by Ken Sehested
Recently, when Nancy picked up our 3-year-old grandson Jonathan from preschool, out of the blue he said, “Ja-Ja (her grandmotherly nickname), e e cummings wrote poem.”
“Did you learn that at school, Jay?” Nancy asked. “No,” he said from the back seat.
“Did your Mama teach you that?” “Yes.”
“Is it the one that begins with ‘i thank you God for this most amazing day'?" she asked. At which point he began quoting the rest of that verse with her.
Neither could remember the second stanza, but Nancy began the third, with Jay keeping up: “I who have died am alive again today. . . .”
"how should tasting hearing seeing
breathing any — lifted from the no of
all nothing — human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?”
“Ja-Ja,” he said. ‘You left out ‘touching.’”
So, indeed. Never leave out touching.
After another pause, then “Ja-Ja?”
“Yes,” Nancy said.
“ee cummings dead.”
A couple weeks before, he had been absorbed with the death of one of the family’s chickens, his first up-close and personal encounter with dying. It's an awareness we mostly avoid, though it's hard to dodge when gathered around a coffin or urn of a loved one, friend, or acquaintance. The more beloved they were, the more precarious the experience.
The poet concluded with parenthetical emphasis, intentionally understated as if a secret to be whispered only to the attentive:
“(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened).”
The contemplation of breath’s brevity—of others and, one day, our own—offers the opportunity to peep through death’s fearsome shroud, however momentarily, to learn that nothing, finally, is lost; to the knowledge that both serene composure and exuberant joy accompany mortal awareness; to confidence that the grave is no longer a threat.
Such is the secret to freedom.