The Power of Poetry
– Sara Henning
I’d like to tell you a story about life’s untamable narrative that leaves us transformed. In other words, I’d like to tell you a story about my relationship to poetry.
At 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning this past July, my mother telephoned me, the tone in her voice desperate and fearful. Through rushed, slurred whispers, she told me she had been abducted by a medic following a yet-to-be-named surgery and taken in a van not to her home to recover, the originally agreed upon destination, but to his apartment. She said that he had stolen her purse, had wounded her, and was drugging her to keep her silent. She pleaded with me to rescue her, giving me a county name but no address that checked out, as well as the first name of the medic who had taken her: Gary. At the time, I was in the Upper Midwest, six states away from my home state of Georgia. It was the middle of the night and my mother was asking me in blind faith to get in my car and drive.
Let me clarify: my mother had retired two years prior to this call, and to the best of my knowledge, was spending her retirement feeding stray cats on her acreage in northeastern Georgia and following the Chicago Blackhawks on television.
The hopelessness in her voice was palpable, a tone I had never heard her use as she fought her father during his drunken escapades at holidays, or when her on-call counseling job performing suicide interventions at the tri-county hospital left her so fatigued she wouldn’t remember conversations with me the following day. After speaking to two county sheriffs and finally tracking down the one who managed the jurisdiction in which she claimed to be held, I was informed to ask my mother to hang up her call with me and to dial 911. By doing so, he could use the GPS in her phone to exact her location and enact a rescue intervention. Being a good Samaritan, I respected the sheriff’s orders. He told me he would call me with news when he had it.
High on adrenaline and with no hopes for sleep in sight, I suffered on a liminal plane between mindsets of betrayal and radical trust—I had not gotten in the car as my mother had asked me, nor was I at that moment driving over twenty-four hours without stops to an unverifiable location to prove my loyalty. I had supposed that she would dial 911 before her abductor intervened. Moreover, I had put my faith in a sheriff whom I had never met to save my only living parent, should he even be able to find her. Feelings of shame fluctuated in my body with pangs of powerless anger directed at the man who dared to harm my mother—for all I knew, he had overheard her conversation with me, taken her phone from her, and was assaulting her.
I sat on the floor, my knees drawn into my chest. I was the single child who had forsaken her aging mother by moving away for school. At thirty-four, I was still the daughter watching her husbandless mother destroyed by a world that was exacting its cruelty upon us, and I could do nothing to change what was.
This is what happens to daughters who put themselves before the needs of their mothers, I told myself. This is what happens to bad daughters.
When the sheriff returned my call half an hour later, he verified that my mother was in the ICU of a hospital in Atlanta, following invasive surgery for stage 3 colon adenocarcinoma. She was having a hallucination from taking Dilaudid, an opioid pain medication. The medic who she believed had abducted her was her faithful night nurse. She had not informed me that she was undergoing surgery, or even that she was ill with cancer, for fear that it would disturb my state of mind as I finished graduate school and pursued a tenure track creative writing job.
Let me repeat myself: my mother suffered three surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy, and a chemotherapy-induced stroke alone and in silence so that her health would not detract from me finishing and publishing my dissertation—a volume of poems entitled What Women Won’t Tell You—because she believes that poetry, in simultaneous regard to employment and spiritual nourishment, would sustain me long after she passed from this world.
For me, and for my mother—who is not a poet, but who is now in remission—poetry is the ultimate sanctuary.
Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as two chapbooks, Garden Effigies (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) and To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Crab Orchard Review, and RHINO. Winner of the 2015 Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, she is currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as assistant managing editor for the South Dakota Review, assistant editor of Rogue Agent, and as associate editor of Sundress Publications. Please visit her at her electronic home at http://www.sarahenning.net/