Sick and Tired

by Mr. Sheehy

I think it was my dad who used to use the phrase sick and tired, though I don’t have any lasting memories of it and certainly don’t remember it in some negative context. But the phrase has always been there, though I doubt I really understood what it could mean until becoming a parent. Count it a sign of my cushy life, because I know I have students who experience sleepless nights that I only read about in poetry.

Whatever my experience, I now know tired – and I sleep next to her every night. But the verbal beauty of this cliche is that sick not only modifies the subject speaking, but informally modifies its fellow compounder. Tired means tired, but when you pair it with sick, sick adds to tired depth and pain it did not possess before.

Ellen has been sick three times in the last six or eight weeks, I have been sick at least twice, and now Kiersten is officially sick, though I don’t know how many times she would consider herself to have been officially sick during the last two months. As you can see, I am estimating all the numbers, because this sickness game has become like a blowout from my high school baseball days: “Coach, do we have to keep the chart on pitch-count still? I don’t think it matters anymore.”

But this morning here at school was nice. We read a series of poems by Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall – the two from Kenyon, Prognosis and The Sick Wife, were written near the end of her life, and the two by Hall, The After Life and The Wish, directly contemplated her death. As students came to class, I had the lights out and this picture on the projector. It was raining today, so I thought we should abandon the classroom to be near the rain and grayness: a more immediate, contextual experience for these poems. Accordingly, we moved to the west entrance, where windows act as one entryway wall, brick lines the floor, and a clear echo follows every word. I read, we talked, then I reread with students’ help. My favorite was The Wish, and one young lady volunteered to read Jane’s voice, and I think it added a particularly haunting feel.

I don’t regret using a day to read poems about death with high school students. I and they are going to die, so it’s not like I’m introducing some new idea. I wanted them to another side of poetry’s power – it’s power to haunt or capture. And I think it worked. No one spoke when I finished Hall’s poem, The Wish:

Her body as I watch grows smaller;
Her face recedes, her kiss is colder.
Watching her disappear, I call her,
“Come back!” as I grow old and older,
     While somewhere deep
     In the catch of sleep
I hear her cry, as I reach to hold her,
      “Oh, let me go!”

(Note: Hear Hall read this poem during an interview on Fresh Air. Scoot ahead to minute 19:45 for the reading.)

Of course, as a teacher, that is where my lesson ended for the day. I challenged them to write poetry with similar depth of contemplation, but I wonder how they felt as they left class, if they really listened to the poems. Were they able to respond to Hall? Do they have sources of hope, as I have through my faith, that such expressions, while true, are not where the story ends?

My story does not end with the haunting feeling of Kenyon’s Prognosis:

the owl flew well beyond me

before I heard it coming, and when it
settled, the bough did not sway.

And though sick and tired, I have found that contemplation of such heavy themes has actually helped to lift me for the day. Today these poems remind me and turn my head right. They remind me that my family’s sick is not Sick and that even in that despair, when it comes, I have hope. Remembering my hope turns my eyes right, and I realize sick and tired will go away. Someday, I am well aware, I may sit in a kitchen like this one and struggle to remember my difficult batch of unnumbered weeks.