A thick, heavy snow had fallen the night before and by morning the air was icy. I shook the snow from my boots and gingerly entered the funeral home. I was a little surprised to be escorted to a dark, open space in the basement, where Ava and Diane already sat, huddled in their coats. It seems another body was laid out in the prep room, and until Laura could be ritually washed, she was waiting her turn in a tall refrigerator unit that sat in this space near the garage. The funeral home wasn’t used to people sitting there, but because Ava and Diane wanted to be as close to Laura as possible, the funeral director dutifully brought out folding chairs and a small heater, and my writing colleagues positioned themselves in front of the refrigerator.
I dragged in a third folding chair to help form a circle. Now we were complete. We began by singing a Yiddish song that I’d sung to Laura over and over when she’d been lying on her daybed in the living room, eyes closed, toward the end.
When Laura’s cancer came back, it wasn’t hard to change our monthly meetings to accommodate her chemotherapy schedule. We were a pretty informal group anyway. Sometimes we brought copies of our finished pieces, and other times we read from scribbled notes, torn hastily out of a notebook. Though we loved our writers’ group, it was understood that family life and work came first, and we were just impressed when any of us had the time to actually compose something.
Our group was first conceived in 1997. By that time, both my daughters were attending a Jewish day school and I was ready to go back to my early love of writing. Toward that end I found myself at a day-long writing seminar. It was held on a Saturday, at a local church. I remember feeling funny about being in church on Shabbat. At the far end of the meeting space, I noticed another mother I had chatted with casually outside my kids’ school.
After the seminar, I walked over to her and found that she also was uncomfortable being in such a place on this day. We left the building together. On a whim, and more for dramatic flair than because I had any real idea what it entailed, I remarked, “Hey, do you want to start a writers’ group?”
“Sure,” she responded. “What do we need to do?”
I didn’t really know, but I suggested that she think of someone else who might be interested and so would I, and that four members would be a good beginning.
It was. We started off meeting once a month, around someone’s dining table or perched on living room couches. It turned out we were four Jewish women.
On the days when no one brought in anything to read, we chatted about our children, our childhoods, and sometimes our spiritual purpose. In our more productive months, we gravitated toward different genres. Ava brought in stories with a dark, decidedly offbeat flavor. Diane crafted vignettes from snippets of memory and occasionally tried her hand at a poem. I wrote personal essays about navigating my way through the brambles of grownup life. Laura, the child of Holocaust survivors, wrote poetry that often wound itself back to that primal loss, and to subsequent ones: her father’s early death, her mother’s illness, her own struggle to get well. As a group, we were definitely more poignant than funny. Needing tissues after hearing a piece was considered a good sign.
None of us had known Laura well when she was first diagnosed, which was long before the group started. Yet we had images from the poetry she brought in:
This journey unasked for: waters loud and shaking
I stay afloat in a tayva woven with get-well notes and casseroles…
Messages left like medicine on my answering machine
We knew she’d gone through treatment, worn bright headscarves, come out healthy. That was more than five years ago. So we weren’t prepared to hear one day, sitting with banana muffins and two typed stories before us, that the cancer had spread to her bones. She would have chemotherapy again, she said calmly. This time, she and her husband were going to a macrobiotic center to learn how that diet could help: they’d heard too many testimonials not to give it a try.
Our meetings continued. Laura brought in more poems now than before. Her wig was becoming. Her skin looked good from her restricted diet. I simply assumed she’d get better.
For our August meeting, we swung on two porch swings on Diane’s deck. Laura read a poem about traveling with her son to look at colleges, while we closed our eyes against the late afternoon light. We were all so glad she was traveling again.
Several months later, while lighting Chanukah candles with friends, Laura suddenly went incoherent, and a trip to the hospital revealed that the cancer had spread to her brain.
The meetings stopped. We sagged under the weight of the news. Our group members, as well as Laura’s other close friends, were mobilized into staying with her at various times during the day so she wouldn’t be alone. At first, it was almost luxurious to have several hours with nothing to do but hang out and talk with someone you really liked. But as the weeks went on, Laura was in more pain, and there was less and less talking. By February she was fitful both waking and in sleep.
When the call came that Laura had died, I quietly panicked about being asked to sit with her body. According to Jewish practice, corpses are never left alone. It turned out to be a first time for Ava and Diane, too. After the Yiddish song, we recited some prayers that seemed appropriate. We read excerpts from books on Jewish wisdom and Jewish mourning practice. We recited three of Laura’s poems. We included her in our conversation because it was the last time she’d be present with our group.
The funeral director came in and gently inquired if we’d like to move somewhere warmer. We pulled up our collars and shook our heads. There was no question that this was the right place to be; the four of us together while it lasted.
Mara Sokolsky is an Alexander Technique teacher and freelance writer in Providence, RI. She writes Mid/Yid, a bi-monthly column for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent on midlife issues.
On Taking Laura Seriously
by Susan Schnur
Laura Chakrin Cable’s “real” job was as a clinical social worker, and she struggled with the idea of taking herself seriously as a “writer.” After she died, her family “kept stumbling across her poems, left tucked away in unlikely places — in files, in between outdated tax forms, in notebooks left on bookshelves throughout the house, in boxes in the attic,” writes her daughter Anna in her afterword to Crossing the Stream: Poems by Laura Chakrin Cable, a tender, fastidious book that Laura’s writers’ group edited and brought to press after her death. Laura’s husband Rob filled two shopping bags with these “found” poems and dropped them off with the writers’ group. For the next few months, the women read poem after poem: Yes, no, maybe. They always lit two candles to welcome Laura’s spirit to guide them, “just as we would welcome the Sabbath bride on Friday night,” they note in the book’s Foreword.
Laura had been the child of Holocaust survivors, but in life she’d been reluctant to share poems that spoke to the intensity of that experience. Some of these poems appear in Crossing the Stream, along with explicit poems called “Stage IV Breast Cancer,” “Biological Clock,” and “Why Is It Women Who Always Lose Their Voices?”
In the final days of Laura’s life, Anna writes, “when I learned how to hook up IV tubes and read aloud to my mother as she had once read to me… [we] talked less often about shopping, weight, politics. More often than we ever had, curled up together with the pages spread around us on her bed, we read her poetry.”
“Spirits sing/in sadness, inside me, incessantly — ” one poem runs. “Delight!/in the forest/in our memory/You will find a true path!/… I pray for cleansing,/purity of purpose;/ I cross the stream.”
Coterminous with the year of mourning ending, a first-rate volume, Crossing the Stream: Poems by Laura Chakrin Cable, was published. Below, a sample.
Transferring Eddie’s Hours
I’d listened for years:
Dad had drowned on an August beach,
Mom then threatened their fractured home.
Eddie’s booze, cocaine, the black dog.
Sobriety, degree, job, woman, child.
Tests, lapses, moving on.
Hour beyond hour I’d held
a steady mirror to his boyish cheeks
and budding heart, those eyes
that desired tomorrow—
Till today, and my disclosure:
“Unfortunately, my diagnosis
is serious and uncertain.
And so we must find you another
therapist with more hours.” After quiet, he replied,
“Will you have more hours, later?”
My jaws spasmed, my eyes spit.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean this
to happen, the quiver of lips,
I never meant this,
To have holes in my
spine, my hold,