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Cave Canem: A Special Section

The doctor has diagnosed cancer, sees “shadows” and “masses” in the sad, damp bags which are my lungs. I have three weeks at best.

I am running through Idlewild airport, wheezing as I race to catch the evening flight to Paris. I want to be bumped up to first class, I have cancer, want champagne, toasted nuts and extra leg room, crave comfort, however it comes.

     Miss one train, catch another, said a friend’s wise mother, meaning, keep on keeping on, meaning get back on the horse, meaning it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, ‘til the fat lady sings. Can the baby now quickening inside me survive on its own? I’d asked the doctor. This was my first thought, my first such thought. Yes, he’d reassured me, she’ll be tiny, but babies, like cancers, grow and grow.

I can’t run fast enough. I miss that plane. A man dressed all in orange whisks me to his mother’s, shows his first-edition books, autobiographies, of Angela Davis, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali. Then he lifts his mother’s mattress, displays a million dollars in small bills. He tells me wise things, wise things I can’t remember but take in like mentholated steam:

     I’m dead, he said, I died at 37. It’s not so bad. I come back when I need to, walk amongst you leaving signs that I passed through. The dead wear orange when they come back to visit. That is how you know which ones we are.

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander is currently a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University. She is the author of two collections of poems, The Venus Hottentot and Body of Life.

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