By Catherine Keefe
Faced with a choice, I’d prefer to throw a party than offer almost any other gift.
If you want to know how deeply I love to celebrate your new baby granddaughter, jubilate in your high school graduation, rejoice in your 79th birthday, or revel in your nuptials, just come in my open front door, grab a plate, some cheese, a glass of Viogner and we’ll dance late into the evening. Motown. Van Morrison. Maybe a little Michael Franti & Spearhead.
I want to hear about your trip to Crimea, your knee replacement surgery, the tai chi classes you’ve begun and what it’s like teaching English to newly arrived immigrants in Korea Town. When I hug you hello, I want you to feel like you’re home and when I kiss you goodbye, I’m not really ready for you to leave. Don’t even ask; I’ll refuse to let you do the dishes.
J will scrub the big pots and pans, stack the plates into the dishwasher while I hand wash and dry the goblets with a white cotton sack cloth. In my mind, your face is still smiling and I feel your spirit warming my home, sure as the candles flicker low.
Yes, we’ll talk about you. T looked good. D seems so happy right now. It’s too bad about G‘s brother. We’ll compare notes as we wipe the countertops, thank the dog for licking crumbs off the floor, turn off the lights and sink into bed.
For an introvert who can get physically exhausted by conversation, I have an amazing capacity to entertain.
For a joyful person, I write a surprisingly deep well of sad poems.
When I was a new writer and first realized this, I felt sure I was in my “tragic artist” phase, a period I’d outgrow once I left graduate school.
When I’d sufficiently drained my tolerance for this, I tried and tried to write happy poems. And I did. Write them. Over and over and then I edited them to death because they sounded like Hallmark card jingles that deserved to languish unpublished.
Then, like Goldilocks finding the just right chair, I discovered “The Party,” a poem by Jason Shinder. Reading it feels like looking into a mirror.
The Party by Jason Shinder
And that’s how it is; everyone standing up from the big silence
of the table with their glasses of certainty and plates of forgiveness
and walking into the purple kitchen; everyone leaning away from the gas stove
Marie blows on at the very edge of the breaking blue-orange-lunging-
forward flames to warm another pot of coffee, while the dishes pile up in the sink,perfect as a pyramid. Aaah, says Donna, closing her eyes,
and leaning on Nick’s shoulders as he drives the soft blade of the knife
through the glittering dark of the leftover chocolate birthday cake.
That’s it; that’s how it is; everyone standing around as if just out of the pool,
drying off, standing around, that’s it, standing, talking,
shuffling back and forth on the deck of the present
before the boat slowly pulls away into the future. Because it hurts
to say goodbye, to pull your body out of the warm water;
to step out of the pocket of safety, clinging to what you knew,
or what you thought you knew about yourself and others.
That’s how it is, that’s it, throwing your jacket over your shoulders
like a towel and saying goodbye Victoria goodbye Sophie goodbye
Lili goodbye sweetie take care be well hang in there see you soon.
Shinder knows that gathering friends is “warm water,” a “pocket of safety,” how true art captures the bead drop between celebration of life and death. Shinder wrote “The Party” after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia. It was published posthumously in Stupid Hope. I didn’t know all this when I first read the poem, but now it makes sense, this abuttal of celebration and loss.
On Monday my daughter tells me one of her 29-year-old friends has been diagnosed with Astrocytoma Glioma, a malignant brain tumor expected to kill her within the year. “It’s so sad I can’t even bear to think about it,” my daughter moans and I hug her close, impressing her sweet scent in my mother heart.
On Saturday, instead of writing or editing or grading or submitting poetry to journals, I’m hosting a baby shower for the daughter-in-law of one of my dearest friends. This isn’t my friend’s first grandchild and this isn’t the daughter-in-law’s first baby, so the event has surprised some. Why have a shower now, they ask.
Why not, I say. Faced with a choice, I’d just as soon compose in strawberries and champagne, a little Lorde music and pink lace. Is there any better gift than gathering young mothers with wise elders to sit and bask in the sun? For one afternoon, let there be nothing but joy.