The World Without Us: A Meditation

Yesterday, everything changed, lightheartedly—unthinkingly—I went to the clinic to have “additional films taken,” and after three hours, walked into the sunlight with the image of two black marbles floating in the snow and fog of what had been an ultrasound image of my right breast. Do you see them? Dr. Johns asked, helpfully providing tiny computer arrows to guide me to the pronounced blackness of the “densities,” as he called them, and then he said, I don’t know what they are. Dr. Johns ordered more films and told me he would share all the films and images with Dr. Ott and telephone me in the morning with Dr. Ott’s recommendations.

After a fitful night, I woke without remembering this news and then remembered it. When Dr. Johns phoned, he told me they recommended ultrasound guided-needle biopsies, and he told me to call my own doctor, get the order and then make an appointment with Jessica at the clinic. I talked to my doctor, who took notes and reassured me that these biopsies are often negative, and then I spoke with Jessica, who arranged my procedure for the morning of July 28, which was then only days away.

As I cannot write anything else, I will write about how I feel, hour by hour.

Israel is bombing Lebanon again—the beautiful city, Beirut: the airport, the port, all avenues of escape. City of our courtship.These images of rubble cannot but bring me back to winter, 22 years ago, in the earliest months of what would become a long marriage. Our wedding rings were made by a jeweler in Beirut, who worked through nights of shellfire from the Christian east and brought the rings to my husband in a velvet box just days after I evacuated with the Sixth Fleet. His jewelry shop had been destroyed, as had most of our quarter, and to come to our darkened hotel, he had to walk streets slick with the shattered glass of shop windows. Never mind, he said, we are all alive, and you are getting married.

America is unbearably, stiflingly hot at this moment. All states are in deep red on the weather maps. Here, it is 38 degrees Celsius or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The dogs won’t go out. I won’t go out. It is a droning heat, as if the trees are crying out and the grass hissing.

Unpacking our library, which has been packed up since our house was flooded three years ago, I notice certain titles: Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death” and Jacques Derrida’s “The Gift of Death.” I consider taking them up to my bedside table but instead shelve them. I have been unpacking and re-shelving for months, a few volumes at a time. I thought our life was beginning again and that all I had to do was put things in place. Things. When, on a winter night, water gushed into the house from a broken main, much was destroyed, and we were stunned into ruin, but now we are back, and the carpets that were left to stiffen in the snow are again spread on our floors. I have only to return everything to where it was— or so I had imagined. “The Gift of Death” will not come upstairs, but I am not surprised that it is among the titles lifted out of the box I open this morning. It has always been so for me: strange correspondences between my thoughts and the outer world.The world has always sent messages, whether from God or an intelligent universe, whether self-issued or bequeathed, and I was ignorant only of how many messages I had missed.

Nothing has changed since yesterday, except the fear that I am running out of time. This alphabetization of my book collectionwhy?—this careful unpacking and the delight at finding certain things again: a letter on blue foolscap from Graham Greene that I thought might have swirled into the debris that night, but, no, I’m holding it in my hands and reading as if I am someone else reading the papers of a dead poet.

And just now, the clouds above the darkened poplars opened to a late light.

I feel terror, pending loss, isolation and also a strange elation, a floating sense of the present moment, a weightlessness as if I have entered a state of mind leading all the way out of the world. On a clear day, cloudless, to the low hum of beetle and cricket, I tell myself to make a list of everything I remember.The details of my life from the earliest year.

This morning, I think to write a poem titled “The Dove Keeper,” arising from the memory of the old man in Beirut who had a dove cote on his rooftop and whose doves alighted on his head and along his outstretched arms; in an earlier poem titled “Curfew,” I wrote that he was “cloaked in doves.” As he released his flock for me, he tossed his head back and laughed into the rising of their wings, an applause of light before the shooting began again in the streets—tut tut tut tut tut answered by tut tut tut tut tut, as other old men folded up their backgammon tables and market sellers ran behind their carts of tumbling lemons and dates. Then there was only dust, gunfire, glass in an emptied street and, later, utter darkness, with only candles here and there, guttering in the stairwells.

The darkness into which we sail at death, I am thinking, as I open John Berger’s correspondence with John Christie, “I Send You This Cadmium Red,” to a letter written by Berger: “We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance. Maybe from time to time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything, so much everything that we can distinguish nothing. Maybe it is the interior from which everything came.”

These cannot be crickets because it is not night.

The flowers that tiger swallowtails feed upon are in bloom again in the garden, but there are not yet any tiger swallowtails.That is how I remember my last conversations with J, my childhood friend, before he went mad again for a time and again sought refuge in monasteries—first, with the Trappists and, then, the Benedictines. As I talked on the telephone with him several summers ago, I watched, through my study window, the butterflies he and I used to catch in the Michigan fields as they descended to feed on those flowers, and I saw him again, too, running through the fields with his white net held above the chicory and Queen Anne’s lace.

This is shock: a floating, oddly disembodied mindfulness, dread without respite, but experienced at a remove.

Write everything, I tell myself. Hour by waking hour.This is my first such clarity.

I spend some of the morning in the study, unpacking, and find, among other things, a photograph of myself amid the ruins of Beirut in 1984 and a list of the items in my friend Ashley’s “museé hypothetique,” along with a narrative of the museum’s history, and I think I might write a poem for him entitled “A Hypothetical Museum” which will include objects from his collection: sand from the Sahara, a bottle of Gauloise smoke, a glove used in renovating the Louvre, a Roman sword dug from an English garden, a shovel from Verdun, the Great War. How much world he has assembled! How much time would I need to write this poem for him? Enough.

This morning, I found two black silk Chinese jackets in a trunk, among rags that should have long ago been discarded, and I took them to the Mongolian women, who examined them very carefully, as if they were seeing before them the ghost jackets of another epoch.

An afternoon of sudden downpours from a sky by turns pearl and pumice. I found a sweater I bought in former Yugoslavia in 1978, summer. I washed it and was hoping it would dry on the rail outside and it almost did, but now it is soaking from the rain. I talked to Jane, who phoned in having heard the news, and it took some time to convince her that I am calm and that I am not trapped in the darkest thoughts. I also talked to other friends—dear sisters, these women who circle me in my hour of gravest uncertainty and fill me with gratitude.

The sweater will smell of rain and sunlight. I think it is from Zlatibor, and I find myself wondering what happened there during the recent war years. I’m sure that Vasko is no longer alive, among the many people I have known who went before me in death.

In my thoughts, I’m heading into the open sea.

A cloudless day. So we have the dove keeper poem to be written and, also, the “museé hypothetique,” but they must be written by a hand guided by a mind that cannot alight. Like the birds over the fires of Beirut. Unpacking the library is a labor of unpacking a life: the scattered interests in philosophy, religion, poetry, literature, languages and the history of languages, art, photography, ideas, ecology, cosmology and, particularly, books about crimes against humanity. There are many books among them that I have not yet read, that I may have no time to read, and there is also all that I have not written, and the little time left, even if it is measured in years.We are asleep, we are dreaming, we are flickering between two darknesses.

The shed door was open, so I went out to close it, thinking also to turn on the sprinkler for the lawn, and as I approached the shed, I heard a creaking above me, as if a door were opening, and a long-dead branch fell almost upon me and I watched it fall, as if slowly, and then I moved it toward the fence.

There is the first tiger swallowtail, flying above the fan of water.

There are two days of waiting left, then another week of waiting. I am submerged in quiet fear, a giddy courage that is a form of daring, a peculiarly futureless dread. In two days’ time, the testing will be over, and then something else will happen that I cannot foresee, that I have yet to experience, but I know that it will be as unfamiliar as what I am feeling now and that what I am learning cannot be learned any other way, nor can it be described or lessened or lifted or altered to any degree, nor is there escape except fleetingly and only through distraction, which is not true forgetfulness, and always the “feeling” returns as strongly, and if this is 50 years ago, then I am a monarch butterfly not yet dead, but nevertheless pinned through the thorax to a poster board, futilely opening and closing its wings.

The feelings wash over and through me.They must be endured then let go. I try to let them come and go without interfering. I try on scarves in the mirror. I pull my hair back to study the shape of my skull. I will get to see my head for the first time without hair.


Dear M,
Forgive me for not writing sooner, but the hours have been taken up with all manner of medical procedures as, alas, my veins proved insufficient to the task of conducting chemotherapy throughout my system, so I have had a little titanium pillbox sort of object implanted in my chest, and conveniently, it can remain there up to 10 years, if I should wish, and is used to make withdrawals and deposits. A bloodstream teller-window. It is covered by my own skin (conveniently) and appears as a lump (currently a red and sore lump) on my chest near the shoulder. As it happens, I am to lose my hair on Sept. 27 precisely, so I am having it all cut off on the 25th, deliberately and so as not to endure the sight of hair in the basin. My first chemotherapy will be Tuesday, and then every three weeks for a total of four treatments. Near Thanksgiving, I will most gratefully begin daily radiation, and by Christmas, perhaps I will have “ground cover” on my bald head and a tree in the living room with nothing beneath it but medical bills tied up in ribbons and, as I used to receive in my childhood, a Christmas navel orange. (I remember Sean telling me that this—the thought of his mother excited to receive an orange—was sad. And I assured him that it wasn’t sad at all, it was delightful, and the trick was to get the orange cold in the fridge without a sibling making off with it.)

I have been thinking about the lake house, and we must think about naming it before it becomes by default The Lake House. But your idea to extend the porch to the second story is delightful, I think, and will very economically enhance the house. As the view is so very fine, perhaps this addition could be many-windowed, almost a glass porch, like the glass church on the raft in “The Illuminations.” I miss you and remember often driving along the long and mysterious body of water that was the Hudson River. …

Much love and slightly panicked,



Writing to keep awake, to find my way back with words, to follow phrases back into a lived life, to remember something by way of syllables, to “music” the meaning, stitch the soul to its making, it’s impossible not to feel that this poetry by which I have lived is an accident, as it also seems my life has been: the significant events—all coincidence and happenstance, near misses. Only my son was chosen, deliberately, was seen and beheld and welcomed. The rest, all the rest, seemed to happen of its own accord, and only in hindsight may it be assembled into a meaningful whole: this led to that, that led to the next this. In our sojourn on Earth, we are presented a curriculum for the education of a human soul, comprised of lessons that seem mysteriously to repeat themselves as if not properly learned the first time, or as if they were lessons failed, but this curriculum moves in a spiral rather than a circle, never returning quite to the same instruction, and the fortunate few experience, I think, epiphanies in their late years, so that even failure is embraced and welcomed. It is as Samuel Beckett wrote: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”The final realization might be that we ourselves wrote this curriculum within the depths of our being.

Along my particular path, I have been taught a little of the experience of “near death”: in a car blown across an icy road on a mountain pass, caught by a grove of trees; several times under shellfire and sniper fire in countries at war; and in El Salvador, in the time of the death squads, when “near death” bestowed its lesson as I escaped the fate of the others three times in a month.

In these encounters, death was outside, glimpsed fleetingly, harrowingly.There was no time to learn the lesson of death, only the lesson of heightened terror.This time, death appeared from within, so invisibly that it could be perceived only through radio imaging and magnetic resonance, and could be held back only through surgery, radiation and chemical therapy.The beginning of death could be cut out, excised, and the surrounding territory bombarded and poisoned, and still it would not abandon me ever—as has always been true for all of us, but I didn’t know this. I didn’t live my life with this realization constantly before me, teaching me to be in awe of every drawn breath. But is it possible to live without ever forgetting death? Could we endure such turbulent radiance? Isn’t it necessary to forget so as to get on with remembering the past and planning the future? Death holds us in the present, a moment that spirals outward, a moment revered and treasured beyond comprehension: the last moment, the moment before we go out. In this moment, it is possible to love having lived, to hold one’s life sacred and to be filled with gratitude for the gift bestowed at the explosion of our conception. If the “I” were immortal, the self continuous, unthreatened, in this body or another, from time immemorial to infinity, without interruption, if this “I” could remain conscious forever, without limit, in the prison of selfhood—what? There would be “time” for everything and everyone, for all permutations of experience, and thus all urgency would be removed, all longing and wonder, all disappointment and, with it, expectation, leaving us suspended not in an eternal present but an eternal nothingness, without the immense spiritual satisfaction of having schooled a soul.

The quest for immortality has always mystified me, whether pursued through cyborg research or medical advancement; it seems that, as with other supposed “good ideas,” the consequences of success, however tenuous, have not been well-imagined nor entirely thought-out.The prospect of immortality, for me, is as horrifying as certain heavens: endless and unrelieved, whether forever singing in the spheres near an old, bearded God or dwelling in one of the heavenly mansions promised by the Christ.The scientifically bestowed immortal life would keep us here, no longer making room for others, no longer allowing the world to be refreshed and re-envisioned, the soil to be replenished with our remains and our works to be beheld independent of us and for their inherent value.

There is another immortality, however, that has always been available to humankind, and it is this immortality that I hope to achieve: the possibility of living on in the hearts of others, of having touched lives that will touch other lives, of having made something, a poem or garden, that will somehow be read and visited beyond one’s death. The 21-gram soul may depart the body, and the energy within it also—so palpable that it is impossible to mistake a corpse for a sleeping human—and this almost weightless force may be, as with all energy, indestructible, and so we might in some measure survive death.

I hope to remember this—the lesson of “near death,” terrifyingly luminous—if and when I leave the tunnel of illness.


I’m no longer bald. Just as I was becoming accustomed to the woman in the mirror, so pale she shone in the dark, those nights of frequent waking, startling myself at every glimpse, my ghost-self cupping her hands to her face or coming closer so she could see that, no, there were no eyebrows or eyelashes, not a single fine hair anywhere. Without hair, my eyes seemed strangely large, and they were filled with fuller measures of light, grief, terror and solemnity. Come back, I pled with myself. And more than once, I stood before myself in the glass and whispered, Who are you?Tell me who you are.Who have you ever been?

I have been going through my things, bearing in mind that nothing should be kept that someone else wouldn’t want, that I must prepare everything “just in case,” I tell myself, that I must clean and sort and clear away the debris of my life. No two of anything. No duplicates. A friend thinks I should pack up the books having to do with the century’s horrors because she wants to fill my room “with peace and light.” You’re finished with that, she said. It’s time for something else. For something else, room must be made. Emptiness must be created.


Now the sun comes through the fir branches, and in the window’s reflection, the fire I have made is burning in midair above the field, and dew whitens the field, or silvers it, and I’m here in utter silence except for the sound of the flames. Somehow, it seems to me, all of this has been arranged.This is my heaven. I am alone here, yes, and I have always feared being alone, especially in houses, especially at night, but in recent years, I seem to have overcome that. I’m not afraid. And, of course, we go alone in the end, by ourselves, our souls go into the light that is death, and our bodies go into the darkness of the grave or the ash of a cremation. So it is as if I’ve been brought here, to a cottage on an island in Puget Sound, so that I might experience the heaven I imagined in childhood. My heart is full, as it was then, with love and gratitude for everyone in my life, for all who made me possible, for the light over the Sound, for the owl in the firs, the egrets standing in the thin lagoon. The moment of the present is still radiant, still precious, and this is why I think it’s possible that I have come near the end of my life and, perhaps, with luck, veered off again into living.

So this is what I have to say about immortality: we live as radiant beings between two realms of darkness. We die so that the world may go on without us, so as to enable us to give ourselves back.



About the Author

Carolyn Forché

Carolyn Forché is a poet, translator and editor of the groundbreaking anthology, “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” collecting the work of poets who endured conditions of extremity during the past century.

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