The Slow-Cooked Sentence

We are stardust, we are golden or Rilke’s elegies

Rachael Conlin Levy
Close-Up of Light Echo Around V838 Monocerotis (September 2006)
“… We are billion year old carbon” by Joni Mitchell
Image courtesy of

The lab results came back.

My dad’s cancer was supposed to have been cut out of his lung and life was supposed to continue as it always had. The tumor was supposed to be no more than a hard, tiny rock that would be tossed into the trash. Instead the cancer is like dark matter, dark energy, drawing life away.

I spiral into a place that neither shines nor reflects.

for each thing, only once. 
Once, and no more. And we too,
once. Never again. But this
once, to have been, though only once,
to have been an earthly thing – seems irrevocable.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Ninth Elegy

Lung cancer can spread into the neck and cause a droopy eyelid and sunken eye. It can grow into the esophagus and cause painful swallowing. It can twist itself around the heart and cause irregular beating. Or it can travel through the blood stream to the brain, the liver, the bones. My dad’s cancer was found in his lymph nodes, bean-shaped filters that trap foreign particles and are part of the immune system.

I tell everyone I know. I tell everyone I don’t know. I tell because I want the news to spread faster than the rogue cells, because I want to imagine that a thousand individual fleeting thoughts focused on my dad’s cancer will slow it, halt it, hell, why not erase it?

Want to know the prognosis for lung cancer?

It sucks.

For we, when we feel, evaporate: oh, we
breathe ourselves out and away: from ember to ember,
yielding us fainter fragrance. Then someone may say to us:
‘Yes, you are in my blood … 

 — Rilke, The Second Elegy

Cancer is going to change my family’s story and it makes me scared and angry. We — my family — die from heart attacks. It is written in our genetic code that more than likely death will come with a slow thickening of pipes until nothing but a trickle of blood remains and the heart gasps, shudders and breaks.

I don’t want my dad to die. Okay, I know we’re all dying, that each change is a sort of death to prepare us for the act of dying, but I don’t want him to die. He’s a good, strong man and the world’s a better place because he’s here, so he can’t go.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing

Rilke, The First Elegy

I cradle the phone against my ear, bite my lip, and rock back and forth as I listen to my dad describe the chemotherapy’s toxic concoction of drugs that would burn his veins, so doctors will put a port into his neck. He tells me another biopsy has been scheduled and a brain scan because doctors are still trying to define what and where they’re fighting the cancer. Yet even as the ground falls from under him, he is strong. This is his life right now, fighting cancer, and he’s ready for it, wants the fight. Had the cancer ended with the single surgery he said he would’ve felt a little cheated. Bring it on.

 Engraving of Orion from Johann Bayer‘s Uranometria, 1603 
(US Naval Observatory Library)

I want to live my life like my father, with courage, but I’m stuck in the empty, gravity-sucking space that makes up most of our universe.

When I was a kid and my dad took me camping, he’d hunch over a constellation wheel and then squint at the sky, find some faint cluster of stars and call me over. Then we’d both stare up into the night sky and he’d point out Big Bear and Little Bear, the North Star, Scorpio and the Pleiades, the star-studded belt of Orion, the hunter.

But it’s not story, but science that comforts me now. Strength lies in fact, not in prayer, and I think that’s okay. Knowing that we are just specks upo
n specks floating in a lonely corner of an ever-expanding universe doesn’t make me feel hopeless because the universe is in us. You, me, my dad, the cancer are composed of the same ingredients — hydrogen, oxygen and carbon — in roughly the same proportion as the recipe for the universe.

Does the cosmic space,
we dissolve into, taste of us then? Do the Angels
really only take back what is theirs, what has streamed out of them,
or is there sometimes, as if by an oversight, something
of our being, as well? 

Rilke, The Second Elegy

The other night the rain stopped and the clouds lifted, stars peered down from the heavens, and from my kitchen door I traced the outline of the Big Dipper. I wasn’t filled with hope or peace or fear or sadness or anger.

I just was.

7 responses to “We are stardust, we are golden or Rilke’s elegies”

  1. Katrina says:

    My heart is with you, needless to say. Death brings with it such loneliness. Poetry feeds the soul, we support one another, we wonder, rage, and cry. I'm glad you found some comfort in my words; I am grateful to find friendship in yours. Wishing your father every blessing as he goes forward into this unknown territory. xxkatrina

  2. I'm so sorry to hear this. Your honestly and love shine through here.

  3. You are handling this very well. I'm sure it is not easy.

  4. Your dad is the coolest guy Rachael. I'm doing my part to send my positive energy to him. I'm burning candles for his healing.

  5. Andrea says:

    Oh, I am so sorry. Sending you and your dad all my wishes and hopes for a positive outcome. I'm sure your beautiful words and memories mean so much to him.

  6. the emsta says:

    What a beautiful expression of your pain…I wish the best for your family…especially that you can cherish these precious moments with your dad.

  7. Rachael Levy says:

    Thank you, all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe: rss | email | twitter