Rainer Maria Rilke Teaches Me About Cancer

I’m reading a superb biography called “A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke,” by Donald Prater and from it I am gathering material and ideas for how to live with breast cancer.

Sometimes poetry and literature are the best forms of bibliotherapy. Bear with me.

For starters, here’s the second stanza from one of Rilke’s poems from his “Sonnets to Orpheus” (II, 13) series:

Be always dead in Eurydice – climb, with more singing,

climb with praising, back to the pure relation.

Here, in the failing place, in the exhausted realm,

be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Background (scroll down to skip): Rilke wrote this entire sonnet – the entire, magnificent series of sonnets – to Orpheus, the mythical Greek lyre player who has gone to the underworld (Hades) to get his beloved Eurydice back. On Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s wedding day, Eurydice was bit by a snake and died suddenly. Orpheus was heartbroken, and was given the chance to earn her return to  life.  In an agreement with both Hades and Persephone, the god and queen of the Underworld,  Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the dark, arteried maze of death, but must promise not to look back, must promise to trust that Eurydice follows behind him as he makes his way back to Earth. Sadly, he fails. His doubts bedevil him, and just before re-entering the light of terra firma, he turns and looks, but his last vision is of her fading back into darkness. It is a tragedy that tears Orpheus apart with grief.  Orpheus’ lyre remains a constellation in the sky called “Lyra.”

What could this mean?

We, cancer patients and survivors, are in “the exhausted realm.” We’re not dead – of course not – but a part of us has died: our illusion of ongoing health, an old life that has changed, a loss of innocence, a sense of ongoingness. I feel that to heal completely, this grief must be felt, acknowledged, allowed to appear fully in the body and mind, and then let go.

It is this feeling and letting go that is the challenge, no? To trust in it. Thankfully we are not bound to an oath like Orpheus, but faith in a new life, a new outcome, or some future hope comes with the painful price of a broken past. It is a pendulum of dark and light. An offering of night, an opening called “Day.” Rilke, in his wisdom, did not recommend an illumination or mirror; rather his word is a gift of transparency, one to break: “glass.”

glass ball on white surface
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

And in breaking, in shattering, he tells me, be the full-throated voice of grief singing.

He ends the poem like this:

 

Be – and know at that time the state of non-being,

the infinite ground of our deepest vibration,

so that you may wholly complete it this one time.

In both the used-up, and the hollow and dumb

 

recourse of all nature, the un-tellable sum,

joyfully count yourself one, and destroy the number.

I feel myself wanting to be in the process of climbing, like Orpheus, back to the “pure relation” of family, daily life without the dark blanket of mortality clouding it. I want to sing praise songs to my doctors, medicine, coffee. I want, like Rilke tells Orpheus, to be “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration” in order to complete the full circuit of grief and healing.

And to count myself, and you, sister or brother survivor, “one” and to wipe out all comparisons, all statistics, all outcomes, percentages, prognoses, doses, stages and grades, milligrams and pounds, cycles, infusions, lab work, blood counts, tumor markers, weights, scans, needles,

o joyous day

and forever destroy the number.

Love out.

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