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The Thing with Feathers: Finding Hope in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry During My Dad’s Cancer Treatment

The Complete Emily Dickinson book

By Kathryn Rice

Emily Dickinson’s most famous lines are painted in gold italics on the wall, just outside the waiting room: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” I am sitting next to my father, eyeing the mural through a window, while we wait for the radiologist. Today is Dad’s first round of cancer treatment.

Dad has noticed the mural too; when Mom returns from the front desk with a clipboard of paperwork to fill out, he starts fiddling with his wheelchair break. “What’s wrong?” Mom whispers, concerned. Mom is stressed; there is a chance the doctor will want to readmit Dad to the hospital today if his blood test results are unfavorable.

Dad answers Mom, a little sheepishly, “I just wanted to see the Emily Dickinson quote out there.” Leave it to Dad. If there is a fragment of poetry anywhere, he’ll find it. Eager to be helpful, I run into the hallway and snap a photo of the quotation, which I bring back to Dad. He squints at my phone and silently reads the lines. Emily Dickinson is one of his favorite poets.

I can’t help but wonder how Dad might feel as he reads this particular poem. He’s just been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer. The doctors have predicted he will live three months, maybe six if the radiation is successful. What does a man without hope make of a poem about it?

Reading the poem over Dad’s shoulder, I can’t help but feel bitter. Whoever put those words on the wall must have meant them for other patients, I think. People who, unlike Dad, have actual odds of surviving. Instead of feeling hopeful after reading the quotation, I feel envious imagining those lucky others drawing inspiration from the words as they pass by.

But if Dad shares my bitterness, he gives no indication. He merely reads the lines and nods. A gesture of recognition, or perhaps approval. Knowing Dad, it probably makes him happy to encounter Emily Dickinson in the hospital. Not because the poem makes him feel hopeful—Dad knows he is dying—but simply because Dad enjoys good poetry.

As I think the poem over some more, I have to concede that there is some truth to those lines. Even though we know Dad is going to die, we are here today at the cancer center, hoping radiation will extend his life. Tomorrow, Dad will meet with physical and occupational therapists, who we hope will reteach Dad how to walk and use a fork again, motor skills he lost after undergoing brain surgery. Terminal illness doesn’t force you to give up hope so much as it forces you to readjust your hopes. I have learned to hope for smaller and smaller things, but I’m hoping just the same. Hope, it turns out, is the most irrepressible and irrational of emotions. It is the thing that never dies.

Later that night, after we’ve returned from the hospital and eaten dinner, I slip into Dad’s office. Dad is a voracious reader, and he stores a few hundred of his favorite books in this room. I’ve been raiding his collection since I was a teenager; it was here I first discovered Mrs. Dalloway and Go Tell It on the Mountain. I scan the shelves until I find what I’m looking for—a pale blue volume without a book jacket. The words The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson are printed on the spine in white letters.

I suppose it’s natural when you lose a loved one to go searching for them elsewhere. I have one friend who started running marathons to connect with her deceased mother and another who developed a passion for baseball, her late father’s favorite sport. I haven’t lost Dad yet, but every day he sleeps more and talks less. It feels like he’s slowly slipping away.

And so here I am, searching for my dad in a collection of poems. Hoping that through reading, I’ll find something that reminds me of him and the many conversations we’ve had about literature over the years. Something that will still be here once he’s gone. My journey through grief will be a journey through books, the kind of journey that Dad, who always preferred the adventures of the mind to actual travel, certainly would have taken. I settle into a chair, crack open the spine, and begin to read.

As I expected, there is something comforting about reading a book that Dad loved. Sometimes I stumble across a stanza that Dad bracketed in pencil, a technique he long used to mark his favorite passages. Whenever this happens, I feel like I’ve just discovered buried treasure. Here, I think, are lines that touched Dad. Although I’m an avid reader of novels and nonfiction, I haven’t read much poetry. There are many poems in the collection I’m not sure I understand. I expected this too, and I do my best to muddle through them, gleaning what I can.

But there are also other poems that resonate with me deeply. Poems that seem to understand me more than I might understand myself. Mostly, these are poems about grief.

Emily Dickinson may have written a famous poem about hope, but it quickly becomes clear to me that she is no Pollyanna. In fact, she writes about death and grief more honestly and unsparingly than any writer I’ve come across. Some poems seem to speak directly to my experience of losing a parent:

Bisected now, by bleaker griefs,
We envy the despair
That devastated childhood’s realm,
So easy to repair.

In other poems, I see my grief with all its bottomless and incurable pain reflected:

You left me Boundaries of Pain –
Capacious as the Sea –
Between Eternity and Time –
Your Consciousness – and me –

Grief is a peculiar emotion. We know it’s universal, but we most often endure it alone. I suspect this is partially a problem of language. I’ve found no words that justly describe the scale of my coming loss, nor the horror and agony with which I contemplate it. And so I remain silent, afraid that if I attempt to describe my grief to someone else, I’d give the false impression it was somehow less bad than it really is.

Because I cannot talk about my grief, I have no idea what other mourners feel, even my own mother or sisters. I wonder if other people suffer as I am suffering now, and if so, how on earth they survived that suffering. Predictably, Dickinson has words for this too:

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

To see my own thoughts and feelings so precisely described by a woman who lived nearly two centuries ago is astonishing. It reminds me that I am less alone than I feel. Grief is universal, and the pain I’m feeling now isn’t just my pain, it’s the pain, an inevitable part of what it means to be alive.

Emily Dickinson’s poems are also a refreshing foil to the platitudes and silver linings I’ve heard from well-meaning family and friends. Those people mean well, but when they say things like “at least you have this time together,” they insist on a false, rosy version of reality and leave me feeling gaslit. In contrast, when I read “I measure every Grief I meet,” I know that I am not crazy. It does “hurt to live,” and it feels strangely good to see this truth written down, no matter how grim it may be.

The next day, I tell Dad I’ve started reading Emily Dickinson. His eyes light up. He may have lost some of his energy for intellectual conversation, but his memory and vast store of knowledge are still intact. “Check out Helen Vendler. She’s good,” he says. I make a mental note to return to Dad’s office tonight in order to search for Vendler’s book of criticism on Dickinson. It hurts to think this might be one of the last books Dad recommends to me. There is so much I won’t have a chance to learn from Dad and so many incredible books I won’t read because he’s not going to read them and recommend them to the rest of us. Worse is the loss of future moments like this one, twenty or more possible years of them. I won’t write a silver lining into this—the loss of that future is as capacious as the sea. But before I can finish that thought, that pesky, cursed feeling—hope is arising. Maybe tomorrow, Dad and I will talk about Vendler. And maybe, after that, there will be time for Yeats.

Kathryn Rice (she/her) is an educator, social worker, writer, and parent living in Philadelphia.

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Kathryn Rice

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