Thursday, August 21, 2008

it can't be helped

by Shel Silverstein

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don't grow taller?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won't bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems swell, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!

Fifteen years ago, when I was a young, energetic, inspiring teacher of sixth graders, I thought I could change their lives with poetry. We made poetry books with marbled paper covers and "self-published" them. We had an open mike at the middle school for their friends and family. We wrote the usual haiku and rhyming couplet, as well as plenty of free verse and exquisite corpse stuff (I didn't call it that, though) But one of my favorite activities was to take poems that the students already loved, and then they would modify them to become their own. My eleven and twelve year olds had bucketloads of fun with "Whatif" by Shel Silverstein, I think because it is simultaneously silly and serious. It speaks to that place where ego meets self-doubt, and middle school meets the world.

I had my students all start with the first four lines, then add their own in the middle, and finish with Shel's signature last two lines. I remember being amazed at their willingness to share their real fears, as long as they were embedded in humor.

For the past few days, as I've been fishing out my insurance card for every smocked receptionist, and lying on tables waiting for needles to poke me, and listening to the strangely calming whir and hum of the MRI machine, and, of course, lying in bed at night, I have been finding myself in the dark murky realm of the Whatifs. Nasty little creatures, they are. Possibly even worse than zombies. But they have a place. A serious and silly place. Where fear meets love, and middle age meets cancer.

Anyway, here's my poem, a la the style of my 6th graders all those years ago. It's more like a ramble. It doesn't rhyme. Ask me if I care.

Last night while I lay thinking here
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song
Whatif the pathologist's boyfriend just left her for her best friend
and she's so heart-broken that she can't think straight or see straight?
Whatif my surgeon can't cut straight?
Whatif the electricity went off and my boob was stuck in the mammogram machine?
Whatif the sentinel lymph node is positive?
Whatif I've got the gene?
Whatif I have chemo and can't muster the energy to cook dinner for my kids AND it puts me into menopause?
Whatif I get 'em both cut off and get to pick perfect ones out of a catalog?
Whatif I can't feel 'em?
Whatif the anesthesiologist starts drinking at 7 AM?
Whatif I can't go to Seattle next week?
Whatif I have to miss tons of school and I don't have enough sick days?
Whatif all the techs and nurses are wearing fake ID badges?
Whatif we had caught it sooner?
Whatif breast cancer does the same thing to me that it did to my mother?
Whatif I throw my wine glass off the porch at Jake-n-Telly's?
Whatif all the love in the world were visible?
Whatif the radiologist forgot her glasses that day?
Everything seems swell and then
The nighttime Whatifs strike again!


suesun said...

It's funny..... everyone always says to "Think Positive" right? But after writing this, I realized that I actually want everyone to think NEGATIVE. Negative lymph nodes. Negative margins. Negative genes.

b carstenium said...

You're beautiful, you're courageous, you're vulnerable, you're a amazing and funny, you have the strength to be truthful and I love you!!