Prompt 230. A Moment of Remembering
& a love poem by the poet and scholar Donika Kelly
For the longest time, I associated Valentine’s Day with great sadness. It marks the anniversary of the death of my friend Anjali, whom I thought of as a sister. She died in the early hours of February 14, 2013, so for a decade now, the holiday has been tied to my memory of her final moments—and to me leaving the hospice ward and going home in the pitch dark, broken and exhausted and obliterated by grief.
But last February, this time of year gained a couple of new associations, tied to very different feelings. It still marks Anjali’s death, but it also marks the anniversary of my second bone marrow transplant, which is considered a kind of rebirth, and my wedding. There’s something beautiful about that—about how, as life goes on, it continues to layer itself. The sorrow is overlaid by new memories, maybe joyous ones, maybe the tenderest. The losses aren’t erased, of course, but they contain new dimensions. That’s how the heart can be “reconciled/ to its feast of losses,” as Stanley Kunitz wrote in one of my favorite poems, “The Layers,” which a community member reminded me of in the comments just last week: “Live in the layers.”
So that’s what I’m trying to hold right now: the many layers. I’m thinking of Anjali and my sorrow at her crossing too soon, but I’m also marking these newer, happier, more hopeful milestones. Earlier this week, to mark the anniversary of my bone marrow transplant, I went to dinner in a real restaurant with my brother, who has now saved my life not once, but twice as my donor. We went for a Golden Girls feast at 5 p.m., so it was less crowded and safer, and it was a genuine celebration. Now I want to hold onto that layer—that sweet, unforced, celebratory moment with Adam.
The last time I was in treatment for leukemia, I journaled so much in that first year. I took copious notes on everything—partly because I needed to make sense of what was happening, but more than that, because I didn’t want to forget. Confronting your own mortality has a way of reshuffling your priorities and rerouting your focus to what really matters. I felt a heightened clarity and a deep sense of appreciation, not for the big things, but for the simple things. For the people I love and the people who love me. For the things that inspire love within me, from the books to the brilliant artists to the creatures (mostly canine). I remember thinking, I want to hold onto this.
I want to remember the walk I took with River today—a long, rambling walk around the neighborhood, the kind I’ve not been able to take for a long time—and the moment I turned to my sweet pup and said out loud, “We’re outside and we’re living.” It was so simple, but it felt like a revelation. On Day 100, when I met with Dr. G, my transplant doctor, he told me, “The goal is not just to survive, but to live.” I was like, How? Anything more than survival felt impossible, and the idea of surviving in the way I was having to survive—so weak, so nauseated, and in so much pain—felt unendurable.
And yet here I am, 365 days post-transplant, out in the world, really living.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself—I have a bone marrow biopsy this week, and I don’t know if feeling good is going to last. But I want to remember this shift in my body, and the sensation of bounding up the stairs of my house like a teenager just the other day, and putting on a pair of blue jeans for the first time in a year, and cracking the spine of a new journal to fill with very nascent inklings for a new book. And most of all, I want to remember all the love.
When I first wrote about my relapse, I asked for no unsolicited advice, but I did invite love. In the last year of my life, I have been the recipient of more love than I ever could have imagined, both from people I know and people I’ve never met. What I feel today, on the anniversary of my bone marrow transplant, is that I am all the more grateful, because I know how precious and fleeting this life of mine—this life of ours—can be, and how precious it is to love and to be loved.
So today, I’m sharing a love poem with you by the brilliant real-deal poet Donika Kelly, whom I met through her equally brilliant wife, the author and teacher and Isolation Journals contributor Melissa Febos. It’s a poem that marries all of the layers—the ways we love, the ways we lose, the ways we forget and our gorgeous capacity for remembering. May it inspire your own celebration of love.
Yours in endless gratitude,
Some Items of Note—
Today from 1-2 pm is our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers. Carmen and Holly will be hosting, sharing some thoughts on protecting your inner life and offering a meditation to help you build a creative sanctuary in your mind. To join, click here.
This week Jon and I tackled the community’s questions about the creative life, and now we’re hard at work editing and getting the recording for you. We’re currently planning to send it out on February 14—only a couple days away!
In our Isolation Journals Chat, we’re continuing our weekly ritual of collective gratitude, which for me this week was some floral district loot and a little rhyme in the universe. You can add yours here!
Prompt 230. Love Poem by Donika Kelly
Your prompt for the week:
Write a love poem—to someone, some place, or something beloved. Use the line “Let this be a moment of remembering,” maybe as inspiration, maybe as your first line.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Donika Kelly is the author of two books of poetry: Bestiary, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and The Renunciations, described as “poetry of the highest order” by former poet laureate Rita Dove. Kelly’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, among other publications. She is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa. Get your copy of The Renunciations through Iowa City’s independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, by clicking here.
“The Renunciations is a work of stunning power, alive with haunting images, complex metaphor. And while Kelly looks unsparingly at pain and suffering—her own and others’—with transformation comes joy.” —Ellen Bass
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Haunted by Heartbreak, an installment of my advice column Dear Susu, where I answer the question “How do we move on from lost love?”
My Year of Love, a look back on what I thought was the worst year of my life but was in fact so much more
Studio Visit: Hospital Edition, where I give a little behind-the-scenes tour of my makeshift studio in my hospital room
"Let this be a moment of remembering"
When it sunk in that, I would never see you again.
You were gone.
And let me also remember when I realized and accepted the undeniable shift inside me
when I realized that you visit me.
You come to me as a cardinal. Just as you fed them each day when you were here on Earth.
I don't need to look for a message because the message is there:
I love you eternally,
I watch over you,
I want you to live, expand past your self-imposed limits, and I will be there too.
Let this be the moment of remembering. Oh dear son , steve, you came each day, while I was recovering in a mental hospital. You were only 18 at the time, and as scared as you were, you never showed it! You were a rock to me! Because it was hard for me to swallow you would bring me boxes and boxes of multi colored life savers to relieve some of my distress in just swallowing. Just having you seated beside me were beautiful moments of love! It’s these situations to teach me to live in the moment. I was scared but determined to get well so I could once again be there for others, like my beautiful son, Stephen. Love you fire et my darling son!