I need someone else's beautiful words
March 29, 2017 11:56 AM   Subscribe

My younger sister is dying from cancer. I’m told she doesn’t have much time left. We’ve said our good-byes, but I can still visit her every few days for now. When I went to see her last night at the hospital, she was sedated and drifting in and out of consciousness. I’m not a chatty sort of person, so I took a couple of books of Dennis Lee poems I used to read to her when we were kids. Reading those aloud was good for a two-hour visit where she was aware I was there, but she wasn’t able to talk. I got some smiles from her, though. Taking the same books again seems low effort, but regular books have a narrative that I don’t think she’ll be able to follow. I think nice words without much of a storyline would work best, but I don’t know much poetry. I was wondering if folks had some suggestions as to what might be appropriate? She is religious (Salvation Army), I am not. She's read a lot of fantasy and romance.
posted by TORunner to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't really religious, but pretty much anything by Mary Oliver is lovely when read aloud. I mostly recommend American Primitive. She writes of nature, and many of her poems are short lyrical pieces. There are a few that are story poems too, notably, the Lost Child, and one about John Chapman. They are peaceful and beautiful.

Children's books are often very soothing, and have simple story lines.

My sincerest sympathy to you and your sister.
posted by LaBellaStella at 12:10 PM on March 29, 2017 [11 favorites]

Archy and Mehitabel?
Other familiar books from your childhood might be similarly easy to follow and also bring up good memories.
posted by staraling at 12:10 PM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

What about singing songs? In a similar situation recently, singing "You are my Sunshine," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Here Comes the Sun" and the like went well, I think. Her hospital might have a music therapist around who could lead the effort if you're not a confident singer; they usually play guitar and have a lot of these kinds of songs in their repertoires. Take care.
posted by carmicha at 12:16 PM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

Byron and Tennyson are both adventurous and Romantic ( note the capital R; I don't mean that they're necessarily all lovey-dovey), and more accessible to Modern ears than a lot of people think.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:16 PM on March 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I forgot to add that I'm so sorry to hear about your family's sad news.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:17 PM on March 29, 2017

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet is a classic for this kind of reading.

You can find it on Gutenberg Australia.

My sympathies.
posted by zadcat at 12:24 PM on March 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am so sorry. I think your voice is the important part here, and if you want to make her smile you might bring some Seuss books, and maybe some Shel Silverstein (but not the damned Giving Tree).
posted by Lyn Never at 12:35 PM on March 29, 2017 [14 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I think haikus by Basho might be nice-- they're imagistic and don't require following any narrative thread. And they're short- you can read as many or few as you like. Seconding Mary Oliver. Stanley Kunitz's poems are also beautiful.
posted by Mystical Listicle at 12:58 PM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if she is religious, she might enjoy the Psalms or other bible verses.
posted by Mystical Listicle at 1:01 PM on March 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would read her any book you know she's read before and liked. If they're books she knows then she won't be bothered by the storyline problem (which I don't think would be such a big deal anyway) and she'll be comforted by your voice and the material. (Personally if I were incapacitated I'd resent having to listen to something unfamiliar instead of the pleasure of something I know and love.)

Wishing you and your family comfort.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:17 PM on March 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am so sorry. I agree that hearing your voice, regardless of the words, is likely giving her so much comfort. If she is religious, perhaps she would appreciate the words of Howard Thurman or Dr. King?

For lyrical and light prose, Annie Dillard is lovely. For more poetry, ee cummings is often funny and light, as well as beautiful and serious. And along the lines of Mary Oliver (who is fabulous), Gary Snyder is another great nature writer/poet. You can find several of his poems here. (That site also links to many other poets you can browse). Wendell Berry is another classic nature writer who provides lovely imagery in essays and poems.

Sending you support and hoping you and your family are well-supported.
posted by stillmoving at 1:32 PM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

When my dad was dying, we had CDs of his favourite music playing in the background. Nothing too rock-and-roll, but more of the light-rock/easy listening variety (think: Eagles, John Denver, James Taylor, etc.). It lifted the mood in the room (vs. heavy silence) and, at other times, the lyrics seemed incredibly poignant. I'm not sure my dad was 'conscious', but the hospice nurse told us that hearing is (supposedly) one of the last senses to go. And my mom and sibling and I talked to one another: reminiscing about past family stories/events, chatting about 'normal' daily stuff going on. We took turns sitting next to him and touching him (stroking his arms, holding his hand, etc.). And we sang along to the songs too. We wanted him to feel our presence and be comforted by familiar sounds and patterns.

It is hard not to hear Annie's Song (John Denver) now without breaking out in tears. :'( Nevertheless, that music is very significant for us because it is a touchstone for remembering that very intense/deeply private/emotional experience of being with a loved one when they pass away.

I am so sorry for what you all are going through. It is the hardest thing I have ever experienced/done. I wish you all strength and peace.

So is there some music that your sister loved (and the rest of you as well) that you can play for her? You might want to pre-screen the lyrical content slightly for awkward content, but if she was a music buff, this might be something she'd appreciate.
posted by Halo in reverse at 1:40 PM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

Did you ever keep a diary or save letters written to you at camp? Or could you write down some reminiscences of growing up together that you could then read to her? I think reading something personal about your shared history might be a meaningful way to both read to her without expecting her participation, and also giving her a sense of being held on to.

So sorry you're going through this.
posted by Mchelly at 2:08 PM on March 29, 2017

If she likes Dennis Lee, then maybe some of Shel Silverstien's poetry would be a good follow-up? The titles I remember from when I was a kid are "Where the Sidewalk Ends", "A Light in the Attic", and "Falling Up".
posted by Secret Sparrow at 2:27 PM on March 29, 2017

When I was sitting with my mother as she was dying and while she was nonresponsive, I said:

You are safe
You are not alone
I love you

I did read her Psalm 91, which is very comforting, and read her the poem by Rudyard Kipling that she said to us when we were little in lieu of singing a lullaby - The Seal's Lullaby. But dont underestimate the power of sitting quietly with acceptance of what is. Be sure that you pull up a chair so that you're facing her and she can see you with having to turn her head. Holding her hand can say as much as any words.

I can't begin to imagine how hard it must be to lose a younger sister. Your presence by her side is all she really needs. You are a real gift to her. Take good care.
posted by janey47 at 2:29 PM on March 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

regular books have a narrative that I don’t think she’ll be able to follow

How about something she's read several times? You say she likes fantasy - maybe something like Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia - where she doesn't have to work to follow the plot if she knows it pretty much by heart. Parts of the Bible might also work - especially well-known psalms and stories. (Not so much the begats and laws).

I might try Robert Frost, whom I think of as soothing. For beautiful spiritual poetry, The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy is a lovely anthology.

I'm so sorry.
posted by bunderful at 2:32 PM on March 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is a really nice collection of poetry that hits the sweet spot between high-brow and popular. It's a nice mix of different themes (collected in "America," "Love and Romance," "Adventure," "First Poems" (i.e., for kids), and "Reflection.") and different authors and time periods. There's an emphasis on American poets but it includes many others. If you wanted a collection of different types of poetry for different moods, that are all great poems, but that isn't an overwhelming comprehensive anthology, this is a great book for that. I think you'd find a lot that you'd both enjoy during this hard time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:52 PM on March 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry. :( I think anything familiar to her would be great. Songs you guys sang as kids? Stories ("remember the time...?"). Children's books (Cat in the Hat)?
posted by salvia at 5:01 PM on March 29, 2017

I was coming in to recommend Mary Oliver. A book of haiku may be appropriate as well. John O'Donohue may work as well and has religious themes. If she likes romance books, Pablo Neruda poetry is beautiful. My thoughts are with you and your family.
posted by anya32 at 5:36 PM on March 29, 2017

I was also coming in to recommend Mary Oliver. She has gotten more overtly religious in recent years (still only in terms of Grace and such) and, while this atheist does not find it intrusive, I can imagine that it might be even more appreciated by someone of faith.

Mary Oliver is really really perfect for this.
posted by lydhre at 5:53 PM on March 29, 2017

I also find Robert Frost poems to be very soothing and familiar. Best to you.
posted by Gusaroo at 6:51 PM on March 29, 2017


Just lovely.
posted by rw at 9:23 PM on March 29, 2017

I'm sorry for your loss. I thought Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell was beautiful and fun to read.

Nobody is Cuter than You by Melanie Shankle is a memoir about friendships. Maybe you could also talk about your favourite memories together and tell her how thankful you are for all the wonderful times you had together?
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2017

Depending on how religious they are, they may enjoy some Salvation Army hymn lyrics read out loud.

Here's an online source for them: Salvation Army Songbook.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:34 PM on March 29, 2017

The anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times, has a lot of stuff in it that is both beautiful and not hard to follow. I'm not a Garrison Keillor fan in general, but I like his taste in poetry.
posted by colfax at 12:27 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest Kahlil Gibran as well. My favorite is Sand and Foam, but all of his stuff is pretty solid. I also like William Carlos Williams' work pretty well, and his poetry tends to be shorter. I'm so sorry.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:54 AM on March 30, 2017

If she's read fantasy, why not Tolkien? There are many throughout the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, as well as a collection of songs and poems. Elvish is a musical language.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:21 AM on March 30, 2017

There's a new Shel Silverstein book from just a couple of years ago. The poems are in the same spirit.

Could you read some Robert Frost? That has a nice, easy feel to much of it.

Or what about some prose that discusses nature, like Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac"? The book is divided up into a bunch of shorter chapters; it is a year's worth of stories about the nature around his farm in Michigan (and is getting kind of old now). Or Hal Borland's "Beyond Your Doorstep"?
posted by wenestvedt at 12:10 PM on March 30, 2017

Also, this sucks for you all (as you well know). You are doing a sweet thing in lifting her up.

One other, slightly weird recommendation is a slim book called "An Unprejudiced Palate" from I think the late 1940s. It's by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Pellegrini, and he writes about his big garden and all the stuff that he grows there, and what he makes from it. It's light and has a pleasant tone and passes along nicely.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:12 PM on March 30, 2017

Poetry that might remind you of your childhood together brings A. A. Milne's to mind. Sweet, not too sad, reminding you and her of your early connection. One volume is called "When We were Very Young" and another is "Now We are Six". Of course, you could read chapters of Pooh as well as poetry. You might think about recording some of them for the nursing staff to play for her when you aren't there. I am a nurse, and we always believed that dying patients were able to hear even when death was close. It might be a very comforting thing for her to hear your familiar voice.

I would not discount what you are experiencing while spending time reading, interacting, with your dying sister. It's not all for her comfort. You are losing your sister; it's for you, too.
posted by citygirl at 1:54 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 12:57 PM on March 31, 2017

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