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  • Bent Arrows:On Anticipation of My Approaching Disappearance
  • Tony Hoagland (bio)

They come arching over the horizon from distant places, like bent, crooked arrows dispatched from many directions.

They arrive in thin blue envelopes on folded stationery, or in fat, feverishly duct-taped packages. By overnight mail—sent prepaid by Fed Ex—($26.00!)—containing, say, three little misshapen onyx pebbles, which, I am told, should be placed in the corner of my sleeping room to ward off negative spirits.

A brass Turkish medallion from a person I hardly know, accompanied by a three-page letter explaining how she acquired it in Bulgaria, during her sexually promiscuous 1990s.

An ironed-flat wax paper packet of pressed dried lavender and rosemary from someone's garden in Indiana.

A passionate testimonial to the healing power of spirulina. A tribute CD of Gay Clark songs.

A handmade cedar-scented candle. A whoopee cushion.

The Irish friend from New Jersey sends a three-hour recording called "Long Healing Prayer"—a nonstop, droning dirge, performed, it seems, by three widows who have broken into the instrument closet of a medieval Celtic monastery. Wailing voices that float endlessly on a slick of fiddle music, like an Irish oil spill. It should be called Suicide Note on Forlorn Bagpipe.


The reason I am the recipient of these exotic attentions is simple: I went on hospice service a month ago, and word leaked out. My cancer is no longer being treated, my narrative is fixed, the time uncertain but not distant. Now acquaintances and friends and even utter strangers are cleaning out their emotional cabinets, like midwives tying an umbilical knot between the dead and the living. Although I am the one dying, it is clear that they are the ones speaking their last words. [End Page 85]


In a flat, heavy box, three Ziplock baggies, full of sand scooped and labeled from three different beaches: one in Florida, one on Cape Cod, one in Michigan.

From California, a message from the widow of a friend arrives: "I hope the end comes fast for you, as it did for Y."

Person X writes to tell me how good morphine is, and how she hopes those stingy bastards in the medical profession are giving me the good stuff. Her tone is one of barely disguised fury.

Then there is the genre of blithely delivered misinformation: the cheerful note that says, "Heard you are doing much better! So great to hear!"

Not all of the messages are whacky projections. Some are carefully worded, unexaggerated statements of friendship and memory (this turns out to be the essence of the business).

Others are like saturated handkerchiefs, soaked and dripping with sentimentality; monologues in which the mourner is so carried away by her capacity to emote deeply, I feel I should avert my eyes from such a private moment.

Persons I haven't heard from in decades want to visit and renew our friendship. But, isn't it a little late for that, I wonder? I imagine them standing over my couch, looking down at my diminished body, and I wonder what it is that they believe they have to say, what they have to bring, what they imagine they would like to take away. I wonder what they would see.

By email someone else writes, "I've discovered this wonderful anthology: 200 Greatest Zen Death Poems! I'm sending them to you immediately."


I drift on my polka dot couch, I read and write. I watch the ceiling and the skies, and the strange missives—some touching, some bizarre—arrive. People I once considered close evaporated months ago; others, whom I thought as peripheral, have appeared and stayed: sane, stalwart and present. Their voices are oddly reassuring. Most of the time now, dying doesn't seem like such a big thing.


How do you feel? I sometimes ask myself, not really knowing. [End Page 86]


I have this image: I am floating on my back on a great body of water, buoyed comfortably by some kind of life vest. My gaze on the sky; seagulls and birds drift high overhead, on their way elsewhere; the clouds keep...


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pp. 85-87
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