Jane Yolen,
The Radiation Sonnets:
For My Love,
in Sickness & in Health

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003)

Then help me, love, to sigh and let you go,
If terror, time, and tumor make it so.

Fate is funny this way.

Only a few days after receiving this book to review, my family was informed that one of our own is threatened by the very illness, cancer, that Jane Yolen so eloquently explores within these pages. Struck numb, we spent several days wandering around each other, doing little that was constructive and not being sure what to say in the face of such terrifying news.

I suppose I count myself lucky, for unlike Yolen I am not the patient's caregiver, and the weight of this disease does not rest upon me so heavily. And yet once illness is a reality within a family, nothing is the same as it was.

With grace Yolen cared for her husband David throughout the 43-day endurance test of his radiation therapy. In typical fashion, she turned her experience into a story to be shared.

Forty-three sonnets, one for each day of David's radiation treatment. As would be expected, many of the sonnets are heartbreaking. To watch a loved one suffer is a frightening thing, and nothing can prepare us for it. No matter what your life experience has been you cannot know true fear until it is for someone you love.

And yet interspersed with the tragic is humor, Yolen's spirit being so insuppressible that she is able even in this time to find amusement. From "Food Wars: The Fifth Front," an ongoing record in which the daily battle to feed her husband is waged in print -- the more to diffuse it in life -- she writes, "Now for a moment let's consider the tongue, / That seat of language, / That soul of wit, / That place where food now tastes like dung."

How many of us could keep the presence of mind to record this fight for life in any form, let alone within the structure of a sonnet (14 rhymed lines in iambic pentameter)? Perhaps this was the very thing that held Yolen together and gave her the strength to keep fighting. Says Yolen in her introduction, "It was a way to sort through my emotions while holding myself to a difficult task. In fact it was the only thing in my day I seemed to have any control over."

Now she shares her strength with all who are looking for a spiritual guide or an emotional support. In addition to her verbal support for patients and caregivers, Yolen has arranged for a portion of the proceeds of each sale of this book to be donated to Bay State Medical Center in Massachusetts, where her husband received his treatment.

This battle can be won, Yolen seems to be telling us, and if we can follow her example, it can even be done with style.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 12 June 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.