Jacky Searle, 1949–1997
“You learn so many things in your life,” she said the day after she learned the doctors could offer her no further hope—
“but no one teaches you how to die.”
Rushing to fill the silence that filled the room, I said: “Don’t they say we start learning that the day we’re born?”
“Yes,” she said, “I suppose that’s another way to look at it.”
“Devoted daughter” and “family rebel” (an only child, like you); “charismatic teacher” and “spiritual conscience” (patron saint: St. Francis); activist; organizer; passionate disapprover of her mother’s politics of disapproval—
marathon runner in a hurry to get the operations, radiation, chemotherapy over with and get back to her running—
obstinate optimist (your opposite): your cousin; your “sister”—
how old she looked since our last visit—
back in the hospital, her face hollow; the dull yellow skin hanging on her cheekbones; the sharp clear eyes in your early painting of her now also yellow, larger than life but clouded over; her hair grown back, but still short, and suddenly ashen—
she hadn’t said much—
we’d been talking about TV shows—
“Dear Ms. Searle: I feel extremely lucky to have had you hold my hand and point me in the right direction in life. I remember pushing to sit at your feet at Literature, just for the chance to play with the velcro on your shoes!”
At 42, against her mother’s reservations, she married an ex- priest (“a foreigner,” her mother said, “with black eyes”)—then moved into a small house two doors from her mother.
“To keep an eye on her,” she said (“It’s a mistake,” you predicted)
“I’ve always been partial,” she said, “to lost causes.”
(She once had a plan to turn the White House into a homeless shelter.)
Two years later, she discovered a tiny lump.
“She was my rock. While she was running around trying to figure out how to give more money to one of her causes, I was trying to figure out
which movie to go to.”
After each new piece of bad news, she’d repeat: “The doctors tell me I’m in the best possible position.”
She refused to get a second opinion, she explained, “because my doctors would think I didn’t trust them” (“I don’t trust doctors,” you said).
Even after her vital functions began to fail she kept asking for “one more treatment.”
Quietly she submitted to a parishioner’s idea for a hands-on “healing” ceremony (“She’ll try anything, now,” you said).
“She had expectations not only for herself but for us…in a way, we too were first-graders.”
In the hospital, at her bedside, her mother and her husband screamed at each other about whether she should have a hospital-bed at home: “I’m her mother!” “But I’m her husband!”
Months after the funeral her mother still says: “I’ll never introduce him as my son-in-law.”
On the morning before she lost consciousness for the last time (at home, in a hospital-bed)—
when she finally woke, and her husband asked: “What can I do for you?”—
she signalled him to bend his ear to her mouth and whispered: “Will you marry me?”
“When we heard the news about Ms. Searle my girlfriends and I just had to go to the bathroom.”
In the later stages of her disease, she admitted to you (and to herself?) how bitterly she resented having to work so hard to stay alive, while “some people” (not saying “you”) did nothing to take care of themselves.
“She wasn’t the person she wanted to be,” you said, “but she tried very hard to be the person she wanted to be.”
At 13, she wrote about her private world, her “retreat”:
The beach at night is a somber place . . . a graveyard filled with
the skeletons of the beautiful and the ugly . . . no stars . . . blackness
far as I can see . . . a cemetery that changes with every tide . . . yet it
creates a peace inside me that I have never known before . . . The
blackness hides every- thing . . . I am free . . . Sometimes I feel that
perhaps God created the beach and the night especially for me.
At 13, she wrote:
I shall burst if I become even a little bit happier . . . I take care that
my back is always to the world.
Lloyd Schwartz’s latest book is Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press, 2021). For his poetry he has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and his poems have been selected for the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. A noted editor of the works of Elizabeth Bishop, he is also the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and was the classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix, for which he was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the poet laureate of Somerville, Massachusetts, for which he has been awarded a 2021 Poet Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. (updated 8/2021)