Howling Wolf

Read by Lin Sagovsky
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The sitter arrived an hour later than arranged. Her one-word explanation for the delay – “Oncology” – assumes it’s common knowledge that hospital appointments overrun. She had limited time but found the portrait wasn’t full enough when she read the first draft (see Rewilding the Self) so a second session was agreed. In feedback sessions she was particularly focused on punctuation. Punctuation divides the poem into units which indicate what hangs together in terms of meaning. Where there is an absence of punctuation the reader is free to interpret the grouping of lines and meaning for themselves. The sitter was keen to change or add punctuation to avoid any play on ambiguity. When Di is ‘in the picture’, therefore, she has ‘properly’ transcribed the course of events (see Per Ardua ad Astra, In the Picture).

At the time of writing the sitter had gone back to live with her mother while she underwent chemo. The night before the second ‘sitting’ she’d been crocheting and woke her mother up, apparently making a sound her mother described as howl-like. She was unaware she was doing this.

There are many forms of cancer treatment: chemotherapy inhibits all cell division – it is toxic to cells (‘cytotoxic’) – while targeted therapy, as the name suggests, is more selective and often carries fewer side effects.

She sweeps in –
an aria of black and purple
back-laced coat winging behind –
like one of Poe’s Gothic beauties
or a sweet faced assassin
from Kill Bill.

she says

Consulting her watch
she informs me
how many minutes I have
of her time.
I’m struck by the turn of phrase
at once entirely practical
and an adroit reminder
Time is a commodity
apportioned to each
not to be wasted.

chronic time-keeper,
governs her stars,
but had she been born a month before
as expected
she’d be a Sagittarian.
Now her Sun, almost in Aquarius,
touches the rod of the stern god
with a wand of air.

“I like a bit of structure,
but at the same time I like to go
with intuition, gut instinct.”

Her Chinese horoscope,
aligned with her ancestry
on her mother’s side,
shows the element
Water –
intuitive shape-shifter.

Her mother is a Water Dragon.
The oldest of eight children,
she soon learned to be
“a think on your feet kind of person.”
Looking after her seven siblings,
cooking and cleaning,
sewing and handcrafting,
whilst going to school,
the Dragon gathered her forces.

Later, as a chef with her spouse
in a Chinese restaurant,
she keeps a lid on the pressure.
“There’s no messing with her,”
says the daughter, turns now
to her own story.

She wanted to be a computer programmer,
even a chef –
though this she admits was a long shot –
trained as a nurse.

Technically she’s retired –
hasn’t worked for three years.
Being a nurse is a disadvantage
she says,
“because you want to know more.
You want to know the terminologies and everything.”

Tempus fugit.
She cuts to the chase.
Coordinates of time and place
she delivers with the exactitude
of an atomic clock.

11th April 2014.
It begins.

She’s on the phone
to her soon-to- be- ex partner
randomly checking
when she feels something
in the right breast.

1st July 2014.
She has a mastectomy reconstruction.
There are platelet problems.
Two days later she undergoes
haematoma correction
and a blood transfusion.

19th August 2014.
A fateful date.
First chemo begins.

“Six cycles every week
split into two cycles of three:
the first three cycles
only chemo,
the second three
chemo alongside eighteen cycles
of targeted therapy.”

Like Ada Lovelace
at her Engine
she dissects the years
that follow, computes the sum
of the telling,
proofing my notes
as I make them
as the unstructured nature
of the jottings
may lead to inaccuracies.

Over the next five to six years
she has seven different diagnoses
including a brain tumour –
“a ticking time bomb” –
ovarian cysts
and migrainus headaches,
not to mention
anxiety, depression
and two falls.

18th June 2019.
They find an 8 cm cancer
in her small left breast.

19th August 2019.
Five years to the day
of the first chemo
second chemo begins.

Six cycles are scheduled
every three weeks
“but ended up being five cycles
whilst on targeted therapy
for full eighteen cycles.
Chemo stops two days before surgery.”

Satisfied I am now
properly in the picture,
she closes her diary.

The raven’s wing of hair is gone,
reveals the beauty of the bones,
the calligraphy of the eyes.
But this is not what she sees.
“Tin-Tin with less hair.”

She rises,
a dark hellebore,
an echo of the goal–scorer
on the netball court,
the ballet lessons,
in the lengthening spine.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,”
she says with a lupine smile
in a flick of a coat tail
she’s gone.

I’m fortunate to catch her again –
nimble fingers playing on her phone
as she chomps on a burger.
it’s like netting phosphorescence
or a flying fish.

She gets up to hug a woman
she hasn’t seen for a while.
Ever alert to the comings and goings
of the pack,
she’s quick to show affection,

Sleep hijacked by chemo,
she was up all night
crocheting a blanket –
a multiverse
of hexagonal shapes
barely begun
she may yet abandon.

In the darkness
her mother hears her
working the wool,
with her Spirit Animal.