people that all it takes is a few minutes with a few words to appreciate a poem. I’d brought Ted Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader,” but we never got to it. I’d considered bringing one of Jane Kenyon’s cancer poems, like “After an Illness, Walking the Dog,” but worried that the group might be sick of talking about cancer. I was wrong. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be Bosom Buddies.
Instead, they wanted to hear more of my cancer poems than I’d planned to read, especially the ones where I was struggling with Mom’s determination to keep fighting. One woman confided, “I think my daughter’s pretty pissed at me.” Another told a story of hurt feelings at a baby shower, when the grandmother-to-be came late and left early because that was all the energy she had.
I read from chapter 8 of The Joy of Poetry, the one that includes one of Mom’s emails and my poem “Still.” It’s the only time I pair her words with mine in the book. The purple flower she writes about goes well with the bluebonnets I describe in the poem. It was also a good choice for the day because the bluebonnets have been out since the last week in February, and I can’t see a bluebonnet without thinking about my mother.
If the talk was a chance for the women to learn about my mom from me, it was also a chance for me to learn more about her from them. If you’ve ever watched the TV show Big Bang Theory, you know Sheldon has a particular spot on the couch. No one else is allowed to sit there or Sheldon gets snippy. On Monday I learned that Mom had a particular spot on the couch in the church library where the group meets. The spot is, in fact, in the same position — far left (or far right, depending on your perspective) — as Sheldon’s spot. All the old-timers, whose who knew my mom, won’t sit there. Although, unlike Sheldon, they don’t mind at all if someone else does. Mom liked that spot so she could be the first one to spot anyone coming in late. Then she could also be the first person to say, “Welcome.”
Near the end of the lunch, a woman sat beside me to talk. She was in that room in 2007 when Mom announced that her cancer was back after a 23-year remission. This woman recalled being shocked at the news: That’s not supposed to happen.
“And then it happened to me,” she said, “after 18 years.” She was grateful for Mom’s warning. That’s part of Mom’s legend too, not only the blessing of the 23-year break, but the blessing of the warning that emerged when that season ended.
This poem is one of the 72 I wrote during Mom’s last three years, after that 2007 announcement. It’s not in the book, but it is here on the blog, with its sister poems that make up “My Mother’s Diary.”
Legend of Merry Nell
The Comanches tell the story
of She-Who-Is-Alone, the girl who
sacrificed her warrior doll, ended the famine,
After the drought of Mom’s cancer finally
ended with her March death, we got better
bluebonnets than anyone could remember.
Even without her, I am not alone.
Everywhere I see a bluebonnet
— in a ditch, in an
emtpy field, in an alley —
I know that she still dearly loves her people.