When I have Fears

by Nola Garrett

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
               —John Keats

Once in a while, we all come upon a poem that is so tight and so right that there’s not much left to say, other than agree with it and explain why. Of course, as an English professor teaching Introduction to Poetry, I sometimes pried out of my students why it was an English sonnet rather than an Italian sonnet, but I’m sure that did more harm than good. Luckily, my prying had no effect upon sonnethood, though years later I still hope my students have forgiven me.

Eventually, I learned to approach this poem by first reading it aloud, then asking “What do you notice about this poem?” and then a half hour of poetry conversation ensued. Some students focused on the “fair creature of an hour,” to discuss it as a tragic love poem. Others talked about the first line, and recounted auto accidents, grandparents’ deaths, near drowning. If they knew anything about Keats’ life, they disclosed his early death from TB, and because Keats died at age 26, an age close to theirs, at that point in our discussion we moved deeper into the poem itself. Though they could imagine why Keats would miss his writing, reading, the night sky, and his girlfriend, what was nearly impossible to understand was Keats’ sonnet’s solution. Mostly, all they had to go on was trust in Keats’ words:

then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

That was always acceptable to me, because I knew each one of us who reads this poem would most likely someday come to understand those words within the context of our own lives.

I, too, have had to contemplate those last lines of Keats sonnet for more than two years since I was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis.

Primary billiary cirrhosis is a rare, genetic disease of the liver diagnosed most often in women during their mid-forties or mid-fifties in which the cells that make up the linings of the liver’s bile ducts destroy each other and eventually close off all the bile ducts, leading to liver failure and death unless a liver transplant is available. Given my present age, 74, I would be so far down on the transplant list that I would die before a liver were ever available. And, in some cases even if a transplant takes place, the genetic nature of the disease destroys the transplanted liver. However, a few years ago research liver specialists discovered that thrice daily 300 mg doses of ursolic acid, Ursodiol, can in some cases slow the destruction of the bile ducts, especially if it is administered early enough in the progression of the disease.

These are the questions I’ve been living with for the last two years:

Why has PBC, such a rare disease, pounced upon me so late in my life?

How long have I had PBC?

Is the Ursodiol working well enough to slow down the progression of PBC so I can die of something else?

Meanwhile, I have bought a space for my ashes in First Lutheran Church’s columbarium, and I keep revising (much the same way I revise my poems) my funeral service.

I have published my second book of poetry, and I’m working on my third manuscript of poetry and writing essays.

My husband has divorced me, and now a mortgage company & I own my condo where I still gratefully live.

In many ways Keats’ concluding lines stayed with me as I stood alone thinking through my questions at the high windows of my condo these last two years. Gradually, I came to accept not only my death, but also the end of my husband’s love. Because I never did drink much alcohol, giving up cooking with wine and drinking wine came easy. I found that lemon juice and/or chicken broth were good substitutes for cooking with wine. I learned to allow myself the slightest sip of communion wine, somewhat like Christ’s sipping vinegar while he hung from his cross. Because part of taking Ursodiol is drinking far more water than I have ever drunk on a daily basis, I came to find drinking water at various temperatures seemed to be a pleasant diversion. Besides, another medical recommendation was to drink coffee and to eat lots of citrus. And, because my husband had hated coffee and was indifferent to any citrus other than pulpless orange juice, somehow my drinking coffee and eating lots of oranges and tangerines seemed to congeal the finality of his leaving. Further, I came to accept that the stress of living with a husband who no longer loved me though I loved him may have been what pushed me and my genes past their limits. Like death, divorce has always existed.

During the first year after my husband left, my second book of poems, The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball, was published, received national reviews, and went into a second print run. Mike Simms asked me to write these essays. One of my sestinas from my first book was included in OBSESSION: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century published by the University of New England Press. And, along with several invitations to read, a critical essay was written about my poems for the Mezzo Camin Women Poets Time Line which will be posted within the next few months. This is far more fame than I have ever expected in my wildest dreams, but I’m still just me waiting for my next poem. None of this makes a whit of difference on my Federal Income Tax forms.

What has made a difference to me is the results of several medical tests I’ve had within the last few weeks. Apparently, even though I was so old, my PBC was diagnosed early in its development, and during the two years while I have been taking medication and living alone my liver has not further deteriorated. I may well live to die of something else. Theologically, I suspect this may be wrong: I’ve come think of the cells in my liver bile linings as a game of Pac-Man eating themselves. I’ve just been awarded a single bonus life at 10,000 points, but I believe Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are still out there. However, now I’m not afraid to sink to nothingness whenever they arrive.


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