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Thursday, August 21, 2014


In Norse mythology, not only warriors went to Valhalla in the afterlife.  Women who died in childbirth also were allowed entry there, carried by the Valkyries, a reward for incalculable heroism.  I consider this tonight as I think of the son I gave birth to so long ago, laboring for twelve hours to bring him into the world, though I already knew he was dead, and had known for a few days. He would have been twenty-eight years old. Every grief I have had since then, and will have, arises from the wellspring carved by his brief life and his death. Time brings with it a way to hold such a grief with a measure of grace, I think.

The little shell in the picture was made for me by my friend Deborah; it was chipped in the Loma Prieta earthquake.  The obverse is a white, iridescent glaze.  This memento is all I have of him.

I have long had a very strong affinity with Dana Gioia's poems about his son, and so I will close with his poem, Planting a Sequoia, from his magnificent book, The Gods of Winter.

Planting a Sequoia

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son's birth -
An olive or a fig tree - a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father's orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant's birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

We will give you what we can - our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother's beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

Dana Gioia