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When cancer changed everything, writing poems was an act of healing

When Gail Rudd Entrekin’s husband was battling cancer in 2009, she did what she’s always done when facing a stressful situation.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager and it’s always been a critical tool for me to figure out what I’m feeling. It’s how I turn something that might be destructive into something beautiful, something meaningful,” Entrekin said from her home in Berkeley, California.

Entrekin has published several books of poetry and taught creative writing for over 20 years. She said she’s normally eager to show her husband, fellow poet and writer Charles Entrekin, her latest work. But these poems were so personal and painful, she held off. Unbeknownst to her, Charles was also writing poetry about his experience of dealing with cancer.

“We were each going through such different things. He was dealing with his physical issues and his fears. I was feeling compassion for his misery but I was having my own sense of loss.”

For three months Charles underwent a harsh regimen of chemotherapy that made him very sick and caused him to withdraw from his family. Many of the side effects lasted for another two years.

“I watched him change from an energetic, competitive tennis player and brilliant philosopher and businessman, to what he described as a ‘passive organism in a relatively short space of time. To suddenly find that you’re married to a different person than you were for 30 years is shocking.”

When Charles finally regained much of his health, the two shared their poems with each other and realized they might be helpful for others who are experiencing cancer. The result is “The Art of Healing”, which juxtaposes the poems of patient and caregiver on opposite pages. Sometimes the poems even chronicle the same event, but from two very different perspectives.

“One night Charles had a dream that caused him to thrash around in his sleep and break a lamp. I wrote a poem about how frightening that was. He wrote a poem about how he was dreaming he had just thrown a football in a perfect spiral,” Entrekin says with a laugh.

Entrekin says most of the poems are positive and affirm the deep love they have for each other. But some of the poems show the darkness that both were experiencing. Entrekin was surprised that Charles wrote about trying to forgive himself.

“It never occurred to me that he would think it was his fault for getting cancer. I think men always think that they should be able to fix things and he felt that keenly. He felt guilt because he couldn’t fix himself.”

Read next: How poetry helps us understand mental illness

For Entrekin, the darkness had to do with her loneliness at losing the partner she once had. “In marriage there is this unspoken contract of who’s going to take responsibility for what. When one person can’t hold up their part of the sky anymore, it’s really tough for the other person.”

That frustration is evident in her poem “Before Making Love.”

I am so angry I cannot speak, that you
who took the vow, would drift down the beach
accept the icy water, leave me to lift the heavy boat
lock the oars, paddle the hard night, looking
for you

While Charles is cancer free now, other health problems have emerged. The chemo triggered Parkinson’s Disease and exacerbated his glaucoma so that he is almost blind. Despite these challenges, Entrekin says their marriage remains solid.

“We’re not who we were before. But we have come together in a strong, intimate way that I wouldn’t have predicted when were were young. We’re mostly just grateful for every day we have together. ”

You can listen to Entrekin read “Before Making Love” or read the text below.

Before Making Love

Finally, we tell the truth: how death’s been
hovering at the door, muttering threats and banging
in the long night, how reason takes flight
like a circling falcon over its nest of flapping
fear, how you sometimes wander out into the ocean fog,
how I am so angry I cannot speak, that you
who took the vow, would drift down the beach
accept the icy water, leave me to lift the heavy boat
lock the oars, paddle the hard night, looking
for you; leave me to rake the sand,
build the park, martial the troops, while
you stand down there, your pant legs sloshing
in the water, smiling at the crows,
not helping, not helping at all
with the work of life, just because
you are leaving soon. And I don’t want
this version of myself. I want to fall
adrift beside you, am terrified that I
will fall adrift beside you, that the two
of us will wade out into the cold
grey sea. And I don’t want this version
of you, timid and silent, waiting to be told
bumping along tipping and spilling the wine,
the vase, my words. Nor this version of us
still in the same story but no longer
the protagonists, the lovers, the driving nexus
of the plot, only separate wanderers, rarely
found on the same page. Give me back
the glittering scarf, the ready laughter,
the bodies that twine in the night.

Gail Rudd Entrekin is a poet, editor, publisher and teacher. Her books include “John Danced” (1988), “You Notice the Body” (1998) and “Change (Will Do You Good)” (2005), which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and “Rearrangement of the Invisible” (2012). She is co-publisher and poetry editor of Hip Pocket Press, where she served as editor of the 2002 anthology “Sierra Songs & Descants: Poetry & Prose of the Sierra” and the 2007 anthology “Yuba Flows.”

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