Monday night, a brilliant star left our orbit. Anyone who knows Maggie Murphy Backus knows I’m not exaggerating. For weeks and even months beforehand, and surely for weeks and months afterwards, she’s on our minds and in our hearts.
Although I didn’t know Maggie for decades or pal around big-time for her, whenever I saw her, we got right down to it: cancer (first mine, and later hers), mortality, kids, the essence of life, love, and the courage to keep going. My last conversation with her was in the Merc where we talked in depth among the myriad shampoos and essential oils about what was happening with her treatment, and how she felt pretty sick from it much of the time but was committed to do all she could to make it to her son’s graduation, and if that, then set another goal to live her way toward and beyond.
For close to seven years, this is how she navigated late-stage ovarian cancer with astonishing grace, humor, clear-eyed seeing, and bone-deep strength. “If I die, I die,” she said, and we talked about how she felt both wildly sad and overwhelmingly grateful for the difficult now, no matter its length.
In November, I wrote Maggie this poem, which I shared with her (and all her friends) on Facebook, taking the title from her blog post last November. As I sit in bed this morning in my nightgown, blankets gathered around, wild turkeys flirting with each other in my backyard where the pink hyacinth blooms, I realize how Maggie herself embodied that heartbeat of being alive. I’m also wildly sad and overwhelmingly grateful for her presence, which will continue despite her absence, in our lives. Travel in peace, Maggie. Thanks for all the love you left, and may you always know, in whatever form you are and become, all the love you are.
That Stupid Cancer Thing Again
It comes down to time: a stretch ahead long enough
for the next, then the next. In between what’s common
and precious: shining like dark branches against
the red sky turning gold at November dusk.
Changing all the time, yet how to break through
time’s constraints. How far can love take us?
All the way, you already know. How long? The key
in the lock, the door already open, to living this life
while it’s filling your hands, your heart, your home
by lamplight or candlelight or simply by one glance
into those who love you best without needing to know
the distance ahead. An open palm on your back as
the chickadee pours herself on the branch in wind and sun.
There’s now, its songs hard and tender. There’s easy breathing,
driving you east to Thanksgiving then back home.
See it all as you have these six years of trial and chemo,
wait and test, love and love more. Feel it all: your husband
in your arms, your son in your heart, your daughter’s eyes
in your eyes, all of us who know you around the beautiful
fire of your life tonight and the next night. Luminous,
sweet and raw: the heartbeat of what it means to be alive.