May 15, 2009


by Irene McKinney

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen, and my serious
teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table. The sun was bright and
their clean cotton dresses swirled as they turned.
I was a witness to it, and I assure you that it's true.

I remembered this thirty years later as I got
up from the hospital bed, favoring my right side
where something else had been removed.
Pushing a cart that held practically all of my
vital fluids, I made my way down the hall
because I wanted to stand up, for no reason.
I had no future plans, and I would never
found a movement nor understand the
simplest equation; I would never chair the
Department of Importance. Nevertheless,
I was about to embark on a third life, having
used up the first two, as I would this one,
but I shoved the IV with its sugars and tubes
steadily ahead of me, passing a frail man in a hospital
gown pushing his cart from the other direction.
Because I was determined to pull this together,
hooking this lifeline into the next one.

"Ready" by Irene McKinney from Vivid Companion. © Vandalia Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1886 that Emily Dickinson (books by this author) died at the age of 55. She wrote:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

She had been ill and grief-stricken for years. In 1874, her father, whom she adored, had a stroke and died. The funeral was held in family home, but Emily stayed in her room during the service with the door ajar. A year later, her mother had a stroke, which rendered her paralyzed and with memory loss. Dickinson wrote, "Home is so far from Home."

When she was in her 40s, the reclusive Emily Dickinson had a romance with an aging widower, Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Otis Phillips Lord. They wrote to each other every Sunday, and their correspondence was the highlight of her week.

Dickinson's mother died in 1882, then her favorite nephew died of typhoid fever, and in 1884, Judge Lord died of a stroke. Dickinson wrote, "The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my heart from one, another has come."

Emily Dickinson died of Bright's disease on this day in 1886. Her coffin was white and surrounded by violets.

Dickinson had made her sister promise to burn all of her letters (though some survived), but didn't give any instructions about her notebooks. There were 40 notebooks, along with various loose sheets of paper, and these contained about 1800 poems.

The first edition of Dickinson's poems was published in 1890 and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a woman who had an affair with Emily's brother. This edition and many after it made sweeping edits to her poems. It wasn't until 1955 that Dickinson's poems were finally published just as she herself had written them---with punctuation, capitalization, and obscure diction intact. The volume, compiled by Thomas H. Johnson, in now the authoritative edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry.

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