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Joanne the Poet - The Poetry of Joanne M. Clarkson

A Book of Witness

Now that I have begun giving readings from my newly minted poetry collection, “Hospice House,” I have been asked over and over to ‘say what the book is about.’ Or else people assume it is about grief or – death. I think my book is about witness.

My father died of pancreatic cancer when I was 10 and he was 42. He was a very active, out-going, friendly guy, always in the middle of everything. Six years before his death he had started his own home building business. He loved building houses and was so proud of what he was doing. I remember when he drove home in a new blue truck with: “Joseph P. Mokosh, Builder of Fine Home” painted on the side.

It is rare for a young, healthy man to die. Those final months, a constant stream of visitors: local friends and neighbors, relatives and friends from West Virginia and Ohio where he grew up, World War II army buddies from all over the country came to pay their respects. It was a very public death. During this time my mother and I felt so loved and supported.

It was after that our lives truly changed. I vividly remember – I mean I can visualize the cans on the shelves and groceries in our cart – a day, shortly after my dad’s passing. We were in our neighborhood grocery store and we saw a friend who was also shopping coming toward us. When she became aware of us, a look of horror crossed her face and she turned her cart around and quickly steered it down the opposite aisle.

I was shocked and puzzled and I asked my mom why she didn’t come and talk to us. My mother explained that people didn’t know what to say. They were afraid of what happened to my dad and afraid of our sadness. And we must forgive them. “But,” she told me then with her head held high and her voice strong. “we are never going to do that. When we know someone who was lost a loved one or who is experiencing some other heartbreak, we are going to go right up to them. We are going to look into their sad eyes. We will say something, anything, or just give them a hug.” And she practiced this witness all her life. And I hope I have too.

As a Hospice Nurse, I served patients and families going through challenges I had not before imagined. Yet I saw much more courage and love than I did anger or denial. And, yes, most often the depression and deep sorrow settles in months after. I wrote this book as tribute to all it takes to be present at that inevitable moment when body and spirit part – and then to take up a life with a vital part missing.

“Hospice House” is my way of not looking away. Of saying to both the dying and all those at the bedside: “You are exquisitely human and I love you.”

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